The spring shows start this month and Elly West is thinking beauty, practicality and time-honoured, as well as trendy

Springtime in the gardening calendar: I love it. Colour is everywhere as bulbs burst open and herbaceous perennials reveal themselves again after a winter rest, with fresh new foliage and the promise of more to come. All is green and vibrant, and any sunny days encourage us to get outside and get going on our gardens. Easter is traditionally the busiest time for garden retailers, and with it falling so late this year, it’s set to be a very different story from last year – which was three weeks behind and hot (or cold!) on the heels of the Beast from the East.

I also love spring for the shows, which start this month with RHS Cardiff in Bute Park. It’s less than an hour from Bristol, and with the bridge now dispensing with its toll, it’s even easier to enjoy a great day out. If you want to discover new trends and gain inspiration for your own garden, as well as finding some bargains, the shows are a good place to start. See the opposite page for details on what is coming up in the next few months.

In my work as a garden designer I see all different types of gardens and no two jobs (or clients) are the same, which is one of the reasons that I love what I do. And while it’s important to keep up with what is deemed ‘fashionable’ and what new products are on the market, there are certain themes that recur time and time again, not because they are on-trend but because they are beautiful and practical. After all, gardens are for relaxing in and enjoying, and that doesn’t change. Traditional cottage gardens will perhaps never be out of fashion, but there are also easy ways to update a scheme and keep it contemporary, so this month I will look at predicted trends for this year, certain to be in evidence at the various gardening shows.

Wellbeing and mindfulness are buzzwords that have filtered into our gardens, and the Royal Horticultural Society has recently announced a three-year partnership with the NHS to highlight the benefits of gardens, gardening and green spaces on our health. RHS Chatsworth has introduced a new category of ‘mindfulness gardens’ at this year’s show. “Academic research has converged with years of anecdotal evidence to demonstrate the positive effect of gardens on mental and physical health,” says RHS horticultural projects manager Ben Brace, “and this is now being widely reflected in garden design.”

At RHS Cardiff, the National Botanic Garden of Wales’ Gardd Lles (‘wellbeing garden’ in Welsh) provides secluded seating areas for contemplation. A place to sit in quietness and harmony with the surroundings is high on many of my clients’ wish lists, perhaps with the sound of running water nearby. Calming palettes of whites, blues and pinks are perennially popular, as are plants that provide fragrance, texture and movement.

…Certain themes recur time and again. After all, gardens are for relaxing in and enjoying, and that doesn’t change…

Lots of designers have increasingly been using wildflowers, native flowers and meadow planting in their plans, and this trend is set to continue. I love to include areas of meadow in the gardens I design, even if it’s just strip edging a more formal lawn. Rolling out ready-made, pre-planted turf seems to have good, reliable results. It will flower through the summer and just requires an annual chop in autumn, so provides a low-maintenance option for covering an area with beautiful flowers that will attract pollinators and wildlife. This looser style of planting is also achievable in borders, by mixing perennials and grasses, some providing a permanent structure and others dying back in winter.

In terms of colours, those restful pastel shades will always be on-trend in my view, and at RHS Chelsea Flower Show this year, greens, whites and pale yellows are set to dominate, along with splashes of orange and purple. There also seems to be a move back to the sculptural and architectural foliage that dominated in the 1990s and early Noughties, perhaps driven in part by the resurgence in popularity of lush, leafy houseplants.

Foliage plants in greens as well as purples, silvers and bronze are always useful in borders, providing long-lasting texture and interest and acting as a foil for the more flamboyant flowering plants. I love some of the new heuchera varieties, in shades of dark purple-almost-black through to unusual coppers, limes and yellows. Heuchera ‘Obsidian’ has glossy aubergine-black leaves topped with sprays of pale flowers, while Heuchera ‘Marmalade’ produces clumps of unusual coppery amber leaves.

The need for sustainability is another theme that will be running through the RHS shows this year, with trees chosen for their biodiversity, green walls and roofs, recycled materials and drought-resistant planting that will cope with climate change. Look out for the ‘regeneration gardens’ category at RHS Cardiff, where Brent Purtell’s garden – The Urban Gallery – combines recycled industrial materials with bold artworks to create an enclosed escape, while Diego Carrillo’s Nature’s Take Over is an eco-friendly garden designed to attract wildlife. ■

Upcoming shows
RHS Flower Show Cardiff, 12 – 14 April
RHS Malvern Spring Festival, 9 – 12 May
RHS Chelsea Flower Show, 21 – 25 May
RHS Chatsworth Flower Show, 5 – 9 June
Gardeners’ World Live, NEC, Birmingham 13 – 16 June
RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival, 1 – 7 July
RHS Flower Show Tatton Park, 17 – 21 July

Plant of the month: Allium ‘Purple Sensation’

Allium Cristophii – commonly called Persian onion or Star of Persia – grows best in full sun and on free-draining soils

Anyone who knows their onions will recognise the beautiful globes of ornamental alliums. Garden designers have long recognised their qualities and they are a common sight at shows and in show gardens. Planted en masse throughout a border they provide rhythm and punctuation, holding their starry heads high above lower-growing perennials. They combine particularly well with mound-forming plants such as Alchemilla mollis or hardy geraniums, which hide the comparably tatty leaves of the alliums – these tend to yellow as the flowers do their thing. The allium flowers then provide sculptural interest as they die back. Pick a few seed heads and let them dry out, then spray them silver or gold for indoor displays. Alliums grow best in full sun and on free-draining soils; plant them deep as bulbs in autumn and you may have to wait until May/June for the flowers, but they are often available to buy in garden centres as containerised plants this month.

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Featured image: Wellbeing and mindfulness are buzzwords that have filtered into our gardens. These, in the floral marquee at the RHS Cardiff Flower Show 2018, make us smile (image courtesy of RHS and Jason Ingram)