7 lessons urban gardeners can learn from Kate Gould's Gold-winning City Living Chelsea Flower Show garden

By Alice Vincent

As with many magical things, the Chelsea Flower Show can be overwhelming for the uninitiated. There are dozens of gardens, all of which could justify an afternoon’s idle enjoyment, and that’s before you get anywhere near the horticultural smorgasbord of the Great Pavilion, brimming with the supermodels of the plant world.

Last year was my first, and I’m not ashamed to admit I found the whole thing slightly exhausting, like I’d gone on a rampage in a sweet shop and needed a nap afterwards. I think I probably did have a nap afterwards.

This year, however, I built up my stamina and was duly rewarded. I was impressed by the number of ideas out there which could be stolen by urban and small-space gardeners, from the clever planted casing to cover a pair of wheelie bins in The RHS’s Greening Grey Britain garden to James Alexander-Sinclair’s awesome vibrating copper ponds, which matched mesmerising utility with lush foliage and delicate, unfussy planting.

But it was Kate Gould’s City Living which won my gold star - and, as it happens, was awarded Gold and the Best Fresh Garden award - for providing genuinely accessible ways of how urban gardeners could green their space.

Gould’s garden was based around a mock-up of a new-build apartment block, and featured planting on three levels, with a corridor of planting that offered a glimpse into the future of houseplant trends. Entranced, I called the designer up in an attempt to find out what urban gardeners could learn from her design:

Think about shade and light, rather than typical urban styling

I was surprised by the inclusion of foxgloves, which I’ve always considered a country garden staple, in among more directional, foliage-based plants such as ferns, acers and hosts. But, Gould explains, “foxgloves are shade tolerant, they’re woodlanders, so if you have buildings around that are casting shade there’s no reason why you couldn’t use them in a town.”

Don’t underestimate the power of green

City Living was one of a few gardens which really made a fuss of green at Chelsea this year, and Gould says it’s to be treated as a colour in its own right.

“I go to a lot of gardens where clients will say to me, ‘my garden has no colour’, and I’ll look at it and say, ‘well, there’s about 42,000 shades of green’,” she says. “Green is a colour too. Green is great because it’s textural and it offers contrast, you can get an awful lot of light and shade in a space with it.”

Make the most of big containers

A basement patio can be transformed by creating microcosm gardens in large planters, Gould explains: “If you had some large planters, you could certainly create something with a big tree fern and planting underneath it and get quite a dramatic effect.”

Span inside and out with hardy tropicals

The lust-inducing tiled corridor at the heart of City Living played host to massive tree ferns and hardy tropicals such as schefflera, aspidistra, aristolochia and Philodendron xanadu: “Having the planting above and below allows you to see a great swathe of greenery and walk through it,” says Gould.

Make green walls sustainable with proper troughs

Arguably, this is one to campaign building developers about, but the point is worth bearing in mind if you fancy creating a green wall.

Gould and her team created “some really large troughs”, which acted more like hanging baskets and avoided the endless maintenance that often comes with vertical planting.

“We ought to be greening our buildings in some way, shape or form,” Gould says. “If building developers could build in a decent structure, that way you’re going to get a better product than if you would with an add-on. Then you can include all irrigation and the food that you would normally garden with.”

Sun-baked roof terrace? Plant for it

Gould said much of City Living’s design was rooted in “that Roy Lancaster mantra of right plant, right place”, which is why she has three different types of planting throughout the garden.

On the exposed roof terrace, Gould has created a home for drought-tolerant Yucca australis, salvias and geums, which link the top and middle terraces. “They’ll all take hot sun, that’s what they’re designed to do,” Gould explains, “So you would limit the amount of water you need by putting the right plant in the right place.”

Don’t be shy with a small space

“The smaller the space, the bolder you have to be, really,” Gould says of her design philosophy. “There’s no point in putting tiny things in a tiny space because it just makes it look complicated. Go big or go home. You’ve got to go bold in a small space because otherwise it’ll just look terrible.”

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