A couple of summers ago I stopped in on Benton End, the former home of the artist and plantsman Cedric Morris, in Suffolk. I knew its custodian at the time – Matt Collins, the head gardener of the Garden Museum – and was passing by en route Norfolk. The museum had recently been given the house, and was embarking on reviving it as a place equally dedicated to art and horticulture as it was when Morris lived there.
We walked around the garden, Collins pointing out what had been, what could yet become. It was late July; the irises Morris, who lived there from 1939 to 1982, was obsessed with – he bred more than 90 cultivars of bearded iris – were long gone. It felt like a place that held more ghosts and promises between its brick walls than anything particularly living. The scope of the project ballooned from the earth.
At RHS Chelsea Flower Show this week Sarah Price offered a glimpse of what a modern version of Morris’s garden could be. Price, who has form in creating striking designs among the froth of Chelsea’s Main Avenue, visited Benton End four years ago and held onto the place. The result is something genuinely unforgettable – rarer, at Chelsea, than you might think. Price’s confident and unusual dry garden blends exquisite planting (deep maroon Aeoniums, eggshell-coloured bearded irises and palest yellow Eschscholzia) with thoughtful design to create a garden that is both otherworldly and grounded at the same time.
While Chelsea show gardens always nudge at a kind of life going on around them, with well-placed, if aspirational, objects – linen tablecloths and bottles of Pimms (always Pimms) tucked above a bar; a pair of binoculars; a sheepskin rug – few feel like places a person could inhabit, much less garden in. Yet Price managed to conjure this. Her Nurture Landscapes Garden, which won a gold medal, was ethereal in its pastel beauty, a garden for dreaming in, but also one that felt keenly realised. I overheard someone say they longed to continue potting up the succulents that sat upon the long table in the garden’s centre.
One always leaves Chelsea overwhelmed at the abundance of it all; beds and planters are crammed full of plants to muster perfection for a few hours. Against this, what was most striking about Price’s garden was the space: plants were placed as if in conversation with one another, inviting us to enjoy their individual beauty.
Still, the Nurture Landscapes Garden nodded to the other themes that threaded through the show. Tom Massey’s Royal Entomology Society Garden also opted for the imperfection of crushed substrate underfoot – a world away from the polished marble chill more typical of the show garden – and the Horatio’s Garden, designed by Charlotte Harris and Hugo Bugg, also deployed an elegantly sparse Mutabilis rose in their wheelchair-accessible garden. Sustainability has been a crucial buzzword at the show for some years now, with gardens being designed with their future use in mind; charities, hospitals and schools are often beneficiaries.
But the irises in Price’s garden will return to Benton End, along with its putty-coloured canvas walls, containers and trees. That long table will be gardened on again, or host long lunches. It may have been born of loss, but there is life in Morris’s garden ahead.
This article appears in the 31 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise of Greedflation