You know spring is really here when the RHS Malvern Spring Gardening Show opens its gates. The Worcestershire show is celebrated for its 'local' feel, and this year is a particularly fine vintage: a record number of gold medals, half a dozen nurseries fighting it out for top spot in the floral marquee, and a winning garden described as worthy of Chelsea gold.
Southfield Cacti win the Lyn Downes Award for the Best Floral Marquee Exhibit
The standard in the Floral Marquee at Malvern is legendary. This is where you get to see outstanding regional nurseries who don't always travel to the other shows: and the quality this year is as breathtaking as ever, from the flower-smothered two-feet high Wisteria floribunda – aged 40 years young – on display at Pinewood Bonsai (Silver-gilt), to the extraordinary deep smoked-ham purple cups of giant pitcher plants (Nepenthes) big enough to swallow a mouse on the display from Hampshire Carnivorous Plants.
If, like many people, you think cacti are boring, prepare to have your mind comprehensively changed by Southfield Cacti, winner of a gold medal and the award for Best Floral Marquee exhibit. It was dazzlingly colourful, from lipstick pink Chamaelobivia 'Lincoln Delight' – new for 2011 – to clear orange Rebutia muscula. Co-owner Linda Goodey advises buy cacti already in flower.
'Keep them in a sunny position, water once a week in summer, give them a high potash feed and then let them go totally dry in winter,' she says. 'And pot them on – the bigger the plant, the more they flower.'
Streptocarpus 'Roulette Cherry' from Dibleys (gold) was another new introduction, with huge flowers of milky white ringed cherry red, and Glens Garden (Silver) was offering the intriguing Allium rosebachianum, with 10cm flower heads and each pink star dusted with white.
The marquee is also a great place to pick up good ideas to take home. Pennard Plants (silver) packed salads and herbs into found containers (I spotted bathtubs, buckets and wine crates). And Cotswold Garden Flowers (Silver) had everyone whipping out their notebooks with suggestions for plants for different aspects, from sunny and south-west facing to north-facing dry shade (Iris 'Dardanus', Tradescantia 'Blue and Gold' and pretty white Claytonia sibirica f. albiflora, in case you're wondering).
Gardens have never been greener than at Malvern this year: renewable energy, recycled materials and locally-sourced plants, wildflowers and meadows typify a natural, low-key style.
A Garden for Life
The garden is full of clever ideas: the modern A-frame garden room at its heart shelters a built-in coldframe, and trees such as Malus trilobata, whitebeams (Sorbus aria 'Lutescens') and Scots pine provide seeds and berries for birds.
Hannah Genders set herself the task of sourcing all her plants within cycling distance of her Worcestershire home – and showed everyone you don't need high plant miles to win gold. 'My Very Local Veg Garden' was a delightful mix of recycled paving, local veg varieties such as French bean 'Early Warwick', and little flashes of inspiration: I loved her trio of terracotta pots planted with contrasting leaves of courgette, red sorrel and mint.
Other gardens not to miss: extraordinary prehistoric cycads and monkey-puzzle trees in 'Garden Before Time' (Silver-gilt); exquisite parterres from Patricia Atkins in 'Lady Alice's Garden' (Silver) and the intriguing cubed hedges and block planting of 'The Morgan Garden' (Silver-gilt) – surely the planting trend of the show.
Chris Beardshaw Mentoring Scholarship Gardens
The small gardens created by new designers hoping to become the next rising star mentored by Chris Beardshaw are an unmissable Malvern highlight, always innovative and full of new ideas.
This year the theme was 'Atom', and you'd never have thought a single word could inspire in so many diverse interpretations. Among the 11 gardens were designs based on Marie Curie's Nobel Prize for Chemistry ('Po84 Atomic Energy', Silver), natural philosopher John Dalton ('In Pursuit (of the Heart of the Matter), Silver) and the structure of the carbon atom ('Colour from Carbon' by Pippa Bumstead – with a startling and intriguing planting scheme of purple phormiums and bronze heuchera against black pebbles).
'We've set them a challenge which encourages all of them to think very laterally, and it's brought about a set of gardens we're really proud of,' said Chris. 'They've taken something really quite complex and explained it using horticulture – showing the breadth and versatility you can get with gardening.'
Part of the reason these gardens are so fascinating is their challenging and conceptual nature: you wouldn't want Kasia Howard's hairy turf spheres suspended in your own garden, I suspect, but they were a brilliant evocation of the meld between science and nature. And Paul Cantello's brilliant conceptual garden 'Breathe', based on an oxygen atom, was for looking at rather than being in: but none the less wonderful for that. They may be inspirational, challenging, thought-provoking, not always likeable - but these gardens are never, ever boring.
And don't miss.....
Schools gardens: It's all about chemistry this year: colourful, inventive, gardens as only a child could imagine them. I loved the helix paths and test tubes of 'Elements Around Us' from Park Hall Academy, Solihull, and the prism effect in 'Spring into Science' by Parkside Middle School
Box gardens: Ten one-metre by one-metre mini-gardens created by Care Farms, helping disadvantaged youngsters through horticulture: look out for the tiny sheep pen woven from willow by The Fold.
Eco Home and Garden: Tucked away behind the Floral Marquee, oodles of plants for attracting wildlife to your garden, as well as wormeries, beehives and the peaceful and quirky Shepherd's Garden (Silver).
Sally Nex is a garden writer and blogger and part of the BBC Gardening team.