Last week I visited the Chelsea Flower Show and, as always came away inspired by the gardens, awed at the standard of plants in The Great Pavilion, weighed down by too many catalogues promising great things and clutching a large list of plants I wanted.
The M & G Exmoor Garden, designed by Cleve West has the first plot on Main Avenue and it is wonderful but, in the sweeping way of amateurs, we decided that the judges were correct in awarding the Telegraph (or Dinosaur) Garden, designed by Andy Sturgeon, the Best in Show. I don’t usually like slabs of rock in a garden but here the fins of the stegosaurus managed to be spectacular without overpowering the rest of the garden. As we left there were people on the garden drinking champagne and sitting round the fire. It showed that while the garden was an extraordinary piece of design, it was also a garden which could work – children would love it and it looked just as good occupied by people as pristinely empty.
A great many of the gardens included semi-naturalistic planting with an abundance of grasses and purple flowers. This is not necessarily a bad thing, although by the end of the day it had become a case of ‘Oh look! More wafty purple plants.’ The Husqvarna Garden was very formal with tightly packed purple, burgundy and magenta blooms encircled by immaculately clipped hedges. Like little meercats the lysimachia seemed to be looking for a way out and in places had even made a break for freedom.
Last year the L’Occitane Garden had been my favourite by a long way (it is still the screen saver on my laptop). This year the garden was a little too rough. It no doubt created an accurate picture of the landscape but, apart from an enticing path lined with poppies and flax, it didn’t appeal to my wilder fantasies of going to live in Provence.
The Harrods British Eccentrics Garden was inspired by William Heath Robinson and designed by Diarmuid Gavin. It was meant to make one smile, and that’s exactly what it did. The planting was exuberant, multi-coloured and, to my mind, near perfect. It was a joy to look at and then, every fifteen minutes, there was a brief flight of fantasy. The pure white foxgloves gave a little shake and then trundled round the folly. Box balls bobbed up and down, trees twirled, window boxes rose up a storey and a pair of shears popped up to trim the topiary. The sundial performed a somersault and became a tub of flowers. It was ludicrous and yet totally wonderful, especially with the man himself vaulting the flowers!
Jekka McVicar had moved out of the tent onto a plot on Royal Hospital Way. It was small but suited her design perfectly. Medicinal plants of all types circled a central stone bowl of constantly flowing water. It looked good from every angle and we couldn’t work out why it hadn’t been awarded a Gold Medal. Eventually we came to the conclusion that it was probably because the rough grass round the edge looked ‘rough’, rather than the ‘manicured rough’ one often sees in show gardens. Or there may have been a perfectly valid judging point that we didn’t know about. Either way, it was lovely.
In the smaller Fresh and Artisan Gardens, The Mekong Garden : a giant stone cube with a garden hidden inside but every time we passed there was a huge queue and I’m afraid coffee and cake or a glass of wine won against the wait.
The Great Pavilion had its usual spectacular displays and the pile of catalogues on my kitchen table is testament to the persuasiveness and charm of the growers.
Outside, many of the stalls have been influenced by the need to cover costs (perfectly understandably). When I first started working at the flower show on the Hatchards stand we were one of five or six bookshops. Now, margins have meant that only the RHS is left, and even their display has shrunk to a few shelves and a couple of tables. For a variety of reasons, people don’t buy so many gardening books now but, even so, it seems a shame. Instead, there were a lot of stands selling expensive clothes, some garden-related, some not. One good thing is that I am less tempted to buy: some labels and a set of outdoor fairy lights from Sarah Raven were pretty well my only purchases. As far as I am concerned the plants and gardens are very much the stars of Chelsea and a little less shopping does no harm.