The Show Gardens
As well as entry to the flower show a ‘Chelsea’ ticket allows one to make sweeping, and probably rather unfair, judgements on the gardens. Along with the ‘Oohs’ and ‘Aahs’ of pleasure you can also hear ‘I wouldn’t have done that’, ‘How on earth did they manage to get a Gold medal?’ or ‘Why didn’t the judges give them a Gold, this is clearly the best garden in the show?’
It is probably fair to say that most people who go to the Chelsea Flower Show are interested in gardening and that a fair number of those people know quite a lot about plants and garden design. The difference between most of us ordinary mortals and the judges is that we are allowed to like (or not) a garden. They have a strict set of criteria for marking each garden and for them ‘like’ is a forbidden word.
This year the show was a little different, for reasons explained below, but there was still much that I liked, even loved. Charlotte Harris’ garden for the Royal Bank of Canada was inspired by the boreal forest of Canada. This covers 1.2 billion acres but somehow she managed to create something which looked both like a wild forest and a delightful garden. Although this was her first garden she has worked on many gardens at Chelsea and knew exactly how to make the most of the space. The dark surrounding walls were unobtrusive and the Pavilion framed a view through to a beautiful tree and the hint of more forest (rather than the neighbouring stand). The Welcome to Yorkshire Garden was charming but its view, a trompe l’oeil painting framed by a ‘ruined’ abbey, simply looked fake, whereas view here looked eminently real. The views through the Jack pine (Pinus banksiana) also made you think were looking through into a wilderness, albeit one you could also use for afternoon tea. The pretty cones remain on the trees for years, only opening after the extreme heat of fire. At this point the seeds fall to the forest floor and begin the process of regeneration. Red and yellow Granny’s bonnets (Aquilegia canadensis) floated delicately in amongst the grass (Deschampsia cespitosa) and this is one of the many plant combinations that would work well in the smallest garden.
James Basson’s Maltese Quarry won the Best in Show. It was spectacular in a harsh way, looking like a cross between an alien landscape and a cemetery. The addition of a swimming pool and table and chairs meant that one could (just) imagine using it as a garden and, with time, I have come to like it more. Even so his Perfumier’s Garden in Grasse from 2015 remains my favourite Chelsea garden ever –from the thirty-four shows I have worked at or visited. (It should have been thirty-five consecutive years but one year I decided I’d seen it all before and couldn’t face the crowds. Too late I realised the error of my ways as new and exciting plants and gardens unfolded before my eyes on the telly. It just isn’t the same.) In an interview he said that he is now interested in the landscape of Sicily, in particular the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna. In a couple of year’s time we may see an even more extraordinary garden if he recreates a volcano in west London.
Reading between the lines this has clearly been a trying Chelsea for a lot of people, with vagaries other than just the weather to contend with. As Brexit and its attendant caution hit the sponsors many decided, perfectly reasonably, that now was not the time to spend thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of pounds on creating a garden. Instead of the fifteen to twenty large show gardens there were a mere eight.
This meant the RHS had a lot of space to fill. The photographic display and new seating area were clearly gap-fillers but the Radio 2 Feel Good Gardens were a great addition. Each was based on one of the five senses and although they weren’t judged they were all the same high Chelsea standard. Sarah Raven’s Colour Cutting Garden was definitely my favourite, but then it was always likely to be. It was a condensed version of her garden as Perch Hill in Sussex and was a riot of well-organised colour (yes, you can have a well-organised riot; Sarah has just proved it). As well as introduce you to new plants, Chelsea reminds you of plants you once grew but have, for one reason or another, forgotten. Sarah had opulent opium poppies (Papaver somniferum) in a purple so deep it looked almost sinister. Sue and I used to grow these from seed every year and their brief but spectacular appearance each summer is something I now realise is lacking in my garden at the moment. There were also pretty pink poppies (P. dubium) which they are trialling at Perch Hill. They have the delicacy of Welsh poppies and manage to be a shade of pink which is neither insipid nor brash. They were also on the M&G Investments stand and apparently you can buy them at Great Dixter. More wish-list plants and proposed outings go in the notebook – but that is the joy of Chelsea.
The Artisan Gardens
The Artisan Gardens have expanded up towards the Studios and this is brilliant as it spreads these little gardens out and makes them easier to see. Every year we head directly to the large gardens first and by the time we reach the Artisan Gardens in the middle of the afternoon the people are ten or twelve deep. Being Chelsea, everyone moves along in a well-mannered and genteel fashion and it is perfectly possible to see everything but the telly showed Monty Don visiting them in the empty twilight after the show had finished for the day and they are far better viewed in an atmosphere of peace and quiet. The three which have moved up onto woody glade which used to house some of the food stands have more space around them and the Poetry Lover’s Garden had the added advantage that it could be viewed from three sides. Sue and I had first marched past it on our way to lunch and it had very much been a case of ‘Yes, lovely, now where’s a seat in the shade for lunch?’ Later we met someone who raved about it, so we went back for a proper look.
Designed by Fiona Cadwallader this garden was inspired by the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem ‘This Lime Tree Bower My Prison’. Apparently the poet had been forced to remain behind in the garden while his friends went rambling in the countryside. The garden is similarly divided with an ‘old’ stone wall separating the domestic garden from the small strip of ‘wild’ beyond. The idea works perfectly; you could easily imagine striding out through the garden gate for a walk in a meadow-strewn meadow leading to the hills beyond. The prison consisted of four lime trees (Tilia europa ‘Euchlora’) which were pruned to create a canopy over a single seat. Even with my powers of space-filling I cannot fit this into my tiny London garden without sacrificing everything else but when I eventually move to the seaside (and a larger garden) this would be one of the first things I would want to create (well, one can dream).
The Great Pavilion and Beyond
The plants both in and out of the Great Pavilion were blissfully unaware of any economic problems and shone brilliantly. David Austin has a beautiful new creamy yellow rose called ‘Vanessa Bell’. W. S. Warmenhoven had an extraordinary plant between the traditional purple globes which consisted of a stem that rose straight up and then writhed and twisted like a streamer in mid-flight (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon). I think I like it but I’m not sure how it would fit in a garden; perhaps a single specimen in a pot?
I am writing a book on Mulberries (Cherries & Mulberries, Growing and Cooking, with Sally, due 2018, sorry about the plug) so I was very pleased that a mulberry won Plant of the Year. Mulberry Charlotte Russe (‘Matsunaga’) only reaches 1.5m, which means I can have one in my tiny garden. It is a hybrid resulting from a cross between a white and black mulberry by the Japanese breeder Hajime Matsanuga nearly fifty years ago. The fruits can be harvested from June to September, it will grow happily in a pot and apparently crops in its first year. It is available from Suttons and I have, of course, ordered one. Writing in the Daily Telegraph Stephen Lacey charmingly christened it Morus minor.
In conclusion I think most of the new ideas have improved the show and I am already looking forward to next year. I am also aware that I have less than fifty weeks to acquire (and find space for) all the plants on my wish list.
Allium jesdianum ‘Early Emperor’
Candelabra Primula (in this and lots of other colours)
Hydrangea ‘Fireworks White’
Eschscholzia caespitosa ‘Sundew’ (I think, if not they’re near enough and I want them anyway)