Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Not a footballer in sight!

Traveling up on the train to London last Sunday, I was surrounded by a rather rowdy group of young men talking animatedly about Chelsea. Now as a mature horticulturalist, Chelsea in the third week in May can only possibly mean THE flower show and my traveling companions (although they weren't very companionable) just did not seem the type for plants and gardens. Only later did I realise that 'Chelsea' had won the champions league - sorry but football just doesn't feature anywhere in my league of interest!

Lovely colours and shapes in the NFU stand

After visiting the Chelsea flower show for over 40 years (not quite as long as the Queen), it does take something different to catch my attention. There is a tradition that at the formal lunch, the President of the RHS always concludes his or her speech with a phrase something along the lines of 'the show this year is the best ever'. I think the President this year must have said this very much with her tongue in cheek and her fingers crossed behind her back. It is not a vintage year!

But let's be positive to start with! The two displays that particularly caught my eye were both small and had a similar theme. Plant Heritage (previously NCCPG) had created a small stand commemorating the life and achievements of Sir Harry Veitch the 19th-century nurseryman who sponsored so many plant hunting expeditions resulting in the introduction of hundreds of our well known garden plants. The history was all there, a replica Wardian case and and live plants of many of the Veitch introductions.

Veitch Chelsea Nursery

Then amongst the Artisan Gardens, the Scottish Agricultural College had created the Plant Explorer's Garden, complete with tiny greenhouse, outdoor office, microscope and many exotic plants. It was a fascinating creation that kept one's interest for ages.

And yes the greenhouse did have a lean rather than me or the camera!

Strong smelling Dranunculus vulgaris

The children from Knightsbridge school in London had designed a wonderful little urban oasis, complete with graffiti, an abandoned car yet  full of lush green plants demonstrating that everyone can change their environment.

The Great Pavilion was as always filled with plants and flowers -  tulips, orchids, the inevitable Hostas, and seried ranks of lupins, sweet peas and delphiniums. It is good to see, with the current emphasis on growing food, the return of a number of displays of vegetables.

Blom's tulips

Begonia 'Salsa' from Dibley's Nursery

Burncoose & Southdown some great plant associations
Digitalis 'Illumination Pink' - awarded the Plant of the Year Award
Just couldn't get the name of this hydrangea on the NFU stand but what a colour mix!
(I am told its 'Love you Kiss' - identified by Chad and I agree its an awful name- thanks!)

Paphiopedalum 'Miaohua Pulsar'

Jersey Farmer's Union

Moving on to the gardens, my first impressions were of some rather austere designs and a distinct lack of colour. Undoubtedly the exhibitors have had a battle, struggling with first an unseasonably warm March, followed by a very cold and dull April and May. Many of the plants used in the gardens and exhibits looked as if they needed just a few days more to bring them into flower. I think for once, those visitors that have tickets for the end of the week will see the show gardens at their peak.

Actually the Best in Show but it didn't inspire me - so little real colour, contrast or form.

The other trend which added to the somewhat lifeless and colourless planting is the fashion for 'eco-meadow-prairie-herbaceous-weedy' planting. Now don't get me wrong,  I have no objection to a well-established meadow instead of a mown lawn, (in the right situation) or a well designed prairie planting. However, these styles of planting seem to have degenerated into a somewhat amorphous mess comprised of what often appears to be agricultural grasses, buttercups and the inevitable cow parsley. Whatever the designers and television gurus may say, I find it boring. Why ignore the huge palette of wonderful garden plants that we can grow in the UK. I don't go to the Chelsea Flower Show for a walk in the countryside?

Telegraph garden - A 'damp meadow in May' has no more attraction than a visit to the dentist's!
But there was some great stonework and pretty woodland planting
You will have realised by now that I do have strong opinions and on occasions can be slightly critical, so you will not be surprised to hear that I did not rate Cleve West's Best in Show garden very highly. In fact I took very few pictures of it because I did not find it visually attractive. My own favourite entry was the M&G Garden, designed by Andy Sturgeon. The design was clear with some beautiful steel sculptures woven through the planting and into the central water feature, the circular pattern of which was mimicked by the texture of the stone walls and arches. The planting was muted but contained wonderful highlights of a lemon yellow peony contrasted with lavender coloured sweet rocket.

Diarmuid Gavin's attention seeking seven storey pyramid was once again nothing more than a gimmick. It is not surprising that he got no more than a Silver Gilt award. It is a pity Diarmuid does not stay closer to the ground, as what little planting could be seen was actually spectacular.

Some of the planting under the edge of the pyramid

Regular readers will know that I am a firm supporter of well-designed and grown bedding. However the Island of Jersey demonstrated admirably how appallingly this medium can be used. A huge heap of poorly grown, totally mismatched bedding plants lead up to a centrepiece depicting Her Majesty the Queen. Quite frankly one of the worst demonstrations of bedding that I have seen for several years. I am told that it was a last minute filler entry but maybe they should have stayed at home.

Let's hope they didn't walk the Queen past this!

Often in a show such as this, where there is so much to see, details can be missed.  Fortunately Bradstone's small Panache Garden caught my eye. And no its not the sculpture that drew my attention and I haven't been converted to the mish-mash meadow. However,  I loved the clever mix of green grass panels in the block wall at the back with its green foliage coping. Some lovely graceful curves and pleasing shapes. A beautiful garden boundary.


  1. The exhibits inside the great pavilion were fantastic, could easily spend hours just in there.

  2. Ian,

    Thanks for posting. I don't think I'll get to Chelsea for either football or flowers again; it is just too far from Cornwall. It was fine when I lived in London; it only took 20mins to get home when I'd had enough. To be worn out and then start on a 6 hour drive puts me off.

    I suspect the NFU had hidden the name of the Hydrangea in shame. It is H.'Love you Kiss' One of the Hovaria introductions. I was taken with the plant, but went off it when I saw the name! I didn't buy it.