A depressing Chelsea Flower Show
This was my 31st Chelsea Flower Show visit. My first one was as a trainee in Wisley in 1984, when we were expected to help out in the general preparations during the days before the opening, as well as helping out on the various stands manned by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) itself. In the early nineties we were involved in the planning and planting of a show garden for a landscape architect, and then in 2007 we had a go at one ourselves, when we built our Foerster-inspired sunken garden sponsored by the Daily Telegraph.
Over the years I have witnessed changing trends, evolving fashions, recurring themes. Some years there are gardens or nursery stands that are highly inspiring and just knock you off your feet, whilst others leave you wondering what it is all about. Despite having visited many times, I am still excited at the prospect of going, though in recent years this excitement quickly turned into the feeling of “oh no, it’s all the same again” the minute you walk in through the main gate. This year not. This year the feeling of excitement was soon replaced by a feeling of bewilderment, wondering what on earth had happened.
Brexit in the garden
It soon became apparent: several larger sponsors for whom it is not uncommon to invest sums of €500,000 or more out of their annual advertising budgets decided not to invest in a garden this year as the Brexit decision has made the UK too uncertain for their business. In addition to this, the RHS has launched a new flower show at Chatsworth in Derbyshire from the 7th to the 11th June, which means that several of the exhibitors have decided to go there, rather than come to London. A new show, new location, new customers and decidedly cheaper to organise than anything in London. As a result: lots of empty space which the RHS tried to fill with some benches, a photographic competition and sculpture exhibitions.
Main show gardens
At a time where the climate in Britain seems to be at a real low with people worrying about Brexit, the forthcoming general elections, and then on top of it all the terror attack in Manchester this week, the show seemed to reflect the general mood. Too many other gardens involved a serious “story”, some potentially depressing, some elaborate, most not immediately clear or obvious to the poor on-looker. Somebody’s private struggle with depression; “Linklaters Garden for Maggie’s” Cancer hospice, a small introverted reflective garden with brutal furniture that reflects the struggles of terminally ill cancer patients; funding in the private educational sector like the “Breaking Ground” garden with harsh metal structures and angular paths; the “Morgan Stanley” garden from Chris Beardshaw had a calm, cool shady part scattered with real show-stoppers: Cardiocrinum giganteum. These giant Himalayan lilies take about 9 years for the bulb to be large enough, and will then produce a flower spike reaching 2m or more with large white-maroon trumpet-shaped flowers. A subject maybe not so cheerful at first sight, but actually quite positive was the RHS Greening Grey Britain garden. The RHs has been heading a campaign since several years, trying to make our urban environments greener again, and trying to prevent gardens being completely paved over for the purpose of parking cars or sitting down. Nigel Dunnet’s planting scheme was as always inspiring with good colour combinations such as digitalis in amongst the glaucous foliage of Rosa glauca and deep purple Salvia ‘Caradonna’ combined with acidic green Euphorbias.
The “Royal Bank of Canada’s Garden” depicted a lovingly recreated Canadian boreal landscape carrying a loving selection of native plants that like growing in the moist, acidic boggy landscape that covers thousands of hectares in Canada. “Best in Show” was won by the M&G garden designed by James Basson. At first glance it resembled a smaller version of the Berlin Holocaust memorial. In reality it is inspired by a stone quarry in Malta, showing the unique Maltese flora.
BBC Radio 2 Gardens
The one exhibit that created a sense of hope and well-being was BBC Radio 2’s celebration of its 50th anniversary by getting involved in a series of five small show gardens which were that what none of the other gardens were: fun, light-hearted, colourful and uncomplicated. These five gardens were based on the senses, each headed by one of its well-known radio presenters and designed by a well-known gardening figure, such as the “Jo Whiley’s Scent Garden”, partnered with Jo Mallone; the “Jeremy Vine Texture Garden”, Chris Evans had taken on the Edible garden with a stunning, immaculate vegetable display, and “Zoe Ball’s Listening Garden” designed by James-Alexander Sinclair. Here lively water displays were created with vibrations caused by underwater speakers, and deep bass tones could be felt like a pleasant foot massage in a gravel path. The “Anneka Rice Colour Cutting Garden”, created by the great team of Tricia Guild and Sarah Raven, was filled with an inspiring mixture of wonderfully coloured cut flowers.
The Great Marquee
Over the years I have come to love the sometimes eccentric exhibits (and exhibitors) in the great Marquee. Here it still sometimes feels like the world has not changed. Some exhibitors have been putting up magnificent displays for decades. Blackmore and Langdon still have their unusual combination of Large-flowered Begonias and Delphinium. Roualeyn Fuchsias produced an impeccable flowering wall of diverse fuchsias, Hilliers Tree Nursery has, like each year, an imaginative but impressive display of a wide range of garden plants, including perennials, shrubs and large trees. One of their novelties this year was Malus purpurea ‘Crimson cascade’. A dark red-flowered crab apple with pendulous habit.
Raymond Evison, the leading Clematis breeder had a display with waves of Clematis, The Botanic Nursery an irresistible display of Digitalis. Digitalis heywoodii with its silvery grey leaves, compact habit and pure white flowers caught my eye. A novelty they presented this year is the Digitalis ‘Lemoncello’ a very pale creamy yellow form of the wild foxglove. My personal highlight was the delicate but colourful display of primulas and Meconopsis put together by Kevock Garden Plants. The pale, true blue of Meconopsis with oranges and yellows of the candelabra Primulas make me feel like a child in a sweet shop.
The National Dahlia Society has been creating impressive displays of Dahlias, reflecting the growing interest in this plant. Notable is the interest in single-flowered varieties, and generally smaller flowered-varieties too, though some whoppers like “Café au Lait” were also present.
Not all exhibitors are commercial. The Eric Young Orchid Foundation from Jersey built an impressive display of Orchids. As a foundation they a free from the usual financial constraints that nurseries have to deal with, and can dedicate themselves to further research and breeding of new and unusual orchids.
In amongst the new plants being presented was a notable Cosmos ‘Cupcakes Blush’ displaying like a full petticoat of petals. “Plant of the Year” went this year to a small, compact Mulberry Charlotte russe, that is covered in juicy mulberries and will reach about 1,5 m, making it ideal for a small garden or even a container. Second prise went to a new selection of a particularly pale blue Salvia ‘Cristal Blue’ which will make a great addition to soft-coloured herbaceous borders. For the terrace or balcony the new compact (not hardy) Hibiscus rosa-sinensis ‚Petit Orange‘ adds a sunny, exotic touch.
Chelsea in Bloom
In recent years the “Chelsea in Bloom” Campaign has grown from strength to strength. Under the motto “Royal Safari” various floral exhibits were displayed on Sloane Square and in various shops in neighbouring streets. A wild and wonderful variety of animals, varying from crocodiles, giraffes, elephants, lions, snakes and monkeys crawled, leapt, swung or simply lounged around in front of various shops, causing even more traffic jams and much entertainment to passers by. The sparkle that was missing inside, was definitely to be found out here on the elegant pavements of Chelsea!
Isabelle Van Groeningen