On Monday a kind friend texted to say she had a spare ticket for the Chelsea Flower Show and if I could make it, it was mine. I made it. And, oh, it was so wonderful! I wish I’d had longer. We got there at 8.30am and I had to leave around 3.30pm to catch my train home, but I still hadn’t seen half of what I wanted to.
I have thoughts, but mostly I have pictures. Here’s the edited version:
A glimpse through the gates to the actual Chelsea Hospital, home of retired soldiers, several of whom were in evidence during the day in their gorgeous red coats. As were a number of celebrities. Here’s Penelope Keith being interviewed:
Later, watching on TV, I had no memory of seeing the Telegraph garden which was odd, because I knew we’d looked at all the show gardens. But of course when we got to this one and the filming was happening, it was absolutely packed with people and we hardly saw any of the actual garden. It was crowded, of course, but if you were patient enough, you could always get in to see the gardens and people were generally very polite.
One of the unexpectedly wonderful things was the corner of the Great Pavilion given over to floristry displays on the theme of Alice in Wonderland to celebrate 150 years (since its publication? since Carroll’s birth? Can’t remember.) I adored the book mushrooms, wreaths and bower, as well as the clever arrangements. This one has the Cheshire cat and a blue caterpillar as well as the Mad Hatter’s hat. And I adore the way the real flowers are combined to make them look magical and fantastical:
Others went for the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Look at the jammy dodgers! And that amazing take on the lopsided wedding cakes that are so often decorated with chocolate ‘bark’ and real flowers. I love the pretty floral tablecloth in the bottom left and the fabulously bright and barmy display on the top right.Elsewhere in the pavilion, alliums bigger than a football!
Wildflower planting was a very big thing and I mostly loved it. This was a small artisan garden, with these overflowing cottage-garden style beds. I adored that on the plant list it included ‘dandelion’ and ‘nettle’. I could have a Chelsea garden too!
The very opposite of wildflower cottage gardening was this amazing garden from a Dubai-based designer. I am not normally a fan of minimalism but this had enough planting and enough interest in the shapes of the arches and the stars of the stream, as well as the poetry on the wall. It would be a wonderful garden to walk through in the cool of the evening.
The judging at Chelsea is somewhat baffling. There are nine criteria and gardens get marked by 7 judges. There are fixed cut off points for gold, silver-gilt, silver and bronze, so you have to score well in all areas to get the highest awards. A lot of the gardens I liked best were in the silver-gilt category. In particular, I loved:
We were agreed that the Waterloo-inspired garden did not have enough dead bodies having their teeth pulled for real authenticity. I didn’t really get enough time to look at the Fresh gardens to see which of those I liked best.
There were two other gardens that lots of people were talking about. I really liked the garden designed by the winner of the BBC challenge. He did a front garden of the sort that a lot of people have, where you park your car. I thought he did brilliantly at making the car park part of the garden and creating a space that was beautiful as well as functional. Although I could live without the rusty tin cans.
And then there was the Chatsworth garden. I have very mixed feelings about this and I am still not completely sure what I think. There were huge chunks of rock brought down from Chatsworth, which presumably will be on their way back after tomorrow. There was a pretty woodland stream, with lots of pretty woodland plants, and woodland trees. It was very lovely. Like a small chunk of the natural landscape, carefully recreated and enhanced and fitted into a garden space. Only… well, it’s fake. And if you want a woodland stream, why not go out to an actual woodland? And if you want impressive rocky outcrops, well, that’s what the Peak District is for.
It’s certainly a garden which makes you stop and think about what a garden is. So maybe that’s why it won Best in Show. I don’t know. It left me feeling very unsettled. I don’t think I want a garden to be like the Truman Show. I don’t want a carefully produced artificial reality. I like things to be what they are. A garden isn’t a patch of woodland where the plants grow as nature allows, and the stream flows where the land guides it, and the rocks sit where they were left after the last ice age. And I don’t want a garden to pretend to be that. I want it to look like a place where people have been at work. Where hands have dug and heads have made decisions. Where man and nature have worked together.
And that’s certainly what Chelsea represents. Not the untrammelled force of nature, but the craftsmanship, skill and science of horticulturalists who coax plants and earth and water into obeying their wishes.