So much concentrated flower power makes for a very intense
visit, and it’s a privilege being an “insider” like me – I’m a judge, reporter,
blogger and photographer at the show – and William Hughes, who’s helped build
gardens at the Show and posted about the show last week. We get to
look at the exhibits and reflect quietly before the crowds arrive.
At 5 a.m. on Tuesday, three hours before the gates first open
to the crowds, everything is at its absolute peak and almost no one else is
there – it’s magical. I once saw a red fox padding its way, slightly
bewildered, through a large exhibit of cacti. And birds are regularly heard
singing at the crack of dawn above their nests built in trees which have been
planted on the show gardens for just a couple of weeks.
But those of us privileged to go regularly, and to see the
show in these quiet early moments, can become overcritical. Of course, the overall standard varies from
one year to another. But it varies within degrees of extraordinary excellence.
And this is why the judging is so important.
By ruthlessly keeping the standards high, the judges ensure
the continuing excellence of the displays. For when exhibitors fare poorly they
may be replaced by exhibitors who’ve proved their worth in the smaller RHS
shows around the country.
So the result is that when any visitor makes their one and
only trip to the show they’ll be more than delighted – even if those of us who
see the show from the inside year after year may say that one show is not quite
as good as another.
The show gardens and floral exhibitors, by the way, do not
have to pay for their space; they simply apply, ask for a certain amount of
space and are either selected or rejected. There’s no space at the show for
plants to be sold, so the floral and garden exhibitors are all there for the
publicity (the show is covered from Sunday to Wednesday on BBC1, the most
popular UK network channel, for up to 90 minutes a day), to take orders for
delivery later and for the kudos that a top medal can bring.
The medals at the Chelsea Flower Show are not awarded on a
1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th… basis. Instead,
any exhibit which reaches the Gold Medal standard of supreme excellence
receives a Gold Medal: this year seven of the outdoor Show Gardens were awarded
Gold Medals, along with 45 of the 102 floral display in the Great Pavilion.
There could be many or, in theory, there could be none. The medals go down to
Silver-Gilt, Silver and Bronze. Occasionally an exhibit receives no award at
all – just one this year, an exhibit of Agapanthus on which, I have to say,
there was hardly a flower to be seen. It’s been a difficult season. There’s a
full list of awards here.
The 600 Days of Bradstone garden won
the award for best Show Garden. Popularly known as the Life on Mars garden
(after a hit UK TV show) this was curious concept: a personal garden for an
astronaut stationed on Mars for 600 days. OK… but why? Why 600 days – why not
two years or 500 days? And with the rock and soil almost universally brown and
with plants like cacti and spinach unrealistically planted alongside each other
I had to disagree with the garden judges – as did almost everyone else.
Chris Beardshaw’s garden based on the garden at Hidcote Manor in Gloucestershire created by the American
Major Lawrence Johnston, gained a rather mean Silver-Gilt Medal, but far more
people stopped to admire it. The Gold Medal-winning Fetzer Sustainable Winery
Garden featured buildings of recycled timber and a sparkling tapestry of California
wild flowers. I never heard anyone say anything against it and the planting was
some of the finest I’ve seen at the Show. The plants were moved in and out of
greenhouses, and back again, many many times as the weather sprung hot and cold
in the run-up to the Show.
In the Great Pavilion, some of the smaller exhibits
especially took my fancy. Burnham Orchids were
celebrating fifty years at Chelsea, with countless Gold Medals, and their
exhibit was the first visited by Her Majesty the Queen on her Monday afternoon
tour of the Show. The circular hosta stand from Bowden Hostas was immaculate. Well actually, it wasn’t quite.
The superb range of large, beautifully grown plants was pristine but it looked
as if a cleaner sprucing up the pathways shortly before judging had covered
part of the exhibit in dust. They’d tried to wash it off but some of the
residue remained. We decided it was unfair to take this into account.
Dave Matthewman’s sweet peas were lovely, staged traditionally in
bowls of individual varieties. The new scented pink and white bicolor,
‘Promise’, was especially pretty. The five displays of carnivorous plants,
including one from South West Carnivorous Plants, revealed the progress made with
hybridising these fascinating and increasingly colorful perennials. Knoll
Gardens showed ornamental grasses, including
three new introductions, in a naturalistic style. Mulched mainly in moss – from
an approved source, a newly felled timber plantation – the plants were superb
and the effect compelling. All these won Gold Medals.
So is there a downside? Well, it can be crowded. There’s
now a fixed number of tickets available for each day and the RHS keeps
adjusting the layout to help improve the flow of visitors but the best, or most
high profile, exhibits always draw crowds.
Another problem is that you can’t buy plants; the whole
site extends to only 11 acres, and there’s simply not enough space and not
enough easy access for nurseries to sell plants. As William mentioned in his Guest Rant, the last
day sell-off can be fun. I remember seeing vegetable specialist Medwyn Williams standing high up at the top of his exhibit
tossing cauliflowers into the crowd and there’s a classic picture of a
policeman carrying off a potted delphinium almost as tall as himself. But on
some exhibits the staff are on hand not to sell the plants but to prevent
visitors making off with their most choice specimens.
If you want to buy plants, or enjoy more space, the Hampton
Court Palace Flower Show in July, which is now up to Chelsea
standard, is the place to be.
Then there’s the cost of the food and drink. There may be 35,000
sandwiches and 110,000 cups of tea sold each year but my advice is to
take your own.
the one thing that people seem to forget about the
Chelsea Flower Show is exactly that – it’s a show. As William pointed
nothing is quite real. The spectacular daffodils have all been in the
store for many weeks. The show gardens, with their intricate designs,
complicated and sometimes spectacular water features, are built in
and dismantled in seven day. So rarely will a show garden replicate
real life home garden. But in my five years talking with visitors to
the London Evening Standard-sponsored gardens when I was their
Gardening Correspondent, the most satisfying comment (apart from
the Gold Medal”) was, as they pointed to one feature or one piece of
“We could do that at home, what a good idea”.
And that’s what the show is about – ideas. Whether it’s a single plant or a
plant combination that visitors have never
seen before or the pattern of bricks in a pathway, everyone goes home with
ideas they can adapt for their own garden.
There’s more about Chelsea on my own blog, TransatlanticPlantsman.
Photos by Graham Rice, from top: Bowden Hostas, 600 Days with
Bradstone, Queen at Burnham Orchids, Chris Beardshaw Garden, South West
Carnivorous Plants, Fetzer Sustainable Winery Garden, Sweet pea
‘Promise,’ Walker’s Bulbs. Click to enlarge.