As a plant lover it might seem strange that I’ve never visited the RHS Chelsea Flower Show before. My lack of attendance has often been due to being away at the same time of year or down to a lack of organisation when it comes to ordering tickets. I’m always glued to the TV coverage every year though, kicking myself that I’m not there. But all that changed yesterday when at last I got a chance to see the show gardens and the great pavilion for myself.
I’m not sure why but my brain always conspires against me when I need sleep the most. For some reason knowing I need to get up early for something a little out of the ordinary say to catch a flight, or in this instance to get to Chelsea, means I spend the night tossing and turning trying desperately to sleep but failing miserably. I had that sinking feeling as I looked at the alarm clock and another hour had passed and I STILL wasn’t asleep. So I collected my press pass after having had about only two hours sleep and feeling more than a little bleary-eyed. I was worried I’d have to seek out somewhere for a surreptitious snooze but fortunately the excitement to be there kicked in.
Held in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea it might not be the largest flower show in the world (that’s Hampton Court) but it is seen as the most prestigious. And, this year it was celebrating its 100th anniversary. On press day the gates open early. I was there just after 8am but it was already a hive of activity with photographers busy capturing the best shots, TV crews recording footage and RHS judges making their way around, marking the designs in preparation for the medal awards today. Seeing this whole aspect was fascinating in itself.
Of all the flower shows it’s Chelsea that is really about garden design. In preparation I had read about the individual gardens and the ideas behind them so I had been eagerly anticipating seeing them for real. Perhaps though there is a danger in putting out too much preview material because some of the gardens didn’t live up to the hype in my opinion. They weren’t bad just not as good as I had hoped they would be. I’m a huge fan of the Swedish designer Ulf Nordjfell but found his planting a bit of a let down. It’s fair to say that the growers and designers have had a dreadful year trying to get plants into leaf and flower after such a cold spring and I think it was quite visible in some gardens and Ulf’s was one of them. I had also had high hopes for the Brewin Dolphin sponsored garden by Robert Myers but sadly didn’t like it at all. The planting, although pretty just wasn’t different enough and I REALLY disliked the furniture that had been chosen.
I did however love Chris Beardshaw’s garden. The planting was truly stunning, vibrant, colourful and plenty of it. There was an added element to this garden for me. Chris designed the garden for the Arthritis Research UK charity as he had been diagnosed with a form of arthritis at the age of 19. For me the garden was an inspiration. The idea that he has forged such a successful career as a garden designer and plantsman whilst enduring the pain and difficulties that his condition must have caused gave this garden a depth that was lacking in the other designs.
The artisan gardens are much smaller, between 20 and 35 square metres, budgets are less and, rather than spending a lot of money on hard landscaping, plants are always the main focus. Set away from the main avenue along a wooded avenue I loved the escape from the hustle and bustle and the fact that you could get up close to these gardens. The attention to detail was incredible. My favourite was Un Garreg which means ‘one stone’ in Welsh and was inspired by the landscape of the Brecon Beacons, the home to the young designers and brothers Henry and David Rich. I’ve spent quite a bit of time walking in this stunning part of Wales, not far from where I live, and loved the evocation of a piece of Welsh countryside in the heart of London. Details such as tiny ferns poking from the dry stone walls, the beautiful planting and keeping the carbon footprint to a minimum by using one boulder from a local quarry for the garden’s hard landscaping meant I was thrilled to see that they won a gold.
For a Chelsea virgin seeing the who’s who of the gardening world was fun. If I’d thought about it a little more I could have played celebrity gardener bingo but juggling my camera, notepad and pen, and the ever-increasing amount of paper about the gardens and nurseries I was collecting, as the day went on, meant I could have done with an extra pair of hands as it was.
Despite some misgivings about certain gardens, feeling ever so slightly ripped off by the price of food and drink available and the inordinate amount of time it took to order a cup of tea I really enjoyed my first visit to Chelsea. There was so much to like, there was a buzz in the air and a feeling that you were somewhere where people shared a common passion for plants. I liked the eccentricity of elements of it. The introduction of gnomes for one year only and the frog noises coming from the Australian ‘best in show’ winning garden. I’m not sure why some still feel the need to have young women in tiny outfits posing on their stand or for photos. I really felt for them huddled in coats trying to keep warm until the next reveal.
There was so much to see – the fresh gardens, the great pavilion and of course the plants that I can’t squeeze it all into one post so I’ll write more over the coming days.