Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Chelsea - not bigger but better

Yesterday was the first day of the Chelsea Flower Show where every plant, flower and display is perfection itself. Chelsea is one of the first social events of the season and considered the most prestigious event in the horticultural calendar.

Visitors flock to London to order their new roses, unusual narcissi bulbs or sweet pea seeds and to admire the marquees packed with the most glorious flowers and foliage from around the world. A plantsman's paradise. Small stalls along the paths offer pots, paintings, gumboots or plant ties. Large stands have garden furniture, sculpture or lawn-mowers. And there's always some grand conservatory you can buy (if you're very rich) when the show is over.

But the real crowd-pullers are the famous show gardens: these are sponsored by those companies who can afford the tens of thousands they cost to stage and if the 'garden' wins a coveted gold medal the designer is guaranteed clients for life. Unfortunately, on public days they're so popular that it's impossible to see them properly as the crowd is ten deep.

So it's a real treat to come on press day when numbers are so limited; one can actually stand right in front of a show garden and see everything. Although yesterday there was a blip: it was raining. But the weather brings out the stiff upper lip in the British (only Brits sit on the grass and eat a picnic under an umbrella or a woollen rug) and we all pretended it wasn't wet. We wore our linen and our open toed shoes – even though it's only May – and topped it with a brolly.

The large show gardens are very impressive with elegant structures, mature hedges and trees, cascading waterfalls, ponds or rills. And to get the wow factor in the planting they do what no gardener would - 300 plants can go into a small bed only one metre square just to get the right effect: these gardens are designed to be impressive and inspirational, not real.

This year there are fewer large gardens but, overall, better ones. Although it seems that many of the famous designers play 'safe': gardens are often a combination of formal layout with cottage garden planting and water, for the largest, or cottage garden/natural theme for the medium sized. It's the new boys on the block – Antipodeans among them – that are proving to be the innovators.

But there are more small gardens – in categories of courtyard, city, chic or roof - which need a lot less sponsorship but a great deal more unpaid blood, sweat and tears to produce. These are increasingly popular because they are built to the same exacting standards whilst being more applicable to most people's gardens and this year they are excellent, better than ever in design and finish.

I'm interested in Chelsea on two levels, as a designer and as a writer. As a designer I'm fascinated by the show gardens: the inspiration and innovation, the spaces, structure, combinations and colours. I know how incredibly difficult it is – logistically and physically – to achieve the final effect of a 'show' garden.

As a writer I'm obviously looking for an angle to do an article on Chelsea but I also enjoy the chance to do some celebrity people watching. Big-wigs – usually attired in outfits circa 1950 - generally lack animation (too much good breeding) and the judges – not so many in Panama hats this year - simply stand in a huddle, confabbing and raising their hands.

But when a celebrity breezes by there's a frisson even if everyone is trying to look nonchalant: we move in these circles all the time you know. Famous stars are there in dozens but seldom smile at anyone they don't recognize: petrified someone will ask for an autograph.

Although, there are also plenty of not-so-famous personalities (although I forgot to mug up on soap stars so probably missed some of them) who, like any normal punter, have obviously just come for a good day out: I'd love some of those roses, might order one for mum's birthday; shall we have a cup of tea ..nah! lets have some Pimms.

Overall the show was fun and the quality superb this year - and when I got home I wandered out in to my garden to see what I should or could be doing. I was greeted with weeds, messy corners, unclipped hedges and, heavens, signs of a dog!

But strangely I didn't feel dissatisfied: Chelsea show gardens are beautiful - perfect installations - but give me a seat, a glass of wine, a ball to throw for Freddie and I can live with imperfection. It's so much more restful.


Book Note: arriving in London I spotted A Little Blue Jacket on the bookshelves of WH Smiths store at the railway station; a warm glow that quite set me up for the day. I felt obliged to accept the first glass of bubbly I was offered at the show, even if it was only 11am.

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