Oh my. Does it get any better than Chelsea? It’s hard to put into words the pure joy and exhilaration I feel when I’m here.
It’s like being wrapped up in a (rather large) cocoon of plant-fuelled love. You experience the absolute height of horticulture anywhere in the world. And if there’s one thing better than experiencing the absolute height of horticulture anywhere in the world, it’s experiencing the absolute height of horticulture anywhere in the world alongside the absolute height of passionate horticulturists anywhere in the world.
There’s something about Chelsea that makes you feel a strong bond with each and every other visitor. Like you are all in on the same secret. Perhaps it is the secret of the power of plants and gardening. We all know just what they can do for us humans. We have all quite literally had our lives shaped by plants. We would be quite different people without them.
Chelsea brings us all together in a big, planty, lovefest. You know everyone there is on a high. It’s the enormous buzz that is most incredible. A combination of the recognition of such dedication, skill and hard work along with the excitement of being amongst the result of this. The designers and nursery owners all beaming with pride, matched by the smiles of delight of those drawn in. There’s just nothing like it. I even overheard one lady saying, ‘I first came to Chelsea in 1933’, and it didn’t sound like she’d missed one since (being in a wheelchair certainly wasn’t going to stop her).
This year brought Chris Evans to the show, broadcasting his morning programme live on Radio 2. What a complete star he is. And what a remarkably loud voice he has! I’m sure most of west London could hear him without the need for a radio. But he was singing as he went, and that was just the off-air sections. He really did bring the flower show to a very lively start and seemed the most genuinely ‘as on TV’ full-of-life character. As he said, “we’re going al fresco and gardening bonkers”.
Chris popped up everywhere, but seemed especially (if that’s possible) animated amongst the BBC Radio 2 Feel Good Gardens. These were a new idea for 2017, aimed at “uplifting the senses and encouraging people to lose themselves amongst a feast of sights, scents, sounds, flavours and textures to feel happier, calmer and generally better about the world”. Well, they certainly worked on me.
With the back drop of the magnificent Grade I listed Royal Chelsea Hospital, these five senses gardens had the crowds transfixed. They really had it all. World-class designers paired with celebrity garden ‘owners’, clear but unrestrictive themes with the aim of making people feel good. They were simple rather than showy, down-to-earth rather than try-hard and as they weren’t being judged, seemed to be all about having fun and not taking life too seriously.
Of all the gardens this year, the Anneka Rice Colour Cutting Garden, by Sarah Raven, was my standout. A traditional cottage garden, in theory nothing you haven’t seen before, but it was just exquisite. This was the garden that just kept bringing me back. There was so much to see, just wonderful planting combinations and the most joyful space imaginable. I wouldn’t have picked it in a million years from the pre-show literature, but how wrong a girl can be.
There were also two stand-out show gardens for me. Both standing-out for standing-out. I really believe Chelsea is about trying something new. It’s the opportunity to be brave and bold, away from any site or client limitations. It’s the place to showcase the future of garden design; inspiration for lesser mortals to take away, chew over and use to enhance creativity in their lives.
Darren Hawkes’ was the first of these gardens. Most seemed to completely miss it first time around; it’s hidden behind a nine foot high hedge. But a small pathway takes you up and behind the garden, to look out over it from above. It was beautifully done, even the pathway edge had roses rambling through the hedgerow and by 10am champagne was flowing and all the good and the great from the gardening world (including Andy Sturgeon, Chelsea’s 2016 Best in Show designer, and Matthew Wilson who designed this same plot last year) seemed to be having a party there with Darren.
The other was James Basson’s Maltese quarry-inspired design. This was certainly brave; James himself described it as “stark and monumentally brutal”. But inspired it was. James wanted to show how beauty can come from wasteland and his incredible ability to replicate nature clearly shone through.
The M&G stand (his sponsor) on the other side of Main Avenue had the same stone columns but denser planting and I have to say I craved the extra colour and life. It was a struggle to really see the show garden as a true garden and it wasn’t straight forward to view such a small site as a quarry either. But none-the-less, James – always seemingly smiling and understated – has once again shown us his remarkable talent and translatable ideas, whether I’d personally like a Maltese quarry garden or not.
Which leaves me with just one other garden that’s sticking there at the front of my mind. And it’s another that I thought I’d walk past without too much ado. Nigel Dunnett’s RHS garden was another garden of detail. It wasn’t so much the overall effect that got me, but the sheer number of pockets of innovation and authenticity. Nigel’s ‘modern meadow’ planting style is designed for ease of maintenance alongside maximum, long-seasonal interest; certainly a philosophy that doesn’t need selling to me.
And his planting was beautiful, reminding me that I need to get up to the Barbican this summer to see – in the flesh – his talents there. But he also made this a garden for everyone. A practical, real garden that we can all take ideas from. My absolute favourite was the teeny tiny balcony, reflecting the reality of so many city dwellers, with the odd plant tucked into the corner in its original plastic pot and a diverse range of tomatoes, corn, roses, conifers…. It looked like a keen gardener’s collection of best loved plants, including a few there wasn’t really space for. Isn’t that the reality (and joy) of life as a gardener for most of us?
I’m back at the show ground tomorrow for more, so will share with you as much as I can, as soon as I can, in between mad panics about my dissertation which I’d had all good intentions of finishing prior to Chelsea, along with the million other things that seem to come along at this lovely, but scarily frantic time of the year.
Until then, I hope you’ve enjoyed a taster of Chelsea. Do let me know which bits appeal to you best of all…