I always cry at Chelsea. Of course, I pretend I’ve got something in my eye, or that the hay fever season has come a little early, but each year I shed a tear or two. Or three or four. I’ve already started and we haven’t even got to the awards yet; that’ll be the next time to reach for the hankie, bright and early at 7am tomorrow morning.
Despite the tears, it’s one of the few times a year I’m more than happy to be pulled away from my own garden. The immense magic of Chelsea is really hard to rationalise, but who needs logic when there’s magic around?
For the first time at Chelsea, my favourite garden isn’t one of the big, judged Show Gardens. The one that drew me back time and time again, taking me way out of London to a happy, jaw-droppingly-beautiful world of my own, was the RHS Garden. I confess that when I heard the Duchess of Cambridge had designed it, as much as I think she is an extraordinary human being, I was a little dubious. In fact, so sceptical was I, that whilst it has been presented as a joint effort with landscape architects Davies White, I didn’t really think she’d have scraped the sides of the design. However, as more and more has come to light, it seems she really has been quite involved.
At a conceptual level, she is a strong advocate of the benefits of playing outdoors to children’s wellbeing, the entire underpinning of this garden. And at a detailed level, we are told that George and Charlotte collected pine cones and sticks from their home in Norfolk which now embellish the garden for all to see.
It’s a tiny space, with so many fun things packed into it: a swing, tree house, tepee, firepit and Poohsticks bridge. And given that it also has fairly generous paths to allow all 157,000 visitors direct access through the garden, it’s a miracle they have managed to build in pockets of breath-taking planting which altogether make you feel you’re in that own little world of yours.
There were four Show Gardens that stood out for me. The first was Andy Sturgeon’s M&G Garden. I thought it was going to be love at first sight, just as it was for me in Andy’s last Chelsea garden. So, I was quite surprised to find I didn’t immediately take to it; I found it just overpoweringly solid.
I overheard someone, whose judgement I respect, bubbling over with excitement about it, talking of perfect execution, attention to detail and adventurous plant selection. It did grow on me over time and it’s clearly a ‘good’ garden, but it didn’t bring me out in goosebumps in the way that Sarah Price’s design on that same site did last year.
The second was designer Sarah Eberle’s Resilience Garden. It has a somewhat imposing grain silo in the middle of it – although I’m told inside is a lovely woven-willow office – and has been designed to show the need for greater diversity to allow us to thrive in a world of climate change. Exotics and natives comfortably sit side-by-side, despite there being a really quite diverse range, with mature tree specimens holding it all together.
Mark Gregory has gone bigger and better with his Welcome to Yorkshire Garden this year. I couldn’t think how he was going to pull off a pair of lock gates at Chelsea, but pull it off he did. It’s one of those gardens you can appreciate more in person compared with any angle a photograph can offer (certainly when I’m in charge of the camera, that is), but it’s incredibly authentic, both in hard and soft landscaping. I love the contrasting layers of intense and more natural planting, which are perfectly placed within the setting and brilliantly executed.
Finally for the Show Gardens, a real surprise: the Dubai Majlis garden. Whilst I absolutely adore traditional Middle Eastern art and architecture, I never seem to be all that taken with more modern design. Previous show gardens that stick in my mind are all a bit stark, a bit white and a bit minimalist for my liking. And it didn’t help that as I approached the garden, a lady, not even stopping as she walked past, gave it one glance, announced (very loudly) to the world that it was ‘hideous’ and carried on.
Maybe such rude, unnecessary and closed behaviour spurred me on. And my one criticism is that it was a little flat in places – literally, the plants were very small and low across quite large sections. But I found the mix of colours and textures uplifting and the seating area (majlis means ‘place of sitting’) was so relaxed and inviting.
There were also another 15 smaller gardens across the Artisan and Space of Grow categories. Again, four stood out. The first, was the Facebook: Beyond the Screen garden, by Joe Perkins. In my old age, I’m growing somewhat sceptical about the overall merits of social media and saw this clear advertising mission as rather too commercial. But once more, I was surprised to find I really rather liked this garden.
Perhaps it was the coastal theme that brought back so many fond memories of Australia. Perhaps it was the delight of identifying (and even more significantly, still being able to name!) two Australian natives with very prominent positions. Perhaps it was the sound of the manufactured waves washing over the ‘beach’ that captured me. Or just maybe, it was the message that the public relations chapesses were keen to share: that facebook was a key tool for enabling people with common interests (like gardening) to come together online and then connect offline. We mustn’t throw out the baby with the bath water!
Another favourite was the Montessori Centenary Children’s Garden by Jody Lidgard. A very small garden packed to the brim with more than you could imagine possible, but as with the RHS Garden, it was fun and practical and beautiful to boot. I loved the little hiding places for children, the educational mini-greenhouse and the smiley-face bug hotels.
And their green wall was one of the nicest I’ve ever seen, full of edibles: both productive and charming. Chris Evans’ wife was presented with a small posy by a schoolchild whilst I there. I’ve seen Chris at Chelsea twice now and both times he has come across as the most delightful, upbeat, positive, encouraging and happy person I’ve ever seen. The little girl went away beaming from ear to ear as Chris said ‘Ariana for Prime Minister’.
The third small garden I loved was the CAMFED Garden: Giving Girls in Africa a Space to Grow by Jilayne Rickards. The bright colours, exotic fruits and red soil instantly transported you to Africa and the hard working ladies in traditional dress won me over as I heard them protesting to the sponsors that they didn’t need a break and to please let them stay and talk to visitors.
Finally, the Manchester Garden by Exterior Architecture. On paper, nothing special, but I found the whole quite pleasing. Modern sculpture that was integrated into the layout and planting fluently, a range of harmonious green textures interspersed with just the right amount of colour and yes, I’m always taken with beautiful backdrops, which the Grade I listed Royal Hospital Chelsea certainly provides.
Which brings me on to a few more highlights of the day. Oh, and most of those tears. 6 June this year sees the 75thanniversary of the D-Day landings and Normandy veterans were invited from across the country for a moving ceremony taking part in a specially designed garden. 10,000 sea thrifts, representing the native plants of Normandy were nestled between stone and metal sculptures depicting the soldiers 75 years ago and today, as a band sang a selection of traditional war songs. It was a very beautiful and moving interlude, looking on at these brave, brave men, imagining what they went through.
In a similar vein, we were treated to the sight of three female Chelsea Pensioners (of the 13 at the hospital) in their finest red finery, being presented with posies at the Real Flower Company stand. All Pensioners, male or female, have both served in the army and are single or now widowed. As the glamorous lady in the photo was presented with her flowers, she turned to me, smiled and said, “always a bridemaid, never a bride”. My hay fever immediately struck up once more.
There were a couple of other highlights for me. Seeing the charity Perennial’s garden in the Great Pavilion was a real delight, as was chatting to their team. Perennial supports horticulturists, past and present, who have come into difficulties of one kind or another and given the combination of generally low pay, physical challenges as people age and passion for the job frequently overriding a desire to hone business skills, it’s something I’m a very strong supporter of. I volunteered with the team a couple of years ago and it was fabulous to reconnect in such surroundings.
Alongside the hugely enthusiastic (and tonally wonderful) gospel choir in Chris Beardshaw’s beautifully balanced garden my final moment of delight I’d like to share is one with Dame Judi Dench. I’ve always been quite anti the celebrity side of Chelsea. Somehow I thought I was above all that, going for the flowers, not the TV stars. But I’ve lightened up a bit this year and realised it is actually all part of Chelsea. Dame Judi was presented with an elm sapling that has been developed by Hillier Nursery to fully resist Dutch Elm disease and her passion for trees diffused across us all as she instinctively leant in to smell the bark. What a lady. What a show.