21 May 2015

The rain of weightless happiness - Press Day at RHS Chelsea flower show

If you're at all interested in gardening, you can't have failed to see coverage of this year's Chelsea Flower Show in all the media. I expect many readers will be almost as familiar with the gardens as those that were lucky enough to be there in person.  I was one of those fortunate folk on Press Day, the Monday before the show opens its gates to RHS members and the public.

It was raining; did I care? Not a bit, the persistent rain really did have a silver lining.  This time, it kept the crowds at bay (or at least in the Great Pavilion) giving unfettered views of the gardens to those in stout shoes and waterproof coats, including me.  And, actually, the rain presented a softer light for taking photographs than hot sunshine (although my hands wouldn't have been so cold in the sun!).

It's impossible to be restrained surrounded by acres of inspirations so I took nearly 300 photographs. I've been going through those over the past couple of days and can see how similar the plant choices were in the show gardens. Dan Pearson's garden for M+G was the beautiful naturalistic exception to this with some unusual plant choices. His design drew inspiration from the rockery and trout stream of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, the stately home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, and included Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata), Primula japonica, Gunnera, Hesperis matronalis (Sweet Rocket), Martagon lilies and salsify (Tragopogon crucifolius). There were huge willow trees planted near giant boulders which had been transported from Chatsworth to Chelsea for the show - and which will be returned at the end of the week. His garden filled the triangle at the southern end of the site; a difficult spot to design for and yet Dan's garden looked as though it had been there for years. Less manicured, more natural; I loved it.


As someone who loves tramping the wilder parts of Hampstead Heath, and lived for a short while close to the Yorkshire Moors, this garden makes my heart sing and very deservedly won both a gold medal and Best in Show. I overheard a journalist asking Dan for a quote about the garden; he smiled gently and said "I'm very happy with it."  An understated response, surely.

Dan was happy to chat to anyone who approached, whether it was about the garden or dishing out advice about plants. When it was my turn for a chat I asked what he'd enjoyed most about being back at Chelsea. His response was to give credit to the whole of the Crocus team, adding how likeable they all are which made the build process very enjoyable. Nice. Good choice of coffee cup too, holding another warming brew.



From then on, I was on a bit of a roll.  Having been armed with a hi-vis jacket declaring me to be 'RHS Press', I wandered around chatting to the designers and taking their photos. (Yes, I did give the jacket back afterwards.)

The show gardens lived up to, and occasionally exceeded, expectations - but there's been ample coverage of those. Here are a few of my personal favourites:

Top: A Time Inbetween - designer Charlie Albone uses this space as an allegory of his life and feelings since his father died; Sean Murray of the Great Chelsea Garden Challenge uses Ajuga reptans, saxifrage and violas to green up a driveway
Middle: Andrew Wilson's Living Legacy garden commemorates the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo;
The Beauty of Islam garden - the minimal cool green planting in the simulated courtyard really appealed to me.
Bottom: A Perfumer's Garden in Grasse (James Basson) was a space I would dearly love to spend time in;
The Retreat - Jo Thompson's beautiful planting surrounded a natural pond with synchronised swimmers on the day.

An area that I thought was hugely improved from last year was the Fresh section.  These small conceptual gardens aim to convey a message and, in the past, haven't really done it for me but, excitingly, this year managed to be entertaining, interesting and beautiful as well. This Japanese garden attracted my attention,; there's a lot going on in a very small space: moss balls, water, pebbles and wonderful planting combined with a clean Japanese aesthetic.  The waterfall cascaded through a circle in the perspex roof.  Dramatic. I also now really want to know how to make moss balls.


'Beyond our Borders', another Fresh garden, gave food for thought with a very quirky representation of the way plant diseases can spread across continents - and illustrated the whole point of plant passports. Initially I wondered about those rainbow slinkies but it all made perfect sense once the concept of the garden - and the important message behind it - was explained.



And I was mesmerised by this garden. The artist was completely still as he carefully positioned one stone atop another in an unbelievably improbable balancing act.  I tried to video him but his movements were so slight and precise that it looked like a very long still photo. I took the liberty of asking how had he come to this chosen career?  The balancer had spent years balancing small pebbles on the beach before working up to the big stuff.  So there you have it: time spent loafing on the beach is merely preparation for greater things to come. Who'da thought it?



The show offers so much for each individual visitor, whether looking for design inspiration, advice on flowers and shrubs from the nurserymen, or just a jolly good day out, but I can't leave without a backwards glance at what, for me, is the highlight of the show ... the flowers.  Although the growers can work magic in bringing together a palette of plants that would otherwise be in bloom before or after Chelsea week, I'm always fascinated to see how these plants are used. It's breathtaking and beautiful.  So I regretfully turn my back on Chelsea until next year with a reminder of a few of my favourites ...

Aquilegia; orange Verbascum, Lysimachia, bronze fennel, Astrantia; Eremurus with Orlaya grandiflora.
Digitalis (foxglove), Geranium, pink Verbascum with Camassia leichtlinii.
Nectaroscordum allium , purple Aquilegia with lupins, flag Iris with ferns and Primula japonica.






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