I like a garden show. I grew up being taken to Shrewsbury Flower Show - dragged probably in the early years. Now I go to them out of choice (and drag my children along)
Over the last several years we have been regular visitors to the RHS shows at Malvern and to Gardener's World at the NEC with a single visit to Tatton in the rain somewhere in the mix. These are all lovely shows and I had not had the opportunity to visit Chelsea until given a ticket for it as a Christmas present. My first visit therefore, courtesy of this generous gift was in 2010. . I had seen coverage on television of previous years and so the geography of the show ground felt familiar - although of course tele always plays with that geography like they do in films. It was genuinely exciting to enter the gates and turn into the famous Main Avenue. I was pretty blown away - there were some very impressive show gardens that year by Andy Sturgeon, Tom Stuart Smith, Roger Platts and Robert Myers. And I couldn't really believe my eyes and nose on entering the vast Grand Pavilion - a wonderland of colour and scent - improbable combinations, impossible perfection.
It was fun too with a relaxed atmosphere which I hadn't been expecting. It being the Saturday there was thankfully no desperate parade of celebrities - those attending by and large felt more like an interested gardening crowd.
Anyway I loved it much more than I thought I would but didn't get to return until this year - once again courtesy of a gift for my partner and I. (We told the children that kids aren't allowed at Chelsea - which is almost true)
Again the show gardens
were impressive but perhaps not as stand out as they had been on my first visit. I think there was a possibly greater variety amongst them and more colour. (There were still a lot of trimmed buxom domes). I think the judges got the medals about right although its hard to see from the outside what stopped Jo Thompson's retreat garden getting a gold. I thought the planting was lovely from the outside - perhaps you needed to be on the garden to see its flaws.
The Retreat (1)
The Retreat (2)
Dan Pearson's recreation of Chatsworth was pretty extraordinary with some amazingly detailed planting right down to the edges where the garden met the tarmac. It provided eye catching views through its stones and its planting on the triangular plot. More of a film set than a garden perhaps but a beautiful and thoughtful one. Behind Pearson;s garden was the Brewin Dolphin garden - a bold design made up of monolithic geometric slate platforms and sculptural elements softened with some very beautiful naturalistic woodland/hedegrow planting and gently flowing water and some lovely actual living elm trees.
Brewin Dolphin Garden
I warmed to the Telegraph garden on a second viewing - for me it was better viewed end on rather than from the side. Chris Beardshaw's garden had some beautiful plants and planting combinations. James Basson's Provence perfumer's garden was for me the most atmospheric of all the large show gardens with its very careful recreation of a re-emerging from having gone to seed a little after a period of neglect. Among the fresh gardens are favourite was the Pure Land Foundation garden with its sinuous and sensuous white walls which seemed to have oozed out of the ground like white volcanic matter and set into beautiful curves. The plants were lovely too with the very pretty Iris germanica 'Kent Prode'. It reminded us of Cesar Manrique's gardens in Lanzarote. The design and planting of the Breakthrough Breast Cancer Garden by Ruth Wilmott was also attractive and worthy of a good look from all sides.
Pure Land Foundation Garden
It was another wonderful visit - a kind of magical world out of time and place where people come together to create and to share beautiful things. The attention to detail throughout is almost unbelievable from the greenhouse trade stands accompanied by beautiful planting combinations to the cladding on the sides of a restaurant access ramp or the hanging floral display from the ceiling of a walkway. Some of the other shows are very very beautiful too but they can be a bit rough around the edges (which is fine) but at Chelsea the edges have been thought about; thy have been manicured or masked or made eye-catching.
The sheer endeavour of all involved is quite moving - from small growers like Craig House Cacti who operate out of rented glasshouses but consistently win golds to Walkers Bulbs able to present hundreds of absolutely perfect daffodil blooms in May to the builders and planters of a colossal piece of Chatsworth. All in a park in London for a few days in May.
And after the sell off the show spills out of that park and onto the streets and trains and busses as its plants and its people, their ideas, their plans and their memories spread out across the country.