My day at Chelsea

Monday, 17 June 2013

The ethereal blue poppy at the Chelsea Flower Show

Many, many years ago, a kindly friend of my parents gave me a copy of The Garden, the monthly magazine of the British Royal Horticultural Society. I had never heard of this august organisation before, and as a fairly novice gardener, the magazine opened my eyes to a world I could never have imagined. I joined the Society and have been a member ever since. Though much of the content of the magazines over the years I now realise is not that applicable to a Sydney gardener, I have learned much about gardening, garden design, garden history and a wealth of plants - and the possibilities of garden writing beyond the pedestrian articles of how to prune the roses. I received seeds from the Society's seed exchange for a number of years, and some of the plants that resulted from those seeds still grow in my garden.

Through the magazine, I learned of the Chelsea Flower Show, run by the Society in London every year, and one of my lifelong ambitions has been to attend. Many friends have been and raved about it and I have watched videos of how it all happens. But as the years went past, I never had a chance to attend it - with work and family commitments, it was all too hard. However, it remained my dream and so it finally happened that on Tuesday 21 May this year, rugged up against the bleak and cold weather, my husband and I were standing in the queue outside the 100th Chelsea Flower Show! The atmosphere in London in the days before the show opened had been exciting in itself, with the event making front-page news in the papers, featuring on television every night, and spawning a number of fringe events. The show was the cover story for the May issue of the Where London tourist guide and I felt so thrilled to feel we were actually part of it all!

Some of the team behind the winning Trailfinders Australian Garden, designed by Phillip Johnson, at front

When we were allowed through the gates at 8 am, we had no idea where to start, so we wandered aimlessly down one of the roads, suddenly finding ourselves in front of the Trailfinders Australian Garden, designed by Phillip Johnson and sponsored by Flemings Nurseries. We had seen the garden profiled in the papers and on television in the lead-up to the show, and it was hard to miss, with its bold, metal waratah-like structure as its focus. Just as we arrived at the garden, the team received the news that their garden had won not only a gold medal but had been judged as 'Best Show Garden' - something no Australian exhibit had ever received before at Chelsea. Their spontaneous outburst of excitement (including one of them leaping into the freezing-cold billabong in the garden) was a delight to behold, and we felt totally caught up in the euphoria of the moment.

The giant waratah studio in the Australian show garden

A naturalistic, sustainable 'bush' garden within an urban setting, using hundreds of tonnes of rock and structural Australian plants such as the Queensland bottle tree, grass trees and tree ferns, highlighted by the huge waratah studio, and given colour by a ribbon of massed native flowers along its front edge, its elements felt familiar to us but it was a total contrast to most of the other 14 Chelsea show gardens. Many of them were formally designed, with those ethereal plants that flourish so well in the English climate, and which I had hankered after for years. A number of them were focused around the theme of change or a journey; some had an almost abstract look. The sheer feat of creating a show gardens from scratch in a very short time to give the effect of being permanent and long-established, is just mind-boggling, and I enjoyed each and every one of them. The perfection of every leaf and flower was just incredible. The trees looked as if they had been growing there for years!

The Homebase Garden

Some stood out for me more than others, and I particularly liked the Homebase Garden - a modern family garden designed 'to provide a small family with a space to enjoy an everyday connection with their food and nature'. Its goals included providing a space for children to be in touch with the natural world and to encourage wildlife. It was amazing how much was able to be packed into one small area, including a number of vegetables and a beehive!

The Arthritis Research UK Garden

The Arthritis Research UK Garden was also a favourite of mine (and indeed won the 'People's Choice' award) and was intended to reflect the personal journey and emotions of someone with arthritis, in a space divided into three areas, beginning with a shaded woodland garden, a formal area with a pool and then a section with stunning perennial borders of brilliant colours. It used sculptures in a most effective way. As well as the main show gardens, there were smaller displays known as the 'Artisan Gardens' where an artistic use of materials is required, and 'Fresh Gardens', where designers must 'think outside the box'. These were all fascinating in what they achieved in compact spaces.

Display of Auricula from W & S Lockyer in the Great Pavilion

Inside the Great Pavilion - a huge marquee in the centre of the site - a dizzying number of nurseries, gardening societies and other organisations displayed magnificent flowers of every type that one could ever dream of. A couple of the nurseries have been exhibiting since the very first Chelsea Flower Show in 1913. Though most (but not all) of the flowers were ones I had failed with in my humble garden on the other side of the world, this was of no consequence: the enjoyment was in simply succumbing to the beauty and colour of the blooms, and being in gobsmacked awe at the standard of the displays, their inventiveness and the flawlessness of the plants. It was a celebration of quintessential British gardening, and felt like a floral banquet, almost overwhelming in its scope. It was wonderful to be able to just admire without the need to feel I had to grow them in my own garden, and in the end I was very glad I had come to the show at this point in my gardening life - had it been 20 years earlier, I would have been in agony at not being able to order anything and everything on display.

Badger sculptures at the Chelsea Flower Show

Despite being at the show for eight hours, I don't think we saw everything. As well as the gardens and flower displays, there were myriad stalls selling garden-related items - ranging from elegant conservatories to birdbaths and sculptures to posh gardening clothes. Some of these things were truly exquisite but we could only look, given our baggage restrictions for the flight home! But we enjoyed every minute of our day at Chelsea. I hope that every gardener who has never been will have the opportunity to attend this event one day.