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May 28, 2010 4:26 pm

Chelsea Flower Show

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Searing heat, celebrity sightings and naked public relations at this year’s event: the FT's gardening columnist picks his winners and losers
 
Model wears a dress made from roses

A model wears a dress made from roses in the M&G Investments garden

Chelsea Flower Show has never been hotter. I pity the plants, the valiant exhibitors but not, on Monday’s Press day, the few hundred of us who were allowed to see the show before even the Queen could go round it. I have enjoyed this privilege for 40 consecutive years but on Monday it took on a new dimension. As the sun hit impossible heights the rhododendrons wilted inside the floral pavilion and in the light outside I thought I had caught sunstroke. There, in the best of the big outdoor gardens, a young lady had been paid to wear nothing but roses, woven into a dress-cage made of nothing but garden netting.

She sums up the new Chelsea: a mix of naked public relations and planting skills which leave us wondering what is underneath. She also reminded me of an absent responsibility. My Chelsea Mondays overlap with quite a different trial for which I have been preparing my nursery-stock for more than two years. Back at Oxford University, Chelsea Monday is the day when my highly trained pupils in ancient history begin to sit the toughest of all final exams. While they battle for three hours with questions about a debt crisis in classical Greece, I toast their absence in champagne and idly admire the best of the orchids. Dress designer Vashti Cassinelli assures me she would be happy to wire up a dozen such rose dresses for anyone with the boldness to wear them. Perhaps she should deck out my male pupils when they finish their exams next week. By then the college’s climbing roses could supply the flowers but I wonder what happens when the rose petals fall during a long evening.

Despite this dress, the show’s sponsor, M&G Investments, has put on the outdoor garden, which is the best of the big competitors. Their design is indeed “traditional English” and I admire the way in which their designer, Roger Platt, has run a path of varied materials at an angle through the difficult corner site. My criticism applies to all the gardens on the smart side of the main avenue. They go for flowers in stale colours or muted green. Designer Tom Stuart Smith and sponsors Laurent Perrier left me with an impression of green balls, caused by their big lumps of green box. The Naturally Norway team had to brighten up natural Norway by setting a few blue Himalayan Poppies in a waving sea of eco-grass and drab maroon aquilegias. By mid-Monday the poppies were already losing their petals. Only the glistening temperate greens of the Tourism Malaysia garden could carry a big design without friendly flower-colour. I rather liked it.

 
Poppies and lavender in the L'Occitane garden

Poppies and lavender in the L’Occitane garden

We all love a bright mix of flowers in high summer. The designers’ flight into dull Euro-purple is a reason why their big outdoor set-pieces make no mark on my own gardening or my ambitions. There is so much more to life outdoors in summer than predictable purple cirsium and a clutter of trendy green grasses. Opposite the big gardens, newcomers Jonathan Denby and Philippa Pearson have at least not been shy of bright irises, geums and so forth. Their two flowery beds are the best bit of their design, whereas the gilded aviary behind it is a pastiche of one in the Rothschild family’s keeping. Up the row, on the same side of the path, I most like the time-themed garden for L’Occitane. The ancient olive-tree is charming and the design runs pleasantly up some pretty steps. I did not untangle the PR behind it. I simply liked the look of it.

After two hours of hard viewing it was time for me to have the yearly lunch with the Royal Horticultural Society’s president. The bunfight grows yearly and this time there must have been 200 of us sitting down among a flurry of waitresses and inexhaustible bottles of wine. It is all very kind of the RHS but every one of the society’s officials on my table agreed that we feel uneasy at eating the other members’ subscriptions in this way. While we went on eating them, what really animated the conversation was not any of the big gardens outside. It was the divisive question of which is now the best yellow-flowered magnolia. The winner was Magnolia Daphne, with universal agreement that Magnolia Butterflies is the most undesirable. I am one of those who planted a Butterflies eight years ago but it has been left behind by Daphne and Yellow Bird. Neither of them is on show at Chelsea.

There was also agreement that the public gets the Chelsea it deserves. My neighbour threw an interesting light on what this truism means. Monday, he told me, might seem like a rare chance to see great plants at their best but in fact it is a chance to spot celebrities. He was a member of the inner sanctum, the Ornamental Shows Committee, but he really meant it. He showed me his list of the top sights of the morning’s viewing but there were no Asiatic lilies or Japanese orchids to be seen. His list began with a judge from The X Factor and continued through two minor TV wine-tasters to Brendan Foster, yesterday’s long distance runner.

I worked off the shock and the president’s wine with a brief tour of the stands of statuary and related garden clutter. Ironwork tempts me more than wire, let alone wire-models of birds or children. If you do not have a competent local blacksmith the good news here is that Fine Iron is able to do classic porches and verandas in a desirable style. Statuary is much more dodgy. I ended up finding Triton UK and then only because its reconstituted stone and cement version of a kneeling Venus made me curious as to why it looked so odd. Labelled at £1,815, it is cast “after the original” of the Bather of Allegrain, actually Mme du Barry, the mistress of Louis XV. Triton casts these reconstituted pieces in Somerset, limiting each design to only 12 copies a year. I liked the cement-faced pillars of the temple in which their bather stood. I particularly liked the explanation that her “small head, delicate features and slender waist are characteristic of the French ideal”. A punter had bought her even before I saw her.

The really serious viewing of the show begins in the main floral pavilion. Its interior’s effect is so much better now that there is only one pavilion, not two. I never go inside without a wistful prayer for the traditional white tent which was dropped in part because it was thought to be too hot for the exhibits. There were plenty of exhibits wilting in the heat this year in the tall grey-backed pavilion.

Inside it I much admire the cleverly designed small gardens which theme anything from a golden wedding to an upwardly mobile couple. They are far more appealing than the big gardens outdoors but their exhibitors have not spent more than £5,000 on each and in several cases less than £1,000 on the plants. The upwardly mobile garden is modelled on a Suffolk vernacular cottage and even shows specimens of the fine white-flowered Cornus Venus. Wittily they are shown in pots which can be taken by the owners when they trade up the property ladder. Never underestimate the cunning of a yuppie. These ones have chosen the pink lacecap hydrangea Twist and Shout which flowers very early and repeats through the season. I have never seen it before.

The specialist nurseries’ stands are the essence of Chelsea and their skills nourish my column from year to year. My 2010 medals go mostly to exhibits in the further part of the pavilion. The flowering bulbs are magnificent, helped by a spring with so many cold nights, and the clearest colours are on the superb narcissi shown by Walkers, members of the Taylor group in Lincolnshire. The orchids are wonderful, too, especially the superb Miltonias from the Eric Young Foundation on Jersey and a vivid exhibit of wild orchids from Japan. It is particularly good to see special dahlias from the national collection held by Winchester Growers near Penzance, though they claim to have arranged them round a “roadside Mexican restaurant.” From Guernsey, Raymond Evison’s big stand of clematis is outstanding but a certain vibrancy and stripey beauty is disappearing from the latest hybrids in the search for obedient perfection.

The show is a finely balanced act, even in the pavilion. I cannot say that the shows of alpines, sweet peas, lupins, auriculas, alstroemerias or mature shrubs are up to the level of the early to mid-1990s, a golden age. The RHS risks losing the levels then attained by small growers. I remain convinced that the answer is for the society to back such exhibitors with special commissions long before the show opens. They need firm funding if they are to return with their full expertise.

I discussed the problem with Charles Williams, director of the veteran shrub medal-winners Burncoose Nurseries. He is frank about his backing. He has been getting it for eight years from the private equity group Terra Firma because he has a personal link with its supremo, Guy Hands . The two of them were at Oxford together and the RHS needs to take note. Those exam papers are not irrelevant to Chelsea’s quality but support for the best small nurseries cannot be left to an old boy network.

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