Will the erratic British weather upset even the expert exhibitors at Chelsea? First, they had the extraordinary heat and drought in March and early April. It has not been easy to time the chilling and de-chilling of all the flowering bulbs we expect to admire out of season, especially the tulips and narcissi. Then the drought ended with malicious enthusiasm. The exhibitors of outdoor gardens prefer a wet preliminary to a hot, dry one, but wet on this year’s scale is not easy. Heavy materials are carted in and turn the grass verges to mud. Persistent rain helps the transplanted shrubs but it knocks the petals off any fruit trees brought in for the week and it ruins the flowers on roses and romantic peonies.
BBC TV is putting on no less than 11 hours of show viewing from Tuesday to Saturday, compensating the many of you who have failed to buy a ticket. Tickets are capped nowadays at 157,000 but they are almost all long gone. Those with Saturday tickets can join the orgy of optimistic shopping when most of the exhibits are put up for sale at 4pm. The rest of us will have to watch Titchmarsh and Co shopping on TV on our behalf.
Chelsea has become a magnet for financial sponsors and high rollers. The show is the 99th in the grounds of the Royal Hospital and is sponsored again this year by M&G Investments, which is also financing a prominent outdoor garden. Some of my financial readers will be in at the beginning, at the Monday Gala evening when tickets have been sold to them for an exclusive preview. If you are not using the occasion to discuss distressed debt or the chances of buying up Greece as a job lot, what should you and your invited partner be sure to see? I prefer the flowery exhibits in what is euphemistically now called the Great Pavilion but, unless the rain is tipping down, the outdoor gardens will be a central fascination too. I have not seen any yet, of course, but there are exhibits that promise fantasy and ambition.
I can believe almost anything of Ireland’s great-hearted gift to garden programmes, Diarmuid Gavin, except that he himself is an expert gardener. I had not believed until now that he would be fronting a seven-storeyed garden outdoors at Chelsea, claiming to be a “modern-day version of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon”. The nature and even the existence of these Babylonian gardens has become a topic of heated scholarly argument, but Diarmuid’s Westland Magical Tower Garden will fill the gap for anyone who has begun to wonder if the gardens were ever in Babylon at all. As a firm believer that they were, I will be sceptical instead about this new seven-storey venture, the sixth level of which is billed as “Bohemia at its best, a place to really chill with colourful hammocks”.
Two long anniversaries have led to exhibits worth checking out. Investment manager Brewin Dolphin is celebrating its 250th anniversary by putting on an ambitious garden of topiary. The designer Cleve West is no stranger to recent Chelsea gold medals and has been given one of the few briefs that will not be too distressed by rain. His backbone of clipped yew and beech ought to rise above it. Celebration is the very essence of Laurent Perrier champagne and this year marks its bicentenary with “handcrafted works of art by renowned British sculptors”, which are usually a risk; topiary, which is safe enough; and water features with an “antique” pear tree. The garden will draw visitors because of its designer Arne Maynard, who won a best in show award in 2000 and has not been seen at Chelsea since.
M&G is paying for an “Arts and Crafts-inspired garden” and I wait to see what the designer Andy Sturgeon has chosen to represent as the “movement’s fundamental design principles”. Attempts by garden historians to class the great garden at Hidcote as an “arts and crafts garden” are grossly misleading, but it looks as if M&G has not been misled. It is showing a “dynamic energy-wave sculpture, crafted from hammer-finished copper rings and spilling across borders and pathways throughout”. Thank heavens it will never spill across my garden at home.
I will be intrigued to see work by Sarah Price, at Chelsea for the Daily Telegraph. She is the co-designer of the London Gardens at this year’s Olympics and she does not sound as though she is ever into dynamic copper rings. Her big Chelsea design draws on impressions of the British countryside, from Dartmoor to wet Wales. Stepping stones lead across a waterway, not exactly for the first time, but she is admired as someone who can catch the tone of a traditional garden without being too predictable. I hope for sunlight in which to size up her talent.
If it rains I will derive even greater pleasure from the show’s crowning irony. Three national water companies, including Thames Water, have paid for a Climate Calm Garden whose aim is to reflect the “cracks in the earth produced by prolonged dry weather”. I am saving the pleasure of this one until the post-lunch low point. Naturally it is also billed as a “haven for wildlife with a minimal carbon footprint”. I have even heard my badgers chuckling.
Inside the Pavilion the old roses will surely be magnificent from David Austin and Peter Beales, who have mastered the art of showing them in profusion. I will be keen to see a new evergreen Choisya, publicised by Hilliers whose last such introduction, Choisya Aztec Pearl, is at its best this very weekend in my garden. The Plant Heritage exhibit in honour of Harry Veitch, a plantfinder and nurseryman in Victorian and early Edwardian England, sounds highly promising, a display of plants which he and his collectors introduced. Newcomers to Chelsea will include Binny Plants’ display of new peonies, the family that has been transformed for gardeners by renewed access to China. From Cornwall Trewidden Nurseries are coming with evergreens and succulents that are too tender for most of us but will include two newly bred aeoniums, never shown before.
As ever I will hunt for the specialist hardy plant societies’ exhibits, usually the most innovative in the Pavilion. I am not so sure about the Best of Birmingham, an exhibit “encompassing everything that is iconic about Birmingham from its well-known city landmarks”. Local council-tax payers may wonder whether the cost is justified in their current “austere” age. Nobody, however, will be questioning the show’s most iconic exhibit, the Queen herself. For decades her visit on the Monday afternoon has enhanced the sense that of all the world’s shows Chelsea is the special one. The RHS is not a royal society for nothing and her jubilee presence is only the latest of so many visits which have crystallised the efforts of exhibitors over the years. She needs no gold medal but everyone who knows the show knows that she more than deserves one.