The Chelsea exhibitors should be proud of themselves. The hot weather has made their lives a nightmare but the Floral Pavilion is showing no signs of stress. I have found more to appreciate than at any Chelsea since the Royal Horticultural Society abandoned their traditional tenting 10 years ago. Smaller nurseries from the north of Britain have brought back the old diversity of interest. Specialised stands are showing so many favourites, from excellent gladioli to superb orchids in the 60th year of the British Orchid Society. It is a first-class year.
I stood in front of the show’s finest tulips and marvelled that mine had all dropped dead in the sun six weeks ago. How ever do you do it, I asked the Chelsea expert Chris Blom, in his mid-forties and wearing the sort of calf-length trousers that only a true professional would bring to the Chelsea show. “We picked them on March 28,” he amazed me, “on our north Hertfordshire slope in a high wind. Then we dumped them in the cooler at 1C until last Saturday.” The skill is to give the flowers water for no more than eight hours each day in the intervening weeks and then to bring them gradually back to normality. “My father taught me the art,” Blom said, “and we have won 60 gold medals.” Ronald Blom, 75, was sizing up the big stand, so I asked him if he could have done it any better. “No,” was his crisp reply, and he left me to admire the late white tulip Maureen and a bowl of my old favourite, pink Clara Butt, now a collector’s item at £1 a bulb.
Outdoors I give no prizes to the vast, all-green Irish Garden in the Sky, except to hope that heaven looks nothing like it. The best two were from Australia and from the show’s sponsors, M&G Investments. Sponsors have never hit the heights outdoors but this time the designer Bunny Guinness had cleverly varied the height on the flat corner plot and used excellent old potted trees and flowering pots with short lengths of pleached trees to break the levels. I would have banned the granite-grey surround of her circular central pool but I admire her use of space and finding of such huge pots and established trees for a week’s display.
The Royal Botanic Gardens of Melbourne have built an Australian design which repays more than a first, puzzled look. The stark white patterns on sand in the foreground look at first like kangaroo prints but turn out to be salt patterns to evoke the salt pans in which, apparently, the Australian landscape is still rich. A curling blue sort of pool in a raised metal surround also makes no sense until the designers explain that it represents a natural river. The far corner of the exhibit evokes a natural gorge with cycads and throughout the garden, the planting is unusual to British eyes. Yellow-flowered Kangaroo Paw keeps company with good silver-leaved choices beneath big grevilleas and a blue-stemmed Eucalyptus pauciflora. I would never have recognised at least a third of the native Australian planting without the accompanying guide.
The bigger trees and shrubs had been flown in from nurseries in Sicily and Spain and deposited with Crocus.com and Kelways Nursery just in time for our bitter winter. Some fine tall Banksias had not survived. So I asked what was the point of all this vast expense. To show Australian flora and landscape, a participating botanist told me, and to help tourism to Australia. I liked the exhibit after looking at it more carefully but I bet not one single tourist decides to leave Chelsea for a holiday in Australia on the strength of this pastiche.
Indoors there are several notable gardens and smaller landscapes. My personal gold award goes to the superb display of mountain flowers by Kevock Garden Plants of Midlothian. They are showing both scarlet meconopsis poppies and the late-flowering blue Meconopsis Huntfield. Their small Asiatic primulas are excellent, including the rare black-flowered Primula euprepes with white stems. I was stopped in my tracks by two wild yellow calceolarias, both raised from collected seed. I have never seen the lilac-mauve Campanula moesiaca and I have certainly never seen the hybrid Jancaemonda flowering in rocks like its parents, the ramondas.
It is Kevock’s first time at Chelsea: why had they come so far south? The reason gives me fresh heart. The nursery is run by a husband and wife team, David and Stella Rankin. This year David retired from his main job, a professorship of chemistry at Edinburgh University. As academic pensioners the Rankins decided to dazzle us and I only hope they return next year, giving similar talents the nerve to try the big arena.
The big alpine exhibit of the Alpine Garden Society could draw on even more sources and gardens. As a result it ran the Rankins very close. The society is always clever at varying the style of each side of its stand, from sun-loving limestone flora to cool woodland beauties. I admired the pink-lipped cypripediums and the well-grown Primula capitata and thought the stand as good as any in their distinguished Chelsea history. Alpine nursery D’Arcy & Everest rounded off a great year for small plants by showing a cold alpine greenhouse and an excellently planted array of troughs, an inspiration for all keen town-bound gardeners. This year’s show will have kept every alpine specialist happy.
If you are such a specialist and despise big gladioli and begonias you should go and see the far side of the pavilion. Pheasant Acre nursery is showing some excellent bowls of big, unabashed gladioli in colours I want, especially a white Bangladesh and a superb strong yellow Vedetta. Who ever said that gladioli were funereal? In front of their famous delphiniums Blackmore & Langdon have lined out big-flowered begonias, their other speciality. They look a bit odd together but the pale pink flush on their Begonia Pink Champagne made me crave it for window boxes next year.
The virtuoso exhibit of the year is the long arch of clematis, woven and shown by Raymond Evison of Guernsey. Chelsea is familiar with arches of climbing roses, shown especially well by Peter Beales Nurseries. Fragile clematis in full flower are another matter and although the colours are mostly lilac-blues, pinks and whites, this display of Evison’s own-bred clematis is astonishing. There is more to life on an arch than an over-vigorous Clematis montana.
Recently I have felt that one review-article covers the best that Chelsea offers. In the early 1990s there was far more but this year I am left with as much still to explore as in those special years. More nurseries have been encouraged to come forward and even the Caribbean exhibits have shed their frequent feel of driftwood and dried flowers. I am so pleased that sponsors have been allowed to help some of the middling nurseries to plan far bigger and better stands. I expected this freak spring to have limited most of the exhibits. Put the tulips in the fridge and you too can smile at whatever Mother Nature throws at you.