100 and still growing

Image of Robin Lane Fox

The Chelsea Flower Show will be casting its usual spell next week, beginning with the Monday preview. At its Gala evening the financial classes will be networking over drinks among the peonies and roses while contributing to the RHS’s charitable purposes. The press will already have had their preview and then the show will be open to ticket holders until Saturday, culminating in Saturday’s sell-off of many of the exhibits at 4pm. 2013 is a special year as it marks the centenary of the show’s existence, still in the grounds of Chelsea’s Royal Hospital. It is also my personal demi-centenary, my 50th year of visiting since an incredulous Eton College gave me a chaperoned day off in 1963 to see the flowers which were then, as now, the non-negotiable loves of my life.

Nothing stands still, not even flower gardening. In 1913 the very pinnacle of the outdoor gardens was a rock garden, made from imported Yorkshire rock. It was the only garden to win a gold medal. The designer, James Wood of Boston Spa, Yorkshire, was an admirer of the natural stratification of Yorkshire limestone and arranged his stones to show it off. I still give him a gold medal for his exploitation of his success. In London magazines he showed his prizewinning garden in colour and captioned it: “A visit by Mr Wood may save endless expense and disappointment.” Nowadays that sort of pitch would come from a financial adviser on the Monday gala night, not from a rock gardener on the show’s Main Bank.

If only we could have taken 80-year call options on the price of the entry tickets. In 1931 a ticket for the last part of the show’s final day cost 2/6d. This year it costs £55. With a 440-fold increase over 82 years, the RHS Chelsea index has far outperformed any benchmark based on the FTSE 100, or the 150-year fall in the value of the pound as calculated in recent FT letter-columns. At present the show is sponsored by M&G Investments, who are themselves exhibiting a major outdoor garden. Its audience has been transformed by the continuing deal with BBC TV. Eleven hours of coverage will bring it to our armchairs if we are not among the 161,000 holders of an admission ticket. Sensibly, the number of tickets sold is now capped at this figure, easing the oppressive crowds of past years. The way to see the show worldwide is through one of the BBC’s evening round-ups or its lively coverage of the final day.

On press Monday, but not later, there will be the usual scattering of tan-stained young female models, promoting anything from climbing roses to Caribbean flowers. In the 1950s, Winkfield Manor Nurseries first deployed curvy girls in swimsuits to raise interest in their exhibit. The assistant secretary of the RHS is said to have had the girls ejected under the show’s “no livestock” rule. I much enjoy this Chelsea legend, so true to the show’s strict governance, even if the owner of the nurseries continued to deny it 30 years later.

Fifty years ago I marvelled at the huge double-flowered begonias on the stand of Blackmore and Langdon and at the fabulous irises shown by Kelways. Both firms were among the exhibitors in 1913 and, after several crises and changes of owner, they are still showing huge begonias and wonderful irises in 2013. About 150 other exhibitors will be joining them in the main pavilion, showing anything from passion flowers to fine strawberries. I will be looking for a fascinating display of old and new rhododendrons by Millais Nurseries of Farnham, Surrey, which has picked out hybrids from the show’s early years and contrasted them with the smaller rhododendrons which are more use to gardens nowadays. Pennard Plants from Somerset are promising us two types of vegetable garden, one from 1913 (complete with a head gardener’s office) and one from 2013 that crams all we need, except a head gardener, into a small modern space. Wonderfully McBean’s Orchids from Lewes, East Sussex, are still showing superb orchids, as they have done every year since 1913. They are showing them in a terraced display, very much the style of 100 years ago. Among the all-important plants, I will be keen to see the Albrighton Rambler, a rambling rose that has been bred to flower twice in a good shade of pale pink. It is promised by David Austin Roses, whose stand is an essential early visit. I will hunt out the high standards of the Alpine Garden Society’s exhibit too, and the intriguing display by the Hardy Plant Society of plants that were popular in gardens in 1913. The stands of the specialist societies are always ones for keen gardeners to enjoy.

I will observe a minute’s silence for the show’s former big tent, now sadly replaced by the lilac-mauve interior of the pavilions. Its removal spoiled the charm of the show. I will then go outdoors. There will be no fewer than 15 Show Gardens, beside the good smaller categories of Artisan and Fresh Gardens elsewhere on the site. Will any of them attract as much interest as some of the great gardens of the past? The most stunning was the garden of Mrs Sherman Hoyt in 1929. She was the force behind the California Conservation Committee of the Garden Club of America. She put on a show of Californian desert flora, backed by a painted backdrop of California’s desert and enlivened by two coyotes picking over a mule’s skeleton. She won the prize for Best Exhibit and was made an honorary fellow of the RHS.

What endures from all the “design” and contorted “concepts” behind the garden layouts nowadays? In 1959 the Times newspaper backed a Garden of Tomorrow, which truly caught the public interest. It showed radio-controlled lawnmowers, mist propagation, automatic blinds for shading and, above all, plastic pots and even black plastic containers for nursery plants. It was genuinely far-sighted. More than any “modern” garden since, it anticipated changes that have transformed gardening and its trades.

Once again, the famous medal-winning designers will be out in force. Chris Beardshaw has been given the brief to recreate the journey of an arthritis-sufferer, a tall order. Ulf Nordfjell from Sweden has the backing of Laurent-Perrier for a garden “shadowing themes of iconic French and Swedish gardens”, hardly much easier. Apparently, a “bronze Orpheus statue will give the garden an enigmatic atmosphere”. I will certainly be looking with interest at M&G’s own Centenary garden, done by Roger Platts. It aims to be in dialogue with past fashions at 100 years of the show. There will also be special interest in the Royal Bank of Canada’s Blue Water Roof Garden, the third in their sequence of rooftop displays. This one exploits “skyrise greening” and includes “habitat panels” as well as planting by Nigel Dunnett, one of the forces behind last year’s Olympic Park. There will be reedy plants, lots of mauve and purple flowers and an “urban sky meadow”.

Dogs still count as “livestock” and remain banned. I have yet to be invited to give a Chelsea prize to the Urban Fox of the Year. “Dead-stock”, however, will be enjoying a centenary concession. Just for this year, the RHS is allowing gnomes into the showground “to raise money for the next generation of gardeners”. I forbear to comment, fearing hobbits among the fairies as the former barriers fall. In 1963 there was not a gnome in sight when the show inspired this young gardener of the future. The inspirations were the flowers and the exhibits. The best way to inspire the next generation is to give them free tickets to a gnome-free show in 2014.

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