I am really enjoying the Chelsea Flower Show which finishes this evening with a great sell-off from 4-5.30pm. It is a bipolar experience. Inside the main pavilion there are dozens of bright and beautiful stands, grown and arranged by many of Britain’s top nurseries. I cannot remember such a variety of exhibits which deserve careful appreciation. Outside, on the surrounding avenues, there are about two dozen instant gardens, for most of which brightness and beauty are apparently alien. I have never seen so much bog standard Iris sibirica in the foregrounds of exhibits at a great flower show. It is a plant which many of us inherit when we buy a house and then banish to the garden’s perimeters or beyond.
Of course it is a big challenge to design a garden on a site as flat as a pancake for a week when temperatures are amazingly unpredictable. I liked the gravelly area at the front of M&G Investments’s “paradise garden”, brightly planted in a style through which I would like to step before leaving for that absentee from paradise, work. Of the big gardens the best is the Telegraph’s formal garden which has some lines of mature clipped lime trees and a running theme of blue flowers beneath and beyond. Its broad low cushions of clipped green box give it a pretty ground-line. The garden’s two Italian designers claim inspiration from gardens in north Italy, but I have never seen deep blue anchusas there and the clipped limes made me think, rather, of France. A big slab of pale composite stone in the middle of the side hedge was a pity, but perhaps it had been agreed with its neighbour, the Laurent-Perrier garden, where it looked pretty awful too.
Repeatedly the planting in these bigger gardens has a dull meadowy look. It is not even the look of a gaily coloured meadow. Mauve and stale pink flowers poke out among green-leaved clutter of a sort which I spray on sight with Round-up before planting flowers which make the heart leap. There seems to be a sort of designer telepathy at work, brainwashed by notions that the loveliness of peonies or, say, brilliant red-flowered Heucheras with names like Lipstick are “unnatural” or worse, “unsustainable”.
Britain’s late May is proving to be the loveliest I can remember in gardens and in “nature” beyond the garden boundary. It seems a pity to plant this great show’s gardens as if they are funerary “Gardens of Rest” on the edge of a Belgian cemetery. There is plenty of drab, grey, hard surfacing on view to reinforce the impression. For Laurent-Perrier, the designer Luciano Giubbilei has chosen some excellent cream-yellow lupins to counter the effect of a surrounding meadowy mess, but he has then edged his good central pool with a dreary grey sort of stone. Away from the like-minded Main Avenue I much like young Matt Keightley’s Hope on the Horizon garden and its good use of clipped box, dark water-pools, shade and some well-shaped and well-inscribed garden seating. Blocks of dark grey stones ran in formation through the planting, suggesting the theme of injured soldiers, but they culminated in hardly less grey slabs on the final wall, supposedly representing “hope”. Close inspection revealed a thin line of gold paint on the slabs’ lower lip, suggesting to me about as much hope as I will feel at next May’s Chelsea if Miliband has just won the general election and all one can look forward to is the near-certainty that he will lose the next one.
We have lovely sandy surfaces, gravels and restful colours in so much of Britain’s stone. Battleship Belgian grey is a very dreary alternative. Next year it would be “radical” and no doubt “cutting edge” if these designers actually planted swaths of the heavenly flowers every single keen gardener in their audience aspires to grow in their own gardens. Otherwise, we go home wondering what all this muddle has to do with us and what we break our backs and fingernails in trying to achieve.
Instead, go into the Great Pavilion and pick any of the dozens of fabulously arranged stands. For gentle uses of colour, Hardy’s Cottage Plants are acknowledged leaders. Transpose the lovely view down their central walkway into any of the designed gardens outdoors, and you will give them a lift to a far higher level. The Pavilion’s main central site is occupied bravely by Hilliers who have risen to it this year with big flowering cherry trees and a beautifully graded sideway planted with woodland plants. David Austin roses top the excellent stands of roses with their charmingly flowery setting for a lunch table and a tablecloth outdoors. I would far rather sit there and contemplate than in the big “designed” set pieces outdoors.
Next year I would like to impose some forced marriages. The designers can rethink their surfacing and be implored not to use twisted wire sculptures of “wildlife” or trees so big that one fears for their life after the Show. Growers and arrangers from the top nurseries will then be empowered to take over the outdoor gardens’ entire planting and bring them to the level they attain inside the Pavilion.
High points in their own planting are so many this year. I love the way in which Waitrose and the National Farmers Union have combined separately themed colours of flowering plants and mixed and matched them with coloured fruits and vegetables. Red peppers are mixed with dark red Sweet Williams. Scarlet alstroemerias keep company with enviably shiny red apples. It is all so brilliantly planned. So are the changing tones of two of the great bulb displays. Amands hit a high point with the corner of their stand which they devote to Cypripediums or Ladies Slipper orchids, plants in which they and their expert visitors have now given me a tutorial, changing my entire view of these lovely plants’ needs in British gardens outdoors. Nearby, Avon Bulbs from Somerset have arranged the colours of their tulips, small gladioli and so much else so stunningly well. They are centred on a metal frame which I thought to be containing pure Gladiolus byzantinus but which was framing a tall purple flowered Ixia which I have never even grown. The nursery explained to me that they now keep three chilled glasshouses to be sure of holding back spring flowers like tulips for Chelsea in a warm year. So much goes on behind the scenes.
I have been learning so much about hardy chrysanthemums, about the French and English top picks among border irises and why my Chinese peonies are not flowering at all. Pheasant Acre Plants are indeed showing gladioli every bit as dazzling as I predicted. There is a brilliant scarlet red called Magma and a dazzling white with the surprising name of Bangladesh. The small alpines and hardy plants from D’Arcy and Everest and from Harperley Hall Farm are superb. For the first time Kevock nurseries from Midlothian have been given an open four-sided site. They have used it brilliantly, not least for some great spraying plumes of a white saxifrage called Nicholas which I have not seen before. The result is a stand even more amazing than their gold-winning stands of the past two years. They win my award as best in show this year.
Nurseries have had such a hard time in the past two years, so cold or wet when they hope to book most of their best trade. Thankfully, this year has been so much kinder. Our fabled English gardens depend on the foundations of their skill and economic health. Chelsea is showing it off as ever, more evident indoors than out.