Chelsea Flower Show ends tonight in a frenzy of shopping at 4pm. I will be weeding my flowerbeds at home while sparing a thought for the plants I would otherwise be competing to buy. As usual Roualeyn Nurseries from Conwy, north Wales, have staged a superb exhibit of fuchsias, plants we can grow easily in the coming summer months. I would be elbowing my way to their pale pink and lavender-white Carla Johnston, in full flower on their upper stand. I would fight for their plants of the double-flowered, pale violet-skirted Eternity as it is not even in their mail order catalogue. Fuchsias are excellent trophies from a flower show as they continue to grow on in their pots and flower repeatedly until November.
This year’s outdoor gardens repay careful research. Of the big ones on Main Avenue my personal gold medal goes to TV broadcaster Joe Swift’s garden for the Homebase Teenage Cancer Trust. It uses brown-orange wooden beams and brown-orange irises but the main surfacing and the planting are unusually congenial. I liked the placing of the big euphorbias and the use of brilliant white-flowered libertias, Chelsea newcomers with none of the untidy leaves which they throw off in everyday gardens. The theme is dry gardening, sustainability and so forth, which is surprising as libertias like damp and are never better than in Ireland. Nonetheless there is nothing drab about the result and it is good to see someone who does so much for gardening on TV doing well in reality too.
I think I have also seen the Westland Magical Garden of fellow broadcaster Diarmuid Gavin at its best. The twining trachelospermums on the bottom rung of his tower garden’s seven levels are enviable but the total effect of the sky-high structure is too whacky for me. Before lunch, however, each level was packed briefly with scarlet-coated Chelsea Pensioners as a sudden publicity stunt. The brilliant red of the coats enlivened the tumbling greenery and metalwork of the high tower. The bright colour is a lesson that other designers need to ponder.
We are all wishing designer Sarah Price the best for her London Olympics Garden this summer but I hope her Chelsea garden for the Daily Telegraph is not a forewarning. It is supposed to recall special places in our British landscape but it left me glad to be living in special places of my own. They include such heavenly British blessings as bluebell woods, hilly fields of buttercups and patches of self-sown cowslips. If I had not been briefed I would have thought she was trying to evoke a Scandinavian Garden of Peace. White-stemmed birch trees are suddenly popular with Chelsea suppliers but they need more than a bit of tall valerian and stale pink to set them off. I thought it needlessly dull.
Opposite, on the less chic side of the avenue, I have amazed myself by liking the garden of the Caravan Club, complete with a 1950s caravan. Designer Jo Thompson won a gold award in 2010 for Best Urban Garden in Show and I hope we see her next year on a prime site. She has arranged the planting very well, maximising some horizontally-branched Viburnum mariesii and mixing in double cream-flowered roses to stop the effect becoming too slight. The caravan is from Vintage Vacations on the Isle of Wight and its shape is wittily matched by a wooden dog kennel among the front flowerbeds. You can imagine my delight to find the nose of a real live corgi protruding from the kennel as I assessed the planting. Thanks to Jo, I have had my own Jubilee moment, leading a corgi on a lead through a royal Chelsea garden. The corgi is called Thane of Cawdor and is so much bigger than the corgis in the royal palaces. I wonder if its mother mated with a security Alsatian.
My garden of the year is tucked away on the Rock Garden Bank beyond Diarmuid’s vast tower and a singularly dreary garden of wire, wooden watchtowers and weeds to evoke the divided state of modern Korea. The designer Peter Dowle has used the bank to suggest the Mediterranean effect of a sandy, stony garden planted with flowers from Corsica and capped by a prettily tiled garden building and shaded terrace. A specialised display of the many endemic flowers of Corsica would be fascinating as the island is so botanically rich, but Dowle has worked to the brief of his patrons, the retailers L’Occitane en Provence.
“What exactly do you sell?” I asked the group’s managing director. “Sandwiches? Lavender bags? Olives?” He was delighted. “That is why we are here at Chelsea,” he assured me, as a garden will help to emphasise his group’s brand. With 170 outlets in America it is one which I should perhaps know but it has nothing to do with my personal needs. It sells aromatic scents and oils for ageing skin. The man behind the brand, Olivier Baussan, explained to me that the anti-ageing theme has shaped the garden’s main choice of plants. It is showing grey-leaved Helichrysum italicum from Corsica whose oils, Baussan discovered, were used traditionally in the care of tired skin. In French the plant is known as L’Immortelle. I much liked its accompaniments, anything from sea kale to thrifts to vines, lavender and an olive tree. Is it tactless, I asked, to send a Parisienne in her prime a bottle of extract of helichrysum? “Au contraire,” he assured me, “all the Parisiennes live in terror of wrinkles.”
The caravanning garden cost about £75,000 and the Corsican-Immortelle about £150,000. In 1971 our budget for the FT’s gold-winning garden on a prime site was £4,000 and I do not dare to guess what all the transplanted old pear trees or water fountains cost there nowadays. Even the permission to design a small garden on a little site in the Ranelagh Gardens, an appendage to the main avenue, is charged now at £5,000 by the RHS. There is no shortage of takers, all of whom are explicit that the fee is worth the publicity they attract. Meanwhile, the spaces in the main pavilion for the nurserymen and growers are free, offered by invitation only.
Back at home my slow-moving garden is vastly bigger but it has cost me nowhere near £75,000 in its 25 years of existence. Chelsea remains a remarkable blend between a trade show, a sponge for PR budgets, an event with punchily-priced public tickets and 11 hours of TV coverage, sold for a hefty price to the BBC and yet a major reason why so many hopefuls come to show the best that they can do. Over champagne at £15 a glass I saw little sign of austerity.