Stars of the Chelsea Flower Show

Image of Robin Lane Fox
McBean's Cymbidium lowianum Magnificum, which featured at the 1913 show

The Chelsea Flower Show shuts on Saturday night at 5pm after gaining variety from its centenary year. Some of the best displays in its main pavilion are in dialogue with the year 1913. Remarkably, its 100th birthday does not stand alone. 2013 is the centenary year of the great botanical garden at Kirstenbosch in South Africa. It is also the centenary of the Garden Club of America. Both of these famous institutions are marking the occasion with Chelsea exhibits. The Garden Club is commemorating its work for conservation, particularly in the Coast Redwood forests. Among its 18,000 members there have been those more renowned for smart evening dresses and a distinctive sense of society.

The big outdoor gardens are always a challenge for their designers and a challenge, too, for those of us who take gardening more seriously than designing. Why do so many of them exclude flowers in any heartening shade of bright, clear colour? Miserable Euro-mauve, lilac-pink and variations on white cow parsley now dominate the schemes. It is years since I saw a show garden with serious space for lovely tulips or the best of British lupins in mixed colours, let alone for the brilliant mustard-yellows, strong blues and pinks of the irises we all love. I do not want to squeeze between flat-topped squares of box and yew and risk sitting by mistake on a black Bradley-Hole filled with water.

Yearly, I revel in the “themes” which are claimed in the publicity to be underlying the results. Working for Laurent-Perrier, Ulf Nordfjell nearly won me over with his formal garden, one side of which was carpeted with the lovely white Anemone White Swan, on loan from those Chelsea gold-winning veterans, Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants. The rest of the garden is apparently “Mediterranean in feeling but Nordic in execution, echoed in the beautiful bronze statue of Orpheus”. Admittedly, the statue is by a Swede and usually stands in a Swedish museum but it hardly exudes a Swedo-Mediterranean mood, whatever that might actually be.

The stars of the show are to be found, as usual, inside the pavilion. My advice is to head straight there and not to come out until closing time. My personal Best in Show goes to Kevock Garden Plants from Scotland. Their display of rare mountain and woodland plants is full of Chelsea “firsts” and is quite beautifully planned. Clear, strong colours are in evidence, from the brilliant blue of the selected spring gentians to the satiny deep scarlets of their Meconopsis. The lilac flowers of hyper-special Glaucidiums run in a fine group in front of an emerging yellow-flowered Rheum alexandrae, a lover of damp soil which is all too rare in British cultivation. Black-flowered primulas, a rust-purple Meconopsis called cookei, and pale yellow flowers on a well-placed Ranunculus arendsii Moonlight are only a sample of this brilliant exhibit, all propagated by the owners.

Kevock's display of mountain plants

I asked Kevock’s David Rankin, a retired university professor, what it had all cost. “About £1,000 in train and transport fees and another £2,000 in materials and meals,” he replied while his wife finished off a chicken-based sort of wrap in a box. “And six months of my time and anxiety and the willingness of London friends to let us sleep for a week on their floors.” Outdoors, the big sponsors of big gardens have to allow high six-figure sums, but their “designers” cannot compete with this exhibit’s sense of line and colour.

As ever, McBean’s Orchids are spectacular. Have they really exhibited at Chelsea every year since 1913, I wondered? “There is some dispute about 1923,” they warn me. A lady dressed in fancy purple velvet with a historic hat to match turned out to be Liz Johnson, the nursery’s owner, representing a 1913 lady visitor. She showed me the lovely yellow-flowered Cymbidium lowianum Magnificum, whose sprays of pale colour were central to the firm’s Chelsea display in 1913, too. Then, visitors would compete to buy the showiest new orchids and display their own exotic riches. Come on, FT richer readers. Give those endless box balls a miss and buy a full orchid terrace-planting from McBean’s to dazzle yourselves, your conservatory and your lovers.

Ulf Nordfjell’s Laurent-Perrier show garden

Round the central monument, Hillier Nurseries has had the courage and clout to mount a huge display with bigger trees than ever. Mature white-stemmed birches, selected beeches and even some flowering Bird Cherries give their lesser shrubs a canopy but also give the views across the entire pavilion a valuable lift. The result is an indoor show with so much more impact and variety than earlier ones in this difficult pavilion setting. A cold spring has stretched the expert exhibitors but artificial light and heat has helped them, too. It is great to see such vivid stands from the National Dahlia Society and such superb vases of gladioli from Pheasant Acre Plants, regular gold medallists for a family in which outdoor designers would never be seen dead, including among their wispy grasses. These exhibits of autumn flowers in May give the show another dimension.

My award for virtuoso showing goes to Raymond Evison, the great grower and breeder of clematis on Guernsey. All clematis owners know how easy it is to get a clematis in a hopeless tangle, but Evison’s remarkable exhibit shows hundreds of them mounding upwards from its perimeter to cover a long central archway. I wish his stagers would come and untangle my arches of Clematis Montana. I wish they would bring with them plants of his spectacular scarlet-red Clematis Rebecca, a new variety which will show up in any muddle.

From West Lothian, the specialists Binny Plants have brought the best peonies in the show. We reassessed together the charms of the deep red Peonia Henry Bockstoce and decided that its strong flower stems have been overlooked. The nursery has yet to risk the new forms of Tree Peony pouring out of China, but it is the place to engage with the best herbaceous and intersectional hybrids. Chelsea is the place to see what Scotland can offer the south.

Why is Marks and Spencer paying out to show wetland plants to the gardening public? “Conservation” and “sustainability” may be the cue, but Waitrose has won on points by teaming up with an obvious ally, the National Farmers’ Union, and showing some first-class vegetables. In a more historic vein, Pennard Plants is harking back to 1913 and showing the contrast with our veg plots now.

Indoors, all is variety, colour and as ever, skill. I hope the RHS does not smother it by its new-found enthusiasm for what it classes as “science”. I am not the only visitor who does not linger by signs which tell me that tea was once made from bits of a birch tree. Ten years ago I began to fear that Chelsea might begin to struggle. Nurseries have had a dire year so far and a fearful 2012, but the show is on top form. We shoppers need to support the nurseries now to keep the underpinning of the world’s best flower show in such good shape.

“Why do you do it?” I asked the Hardys of Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants, regular medallists for their beautifully arranged herbaceous plants. “Credibility,” they replied. “With a Chelsea gold medal, you can go anywhere.” In our internet era, orders placed at the show are down, but the cachet is as strong as ever. “Credible” nurseries need consumers, too. It is up to us gardeners to consume and to keep Chelsea at its peak.

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