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Until 5.30pm on Saturday the seasons are collapsing wondrously inside the Great Pavilion at Chelsea Flower Show. Daffodils are in flower near dahlias. Gladioli are out near spring hyacinths. The real flower show, the one under cover, is in excellent shape. I have had a wonderful trip through this floral concertina in which the loveliest flowers are showing all at once. On Sunday they will be dismantled.
This column’s gold medal is easily awarded. The outstanding exhibit in the show is the exquisite display of hepaticas by Ashwood Nurseries in the West Midlands. Its mastermind, John Massey, describes it as his crazy dream and his first exhibit at Chelsea since two gold medal appearances in 1996 and 2005. It is the loveliest of the three, a mirage for keen gardeners who must wonder on leaving, as I do, if they really saw such a tour de force. Pale blues, deep blues, pinks and whites run in carefully graded colours beneath white-flowering small bushes of prunus and a pine or two. Hepaticas are heavenly spring flowers, up to 6in high, and their family divides into three on the map. The best choices for ordinary gardeners are the European forms with small flowers held just clear of the spring leaves, Hepatica nobilis and Hepatica transsilvanica from Romania. There are North American hepaticas, but the finest species are in Asia. The “epicentre” of the family, as Massey well puts it, is Japan where their Japanese name means “flowers breaking snow”. Expert Japanese growers show hepaticas in clay pots, like our auriculas, at big shows in Tokyo and Niigata. For several years Ashwood Nurseries has linked up with this tradition, unknown to most western gardeners, but has been breeding stronger and more clearly coloured hybrids. It issues an excellent booklet, Hepaticas: A Cultural Guide, which is available, together with hepatica plants, from mailorder @ashwoodnurseries.com. Fifty years ago, I was growing a blue-flowered hybrid of the 1930s, Hepatica x media Ballardii, even more beautiful than the booklet of pictures of Elizabeth Taylor which had also cost me 7/6d. At Chelsea, Ashwood has a fine display of this great plant, but it is excelled by its homebred schlyteri hybrids. Its dark blues are a revelation, but the biggest wonder is the side of its stand given over to Japanese varieties. They are not easy to grow outdoors in Britain. Batches of them were once sent to Wisley and Japanese advisers even came over to plant them. They did not survive for very long. Massey keeps them happy in heavily shaded greenhouses during summer. In order to delay their spring flowering by more than a month for Chelsea, he kept them chilled until Thursday last week. When they came out into daylight their flowers opened in only 12 hours. Until then, none of the Ashwood team knew what might happen.
I love the big gladioli from Pheasant Acre Plants and the great bank of narcissi from Walkers Bulbs @ Taylors in Spalding. The gladioli have been forced on, three months before their season, in warm Portugal. The narcissi are not planted until January and are then moved through three changes of temperature, only coming out into normality 10 days before Chelsea. There is a high-wire act behind the exhibits we enjoy. About 30 per cent of the varieties of narcissi fail to show in time for the show, but each year the 30 per cent that fail are different to those from the previous year.
There is everything to learn from growers in the front line. I learnt that the cause of the holes in leaves up the stems of my young gladioli is not a disease. It is slugs. Somehow, they climb up the slender shoots and bite into them. I also learnt the reason why many narcissi flowered poorly last year. They had suffered from 2014’s long dry autumn. This year they have flowered brilliantly because the autumn and winter were so wet. Only six months ago I was fearing that, like trees, narcissi were being infested by a new bug and going blind.
At last, after several lesser years, the Great Pavilion has a welcome variety. I am not referring to the celebrities, though on Monday Esther Rantzen was trying to look enthusiastic about launching a white lavender that was not even in flower, while Judi Dench was hunting for a purple rose with a hint of blue whose name she had forgotten. We worked out that it must be Rhapsody in Blue, a rose not on show from David Austin or Harkness. On Austin’s stand I admired the new yellow Rosa Bathsheba, a full-centred one which will climb only to 6ft and do well on a London back wall. It has a noticeable scent.
From Little Snoring in Norfolk, MandyPlants is showing some novel mandevillas with big white and red flowers, winners for FT conservatories and wholly new to me and Chelsea. Nearby, Hogarth Hostas from Wokingham has put on a remarkable display of hostas with miniature leaves, some of them with names like Mouse Ears. The set-piece orchids from McBean’s Orchids are amazing and we almost take for granted the array of streptocarpus from Dibleys Nurseries in Wales, but it is the presence of more and more classy small exhibits that has given the indoor show a lift. The alpine category is excellently represented, from D’Arcy & Everest’s open-doored alpine house to the Alpine Garden Society’s clouds of white and spotted flowered saxifrages among small rocks. Yet again, Kevock Garden Plants from Midlothian has swept the alpine board with a marvellous showing of rare primulas, celmisias and some crowning clumps of deep blue gentians. They have expanded their business into the regeneration of neglected rock gardens and have already turned round two big examples, one in Glasgow and the other in Sheffield.
I came out into the daylight bewildered at the outdoor gardens with this or that theme. In one, “East meets West”, supposedly in a blend of English ornamental flowers and “minimalist Zen”, but the central plastic white shelter glares in the sun. My 2016 award for the biggest gap between PR and reality goes to the Imperial Garden — Revive. This display is a marvellous example of misbranding. It claims that it “explores the complex relationships between Russia, the Ukraine and the UK” and “considers what would happen if politics was removed from the world and as humans we all took a step back”. Let us hope it never is and we never do. Otherwise, we might blunder into its ground plan of grey metallic circles symbolising “lace” and a bent-backed nude figure of a young woman, spattered with circular holes and with an even steelier look than the look on the face of the bride whom I once saw going into a church in central Odessa.
After five concentrated hours, I came to rest at the stand which is most honest about outdoor artificiality. On it, Easigrass is showing sham turf. Maybe it is the setting, maybe it is my hatred of prolonged mowing, but I really like the concept and have gone head over heels for the upmarket Easi-Mayfair variety at £34.99 per metre. I even discussed with the boss the scope for putting concealed fairy lights into the sham turf’s weave and then turning on a message in the lawn each night. He is most enthusiastic (easigrass.com). Watch this space for when I go to visit. I may yet roll out a garden with a sparkly message on a Chelsea avenue of the future.
Photographs: Andrea Jones; David Austin Roses