Why the best of Chelsea can be found away from its show gardens

The Paradise Garden may draw the crowds but it could be said the Great Pavilion’s exhibits are nearer to paradise on earth
Image of Robin Lane Fox

It will be hard, even for the Chelsea Flower Show, to compete with our own gardens and the natural world next week. We are having such a superb spring, three weeks ahead of the usual schedule, and as a result, the show will not have the traditional feel of an inauguration to the best of the British gardening year. When I go back to my own garden after my day’s viewing, I do not expect to despair that it falls painfully below Chelsea’s display. The weather has brought on the early irises, peonies and the best of the wisterias even before Chelsea will be showing them too. The walk to the show entrance will be set with London’s roses already in full bloom.

On Monday night, a keenly priced gala evening has been sold as usual to corporate clients, including many of the City’s big names. Those of you who are not preparing the ground for a business deal in the Floral Pavilion will be free to wonder what the first choice is among the riches on offer. The rest of us can look forward to intensive television coverage from Tuesday to Saturday, an excellent substitute for the real thing.

Once again, the show is being sponsored by M&G Investments, shrewdly aware that investing requires similar patience and timing to aspects of gardening. They are also putting on a big outdoor garden on Main Avenue titled The Paradise Garden. It sounds ambitious. The aim is to present a style of garden which “the Persians” invented and which is considered to “influence us still today”. The exhibit claims to show how traditional English gardens have been influenced by the “ancient” paradise gardens of Italy, Persia and Greece.

It will be an uphill struggle as I cannot think of a single “paradise” garden in ancient Greece. The Greeks thought of “paradeisoi” as the well-wooded hunting parks of kings and governors, mostly in Asia. I doubt if M&G will be showing a modern fox covert, complete with artificial earth. The word “paradise” is used too loosely nowadays by historians of ancient Roman and Italian gardens. They liked images of flowery natural abundance in their fresco paintings, but these images had nothing to do with Paradise at the time. Islamic gardens had a genuine Paradise tradition, but the imagery of grapes, wine and topless female houris in this Paradise will not be featured, even for those invited to drinks in the show garden.

For me, the Great Pavilion and its expert exhibits are nearer to paradise on earth. The roses from Beales and David Austin will be unmissable, as usual, and it is excellent to know that more than 300 varieties of rose uniquely stocked by Beales will be on show, even following the death of the company’s visionary founder, Peter Beales.

Next, I hope keen gardeners will hunt out the display by Pheasant Acre Plants (site no GPH15). They are showing masses of gladioli with flowers ranging from small to large and are the perfect illustration of my recent recommendations of gladioli for borders and gardens in late summer. I will also be keen to see the unfamiliar exhibit by Brighter Blooms from Preston (site no GPD21). They specialise in Zantedeschias, a family best known for the white-flowered arum lilies. This year, the Zantedeschia ought to be in fine form, having had a wet British winter with next to no frost, leaving its outdoor hardiness untested. There are far more colours in this family than the traditional chilly white and we will be shown a wide spectrum, some of them in pots where few of us ever think to try them.

I know I am going to enjoy the container gardens shown by the alpine experts D’Arcy and Everest (site no GPH17). They are great growers of rock plants and this year are displaying them in all sorts of old boxes and “broken pots”, not just in expensive stone troughs. These artfully chosen plantings are ideal for keen gardeners who lack space. However, they have been marginalised for too many of us by being shown only in weather-worn stone containers which are impossibly heavy to transport and are very difficult to find and afford. Many alpines are small hardy plants. They like sharp drainage around their roots, provided by fine stone grit, but they do not have to grow in a distant echo of mountain scenery. We cheerfully plant many herbaceous plants in ordinary borders without making special meadows or marshes so as to reflect their natural habitats. “Alpines” have been turned into a specialist subclass as if they have to be accompanied by a pale imitation of a mountain in order to grow in a garden.

I will be keen to see the Green Wall garden staged by Enterprise Plants (site no GPD6) because it, too, may help to turn us to a new use of plants. The growers have planted a three-dimensional space with lots of hybrid begonias in order to lead us into a green-walled room through doors set in the exterior. Green walls are finding their technological niche after some early versions whose water piping was obtrusive or unreliable. The practical art has improved greatly and even if you do not like so many begonias, there will be ideas here, even for an office indoors.

Exhibitors from the north are almost always worth a visit as their nurseries specialise in plants we southerners can use less easily. I like the sound of the Himalayan meconopses, or poppies, on show from Harperley Hall Farm Nurseries near Durham (site no GPF8). This small nursery is trying to grow unusual items, a niche magnificently occupied by Kevock Garden Plants from Midlothian, gold medallists in recent years who are continuing to show fabulous rarities and well-grown alpines suited to the wetter, shadier conditions in Scotland and much of the north (site no GPD9).

If you look only at stands of the flowers that you yourselves can grow, you will have a very narrow Chelsea. As ever, the orchids promise to be stunning, especially those from McBean’s of East Sussex (site no GPE1) and a massed display from Thailand (site no GPD18), which will be arranged in the white and yellow of the royal Thai colours and aims to “create a feeling of wellbeing”. Thailand’s well-wishers will be hoping such feelings will soon be uppermost in the country’s turbulent politics.

Every exhibitor tries their best for Chelsea. Dozens of other stands will be first class, from Dibleys’ superb indoor streptocarpusses to Burncooses’s 30th anniversary stand which will focus on plants introduced from east Asia, so important to gardens and nurseries in their local Cornwall. Sweet peas en masse will transport us into July and chrysanthemums will fast-forward us into November. Time, space and “sustainability” are wonderfully transgressed in the experts’ displays, the heart of the entire show. Thanks to them, Chelsea continues to set the standards for flower shows all over the world.

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