The lilacs are looking lovely, my favourite cut flowers of the moment. Green nature is at its heavenly best, the weather has mostly been a gardening dream and the first buds are showing on early forms of climbing rose. Next week the Chelsea Flower Show will be competing with a landscape at its most beautiful. It will sell out nonetheless and monopolise live television coverage until the closing bell on Saturday May 29.
Until Thursday the show itself is open only to privileged viewers, the press and the many RHS members. Privileged viewers include ticket-buyers for the highly priced Monday Gala evening, which has positioned itself as one of the top perks of the corporate entertaining circuit since the RHS woke up to its commercial value 15 years ago. While I view the show before this cocktail evening, exhibits in the floral pavilions are already staked out with name-tags for the parties to be held by bankers, accountants and brokers. Never does the job of gardening columnist of the Financial Times come so neatly into a consistent whole. Beneath party signs for most of the big names of the city’s square mile I try to forget their advice to me in the past 12 months and focus instead on the old-fashioned roses, fuchsias and border plants I will then recommend here to them free of their charges.
The show has changed sponsors again. This year it is backed by M&G Investments, the show returning to the financial sector where its commercial sponsorship began a decade ago with Merrill Lynch. Sponsors do not always win the highest medal for their own attempts at an outdoor garden on the main avenue. This year I will be intrigued to see whether M&G’s “celebration of the traditional” with a “quintessentially British garden” is indeed a “garden to be enjoyed from inside and out”. Its designer, Roger Platts, is well up to the challenge and the central summerhouse has been “carved from Sussex oak by a local craftsman”.
Financial rivals Foreign & Colonial and Brewin Dolphin are sponsoring different themes. Foreign & Colonial are laying claim to Voltaire’s little masterpiece, Candide, above all by playing on its famous closing words about the need to “cultivate our garden”. Investors might prefer to recall that the book is a satire, not least on the fatally bullish advice about how all is “for the best in the best of all possible worlds”. I last heard it in 2007 from analysts who were also talking tripe about Goldilocks. No less oddly, Brewin Dolphin is sponsoring a garden whose theme is the Progression of Time. Investors know only too well about this theme too but apparently the idea derives from Professor Stephen Hawking and his writings about black holes in the universe. I cannot understand Hawking’s best-selling book but I might perhaps understand this curious tribute to him. The garden has a dry stone wall from which water will pour into a “dark spiralling hole”. Its plants range from the ginkgo trees of our pre-glacial past to the Mediterranean olives that might be prominent in Britain’s future. The garden is linked to the Motor Neurone Disease Association and aims to remind us that a diagnosis of this disease “can equate to falling into a black hole”.
Foreign landscapes are a popular inspiration at Chelsea nowadays and this year the choice is wide, with French, Norwegian and Malaysian undercurrents. I am not drawn to gardening in Norway, least of all when it is linked with “traditional and new materials to protect the environment”. Perhaps, though, you will choose to enjoy your organic canapés in the Kebony – Naturally Norway garden. It has plainly made a good job of its self-description: “40-year-old stunted pine trees” have been set in a sort of natural rock called “lavikitt”. There is some inevitable decking, but only in “suitable alternatives”, and the energy on site derives from “bioethanol burners”.
Beyond the show’s own “lavikitt”, Tourism Malaysia has opted for a tribute to “traditional” kampung living. Kampung is not Malaysia’s way of spelling a camper’s life under canvas. A kampung is a traditional Malay village, mentally transposed here to the style of an “urban residence in the heart of downtown Kuala Lumpur”. As a public relations exercise it is actually a pastiche in London SW3. I hope there is no late frost to scorch the yams, gingers and lemongrass being planted so riskily “under the stunning paddles of fruiting banana trees”.
I expect I will prefer to paddle off to France. L’Occitane produces those little bottles of scented bath essence I always loot from up-market hotel rooms so it is apt that it is showing a garden of Provençal lavender, verbena and juniper, mainstays of its bathroom range. Meanwhile, in the courtyard category, Chilstone is backing a garden with the arresting PR title of Christian before Dior. I like the potential here, “Christian before Soldiers” or “Christian before Commitment” also occurring to my mind. Actually, this one is not what Tony Blair would no doubt call a “faith” garden. Instead, it claims to deploy flowers favoured by designer and perfumier Christian Dior while still a boy. He used them while designing bits of his parents’ garden on a cliff above a Normandy fishing village and the materials will use colours known to connoisseurs of the Dior brand. A “heaven scent” opportunity?
I have already awarded my prize for inadvertent luck. In the small garden category Green & Black’s, well known for its dark chocolate, is sponsoring The Naked Garden, designed by Jane Owen and Ann-Marie Powell. It “conjures up a family home” and claims to belong to a “British tradition of narrative gardens which expresses all kinds of stories from political to personal”. Do not expect female models without fig leaves. In an endangered landscape, maize is being shown as a crop, raised by students from Nottinghamshire comprehensive and primary schools. The “family home” is the work, believe me, of genuine Cameroons. Three of them declare that their aim is to “raise awareness about the threats that they are facing”. In the new political climate around the show I cannot wait to see how far these threats are linked to the practice of slash and burn.
I wish these dire examples of PR thinking all the best during this tense weekend of late spring weather before the prize-giving begins. Personally, I will head straight for the main floral pavilion and concentrate on the show’s true distinction, the array of flowers and plants grown and shown by so many of the finest nurseries. On them great gardening in Britain depends. Somewhere there will be a hidden treasure which manages to claim attention without trying to kidnap it. Watch out next weekend for my hopeful attempts to locate it.
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