Sunday, 26 May 2013

Chelsea Flower Show

Plants bought:  0.  Didn't go on plant sell-off day so this is not really an achievement.
Hours spent on feet: 8.5
Hours spent in heavy rain: 9
Garden magazines bought:0.  None on sale but also weaning.

What can you say about Chelsea?  Some people say it is out of touch with real gardeners and that the show gardens are not rooted in reality.  It's pricey, it's crowded, only investment bankers and celebrities get to go into the gardens (possibly the only time some of them go into gardens at all) and it's in England so it will probably rain.  Nevertheless, 157000 of us flow through the gates of the The Royal Hospital Chelsea every year.  Although it poured down all day and some of the show garden concepts were, erm, hard to understand, the atmosphere was buzzing, thanks to both friendly exhibitors and a throng of ordinary gardeners always ready to pass the time of day with strangers with a witty comment about one of the more outlandish features.

The hype is all about the show gardens.  Heavily sponsored, the theme is all around the concept or 'meaning' behind each design.  Mostly the concepts were lost on me, or else I read up on the theme and then looked up from my show catalogue (£10 a time) and said to Le Photographe, 'I still don't get it.'   The only theme I could really relate to was Chris Beardshaw's garden for Arthritis Research.  Chronicling Chris's own journey with a condition similar to rheumatoid arthritis, the garden had three rooms to represent his own journey.  I have a related condition and could understand his depiction of the time around diagnosis, using a statue and shaded wooded area to represent the loneliness and despair.  I have to say I don't remember feeling as if I was sitting in a perspex shelter but still, I understand where he was at.  More importantly, it looked great, with stunning planting and perfectly placed sculpture that gave the garden a restful and contemplative air.  I was delighted to hear that Chris's garden won the People's Choice award this evening and that may be as much to do with simply being a lovely garden to look at as well as there being 10 million people in the UK with arthritis who may well also relate to his personal journey to living with this condition.

Chris Beardshaw's garden

For sheer opulence of planting, the type I really went to see, my favourite garden was Roger Platt's 'Windows Through Time.'  The garden represented looking back over a hundred years of Chelsea through the eye of a sculpture.  I wasn't sure what the little thatched house (reminiscent of an Ethiopian village houses known as tukuls) meant but frankly who cares when you have eyes only for an astonishing grouping of plants.

Sumptuous planting by Roger Platt

As someone addicted to high-gloss garden magazines, I am familiar with Jinny Blom, who normally produces gardens that dreams are made of.  Unfortunately her  Forget-Me-Not garden representating Lesotho went wrong somewhere for me. with too many materials that did not seem to harmonise together.  The acerbic garden writer Anne Wareham likened it here to being akin to 'a helipad and an ashtray' and I can only say that I am sorry that I agree.  Fortunately I am neither rich enough nor do I have sufficient room for a helipad so it will not be one of those feature so often lauded about that I can 'take home from Chelsea.'  I do however, have an ashtray.

Jinny Blom's garden. NB the gnomes are not part of the design.

It is always wonderful to look at gardens; however the place where I really lost myself is The Great Pavilion.   What was great was not only the floral displays but the way you could wander around top nurseries and talk to the growers, each of whom was happy to answer any question.   Blom's bulbs were on standby to review the photos of  my failed tulips (not given enough water), Bowden's Hostas advised me I was wrong to crush snails as this provides food for slugs and also that a pot sprayed with WD40 makes your pot all the more slug resistant. Both Warmehoven's (alliums) and Raymond Evison's (an amazing tunnel of clematis) were happy to spend time explaining to me some of the processes in the run up to the day.  Despite the huge crush, all the exhibitors had time to talk and there was not a touch of snobbery about a silly question or a gardening novice like me not knowing that delphiniums don't always come true.   Things did become a little overheated in the Pavilion during a cloudburst that seemed to send all 40,000 visitors of the day inside in one go.  Evison's had wisely devised a one-way system for human traffic through their clematis tunnel, something David Austin's might have learned from, as a four way entry system into their rose stand proved inevitably too popular and it looked like some people had collapsed or perhaps sat on a poor Rose Munstead Wood.

THOSE alliums: winners of the Diamond Jubilee Award

How did your tulips do this year?

Exhibits can look as good as you want but what really makes up these events is the atmosphere.  Despite the hype, the celebrities and the big-name sponsors, the bulk of the crowd is made up of ordinary gardeners like you and me.  Strangers smiled and shared a joke all day, suffered the rain together and raised eyebrows at the Twitter garden knowing that we all shared a love in common.   Although I almost lost an eye many times thanks to umbrella spokes, had my toes trodden on and we all ended up wearing complimentary disposable macs blazoned with an investment bank logo, the atmosphere was joyful at all times.   Chelsea goes from being brash, bizarre, beautiful, inpsiring, expensive and exhausting but it is a wonderful opportunity to unite yourself with the ordinary gardener within the crowd.  I'll be back and out of pocket next year and already looking forward to it.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Tough plants from Yorkshire

Plants bought this weekend: 24.  (This included a tray of 12 annuals so it's not as bad as it sounds)

This Saturday, I visited Dark Star Plants in North Yorkshire during a visit to my parents.  I was prompted to visit by an article in The English Garden Magazine (yes, still buying magazines) which described the nursery as specialising in plants in dark, dramatic colours and raised to be hardy in the cold climate of Yorkshire.

Dark Star Plants have created their nursery within the old walled garden of Rounton Grange, home of the Bell family who were wealthy 19th century industrialists.  The  Grange itself has been demolished but the extensive walls of the garden remain, replete with the 100 year old vine-eyes still in place.   Overcast weather darkened my initial impressions, however glimpses of sun reflected a glow from the red brick onto purple-black violas and the burgundy foliage of heucheras casting a spell of warmth over the place.  The plant range is extensive, laid out in neat rows: the darkest, most velvety irises, aquilegia 'Barlow Black' and astrantias in all ranges of claret.  It was a relief to browse a real nursery with plants in the state that they should be at this time of year.  Nothing had been forced into flower in a Dutch hot-house with the aim of making a quick sale.  It seems like a long time since I had visited this kind of place and I found it a haven of peace, even though I worried for the owners with the lack of crowds queuing up to buy candles and thermal socks or whatever else garden centres are flogging these days.

The walled garden.  That's my dad in the flat cap on the right.

The nurseryman was a true northerner, slow and thoughtful in his words, greying hair spilling out underneath a countryman's hat.  Once warmed up, he idled for twenty minutes telling us the history behind the garden.  The daughter of the Bell family, Gertrude (described by various sources as a traveller, politician, writer, archaeologist and spy), loved the garden and its staff, writing of the very walls in her books and sending seeds back home from where she eventually settled in Baghdad.  None of the original plants remain now but the new owners have recreated a working garden as well as a nursery, cultivating cut flowers as well as fruit and vegetables which they sell to the farm shop next door.

Typical dark and cloudy Yorkshire weather guaranteed to blow cobwebs away.

It seemed like the idyllic life to a plantaholic like me, tending the nursery within the shelter of the walls, the moors just a nod away on the horizon.  The reality is probably harder: pressure to compete against large commercial outfits and the gardener's perennial affliction of back problems.  Still, it was a treat to browse an unusual collection of plants that cannot be found elsewhere.  If you like your plants hardy and true to life and don't need photoshopped pictures or flowers forced out under UV lamps, plus a bit of history thrown in then it is well worth a visit.

PS My dad pronounced the range of plants 'impressive' - not praise that is given away in a lighthearted manner.