Where else but in England would you find a shop stocked with 8,000 garden books?
Where else but in England would the picture-hatted lady queued ahead of you to see Irish Eyes, the 2000 Rose of the Year, be a baroness proving her passion by showing you the garden dirt under her polished pink fingernails?
Where else but in England would a flower show hold a strict lottery to determine which journalists will receive one of a thousand much-sought-after press passes?
Where else, indeed. Gardening is as much a part of British way of life as bangers and mash, a bobby on the beat or a red double-decker London bus. Only in England will you find Chelsea, the 89-year old crown jewel of the Royal Horticultural Society and the world’s most prestigious flower show.
For four days in May, the quiet lawns of the Royal Hospital – all 11 acres of them – in London¹s South End come alive with an explosion of flowers, fragrance, colour, plants and people. An inspiration for amateurs and a showcase for professionals, Chelsea 2000 featured over 20 themed display gardens by the grand masters of garden design, a 3.2 acre ‘Great Marquee’ housing breathtaking displays of flowers and plants by specialist nurseries and breeders and stalls selling every conceivable garden accouterment – and those 8,000 books. 170,000 visitors from around London and around the world came to see what was new and what was special. It¹s mid-afternoon prior to Opening Day. After 18 months of planning, six weeks of on-site preparation, of days spent forcing blooms or holding them back so they peak exactly on time, all that remains to be done is a final tweaking and spritzing. Tension mounts, for Chelsea is also about winning prizes. Teams of judges – women in flower frocks, garden hats and terribly sensible shoes, men in somber, serious dark suits, straw fedoras and equally sensible shoes – begin the daunting task of picking the best display gardens and the most glorious blooms. Even a seasoned exhibitor admits to a case of the jitters.
Seasoned exhibitors are the ones who usually walk away with the prizes. Last year, however, the two designers that won the coveted gold medal and the Best of Show award were newcomers to Chelsea. The entry entitled “Evolution,” by Gardens Illustrated magazine, grew out of a three-year collaboration between Dutch nurseryman and garden designer Piet Oudolf and British garden designer Arne Maynard. “Winning a gold medal is unusual for designers new to Chelsea,” says Rosie Atkins, editor of Gardens Illustrated. “But to get the Best of Show was unprecedented.”
Oudolf and Maynard created a futuristic garden that had its roots in the past. Water jets that leapt from one stainless-steel bowl to another to another provided a novel twist on the 17th-century fascination with fountains, at the same time, signifying the passage of time. Around a pool, they planted waving fronds of grass interspersed with Euphorbia, Rodgersia and Amsonia. For a long border, they chose a profusion of perennials such as Astrantias, Salvias, Violas and Brooding Acteas to produce a rich Persian carpet effect, then enclosed the entire garden in a dramatic ‘cloud hedge’ of ancient, overgrown box which they imported from Holland.
The most powerful theme coursing through the gardening world three years ago was a renewed contract with nature. There was a surge of interest in native plants and wildlife gardening. The idea of a garden taking its design cue from nature and its immediate surroundings rather than fighting with them was very much in the spirit of the late 90s.
This year, the trend that is shaping up seems to be the use of clever materials. “One designer plans to make cement an exciting gardening component. Another garden will feature plants instead of stone to create an abstract wonder while a third intends to use garden space and subjects as an outdoor classroom, mixing nature with art,” says Bob Sweet, RHS Head of Shows Development. For many visitors, the spires of delphiniums are the blooms that most mean Chelsea. The effort it takes to get them there, in all their magnificent beauty, boggles the imagination. It is the display where avid Montreal gardener Joan Courtois heads first. Joan joined the Royal Horticultural Society 35 years ago to get their magazine with its annual list of seeds for sale. This is her fifth visit to Chelsea. “For me, it¹s like going to an art gallery,” she says. “You learn by looking and absorbing. I like to see what the great garden designers do and how to use plants in different ways. Everyone there is a wacky person like you, who simply loves to garden.”
50 Plus April 2001