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.