Friday, 23 May 2014

Chelsea Flower Show 2014 – Press Day

Monday 19th May saw me foresaking bosky Devon for the Big Smoke and the pampered perfection of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, having been invited to attend ‘Press Day’ as my prize for being a finalist in the 2013 RHS Blog Competition (thanks again to everyone who voted for The Freerange Gardener!). Clutching my coveted press pass and suitably colourful lime and magenta bar-coded wristband, I made it through the Royal Hospital gates just after 7am and straight away sensed the difference to the ordinary Members’ Days that I have experienced in previous years. In place of the terribly polite but still madding crowd were space and tranquility, with the shutters firmly closed on most of the commercial stalls, and Main Avenue all but deserted; just a handful of professional photographers working away quietly to capture the show gardens in the soft sunlight peeking through the backdrop of plane trees. But looking a little closer, I soon realised that this apparent air of calm was a thin veneer, barely concealing a sense of rising tension, bordering on controlled panic. With judging of the Show Gardens about to commence, no opportunity was being missed to primp-to-a-peak each finely honed confection.

Titivating Astilboides leaves to remove any wayward specks
Look here and yes, there really is somebody with a paint brush dusting each individual leaf of those Astilboides. Look there and is that a pair of tweezers I spy? In the Great Pavilion, cans of leafshine (+25% Extra Free!) are being wielded to buck up recalcitrant peonies and, goodness, there’s a bloke sledgehammering something next to the Jacques Amand International stand; let’s hope it’s not the competition. Back outside, there’s a guy crawling backwards on his hands and knees in the ‘Positively Stoke’ (as in Stoke-on-Trent) garden applying a final polish to the raised walkway (from which an RHS judge was later to step backwards, creating a bespoke water feature in the process). Everyone is in socks or wearing disposable operating-theatre ‘bootees’ for fear of scuffing a surface or squishing a leaf.

A last-minute polish of the walkway – 'Positively Stoke'
Buffing-up the peonies for the judges
Then, quite suddenly, everything stops. It’s just like Strictly really, even down to the fake tans and false eyelashes, except here it’s landscape bark and ever such a lot of moss. You can almost hear Tess saying “Our designers and contractors have worked their butts off and can do no more. Judges, it’s over to you...”. The exhausted show garden teams and Great Pavilion exhibitors slope off to chew anything that remains of their fingernails, possibly watching from a distance – through haunted and bloodshot eyes – the gaggles of clipboard-toting RHS judges as they determine the award to bestow on each garden or display.
Judging in progress at Avon Bulbs' Gold medal-winning exhibit
Thereafter, things began to relax just a little, with a gradually dawning realisation that the judging die had been cast (albeit with results embargoed until early on Tuesday morning) and that it really was too late to change anything. It was time to swap the neurosis and paranoia of high-end horticultural rivalry for the neurosis and paranoia of celebrity PR. Getting the media to cover your garden, your design studio, your nursery, your landscape contractor, and especially your sponsor, is not merely about the footling details such as horticultural merit and aesthetic impact, it’s about who can get the best celebrity-driven photo opportunities. Of course, many of the celebrities are donating their time to support the various charities that depend on events like Chelsea to publicise their good causes. In other cases, one detects an altogether more commercial arrangement. But whatever the motivation, a scan of the official photocall list suggests that more and more exhibitors are turning to ever-more creative (some might say desperate) ways of shoe-horning a PR stunt into Press Day.

It’s easy to be cynical where ‘sleb’ culture is concerned, but there were moments of genuine poignancy. Stephen Fry, Caroline Quentin, Rowan Atkinson and Jeremy Paxman each read moving excerpts from First World War poetry in the ‘No Man’s Land’ garden, in support of ABF, The Soldiers' Charity. Elsewhere, Susanna Reid and Diarmuid Gavin were joined in the ‘First Touch’ garden by children whose lives had been saved by the Neonatal Unit at St George’s Hospital, London.
Jeremy Paxman in the 'No Man's Land Garden'
Celebrity launch of the 'First Touch' Garden
There were also amusing incidents: Piers Morgan being jostled and ‘nibbled’ by the extraordinarily lifelike equine star of War Horse; a woman thrusting a camera-phone in front of her other half and saying “Look! I met Mary Berry! Isn’t she lovely?! Shame she closed her eyes though". And someone else struggling to put a name to a well-known actor exclaiming “I know who it is! It’s Hyacinth’s husband!"

War Horse goes for Piers Morgan, egged on by Tony Blackburn and Michael Parkinson
But amidst all the hoopla, what were the plants and the gardens actually like? It was certainly a treat to have the luxury of space and relative peace and quiet (away from the photo opps) to really get to grips with all of the gardens and to visit virtually every exhibit in the Great Pavilion. Outside, one of the things that struck me most was how each of the gardens appeared to change during the day as the strength, quality and position of the light varied. The BrandAlley Renaissance garden, for instance, looked frankly dull and uninspiring first thing, when it was deep in the shadow of nearby trees. The strong afternoon sunshine brought it to life though, giving an appropriately Mediterranean feel and highlighting the use of strongly contrasting colours and forms. It will never be one of my favourites among this year’s gardens, but I wonder if the fact that judging took place in the relative gloom of the morning was one of the reasons that this was the only large show garden to receive a Bronze medal in 2014.
The BrandAlley Rennaisance Garden
As has been mentioned often during the last few days’ press and TV coverage, a common thread running through so many of the gardens is the use of soft, naturalistic planting; right up my street! For example, I loved the textures and colours of a particular combination in Matthew Childs’ Brewin Dolphin garden, which saw the velvety rich burgundies of Lysimachia atropurpurea ‘Beaujolais’ and Aquilegia vulgaris var stellata cultivars ‘Black Barlow’ and ‘Ruby Port’ underplanted with a haze of Melica altissima ‘Alba’. The seemingly popular and Gold medal-winning Telegraph Garden was just a bit too neatly ordered and polite for my tastes, while I would personally have upgraded to Gold a couple of the gardens awarded Silver-Gilt by the judges, including, in the Artisan Garden category, 'The Topiarist’s Garden', which challenged my general prejudice against topiary.

Naturalistic planting in the Brewin Dolphin Garden
The Topiarist's Garden
'Best in Show' Artisan Garden category: Togenkyo – A Paradise on Earth
The Telegraph Garden – too neat and conventional for me.
Planting detail from Cleve West's garden for M&G Investments
Planting detail from 'Positively Stoke'
One of the more challenging and thought-provoking of the 'Fresh Gardens' category was this time-capsule cum modern-day Ark cum gallery holding wild-collected specimens grown from seed by Crûg Farm Plants
My personal pick for ‘Best in Show’ among the large show gardens would have been Hugo Bugg’s RBC Waterscape Garden, subtitled ‘Embrace the Rain’. From the innovative ‘cracked earth’ effect concrete, to the bold lines of the hard landcaping, contrasting softness of the sublimely composed planting, and the cleverly integrated water-conservation features, I loved everything about this garden, which won Gold for the young Exeter-based designer at his Chelsea debut.
Hugo Bugg in his garden 'Embrace the Rain'
Planting detail from the RBC Waterscape 'Embrace the Rain' garden
My top wildlife sighting of the day – a Holly Blue butterfly settles next to the Massachusetts Garden
In the Great Pavilion there was the usual eclectic mix of stands, ranging from small, specialist nurseries, through larger, more overtly commercial growers, to displays promoting specific bodies and initiatives and yet others with an eye on the international tourism market. While always admiring the skill and dedication required to bring so many plants to their peak at just the right time, I have to say that many of the single-genus stands tend to leave me strangely unmoved and it can be simply overwhelming to be confronted with so many plants of the same type all crowded together. I much prefer the mixed displays that inspire thoughts of new planting combinations in a garden setting, in addition to showing off the individual plants to better advantage. As ever, the quirky, extravagant and avant-garde vied for attention with more staid and conventional exhibits. The portrait of Nelson Mandela, formed from the dried bases of Protea flowers must rank as one of the most quietly beautiful yet impactive displays, while the explosion of flamboyant floral art and ornate sculptures that made up the huge ‘Thai culture and orchid extravaganza’ exhibit presented by Pattaya City & Nong Nooch Tropical Botanical Garden was anything but quiet. I can’t say I go a bundle on Hydrangea macrophylla MISS SAORI (‘H20-2’), the RHS Chelsea 'Plant of the Year', chosen from among 20 new introductions launched at this year’s show; too much of a sugary-sweet fantasia for me, but that’s why they have professional selection panels for these things.

Afternoon tea at David Austin Roses
Massed ranks of lavender by Downderry Nursery
South African National Biodiversity Institute – Kirstenbosch stand
Nelson Mandela's portrait, composed from dried Protea
How much is too much? An orchid rabbit on the Thai stand
Owen Patterson. Enough said.
Tale Valley Nursery's display of shade-tolerant plants
Hydrangea macrophylla MISS SAORI – RHS Chelsea 'Plant of the Year' (photo from RHS)
So that’s it. As I made my way to Sloane Square tube station (bumping into Gok Wan en route, as one does) and from there back to Paddington to return to far-flung rural parts, I reflected on the wonderful, mad, inspiring, ephemeral, eclectic-yet-so-very-British contrivance that is the Chelsea Flower Show, and in particular the parallel universe that is Press Day. What an amazing experience; it’s just as well it only happens once a year!

And finally... The Laurent Perrier Garden – 'Best in Show' large garden

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Plant of the Moment No.23: Omphalodes cappadocica 'Cherry Ingram'

One of the most vivid blues in the spring garden, Omphalodes cappadocica 'Cherry Ingram' is an uplifting plant that always puts me in a good mood (or an even better one, if I am already having a good day). Named for Collingwood Ingram, the renowned 20th-century horticulturist (specialising in Japanese cherries – hence 'Cherry' Ingram) and ornithologist, this is a plant that revels in woodland conditions and looks superb next to the bright young foliage of Spiraea japonica 'Goldflame' – especially after a shower of rain.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Recent wildlife sightings...

...have included our first ever Red Kite, which drifted SW over the valley on 19th April (still an unusual bird in Devon); singing Willow Warblers passing through on migration; a cuckooing Cuckoo (for a few minutes only on 22nd); song-flighting Siskins; Blue and Great Tits sitting on eggs in the nestboxes; male Orange Tip butterflies (along with Green-veined Whites, Peacocks and the first Speckled Woods of the year, which appeared this week. We were also excited to find the basal rosette of a spotted orchid (specific ID pending flowering) in one of our meadow areas – we must be doing something right. Finally, we have recorded the earliest emergence of Large Red Damselfly from our ponds with the first insects on the wing from 15 April, some two weeks ahead of the previous record holder!
Marsh Marigolds with damselfly factory in the background

Friday, 25 April 2014

A little light housework

Over the long Easter weekend I bit the bullet and cleaned the greenhouse, from top to bottom, outside and in. In theory I try to do this twice per year – once in spring and once in autumn – neatly book-ending the dull, damp, decay-filled days of winter when clean glass for maximising light transmission and good hygiene to minimise disease outbreaks are so important. In practice, it's an all-day slog of fetching and carrying dozens of pots and trays, scrubbing hard-to-reach nooks and crannies, washing glass and putting everything back again, which means it sometimes slips off the bottom of my 'to do' list. Last Sunday though was a cracking day of jewel-like blue skies, pin-sharp sunshine and drying winds, which inspired me to go the whole hog, even down to hoovering of cobwebby corners and wielding of diluted Jeye's Fluid to swab down the floor and bench. Admittedly a bit OTT, but it all looked great afterwards and ready for its summer occupants. Apart from a long-suffering Dyson, the photo shows a huge Agave americana 'Variegata' that is becoming too heavy to move and needs any would-be handler to don kevlar body armour to avoid being kebabbed by the terminal spines or lacerated by the serrated leaf margins. Since I was wearing T-shirt and shorts, I steered well clear...

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Plant of the Moment No.22: Erythroniums

Erythronium californicum 'White Beauty'
I coveted these classy April woodlanders from the moment I first came across them in the inspriational Beth Chatto's Wodland Garden, but felt sure they would prove demandingly fickle and/or be decimated by the legions of marauding slugs that munch their way through our garden every spring. Happily, it turned out I was fretting unnecessarily and we now have five Erythronium species and cultivars making slowly increasing colonies, with more to follow. While the flowers are rather fleeting, many Erythroniums have beautifully marked glossy foliage that makes a garden-worthy feature in itself. Dubbed 'dog's-tooth violets' after the canine-like rhizomes, the trick seems to be to plant really plump, freshly lifted rhizomes that have not dried out by sitting around in storage for too long. Apart from giving them growing conditions that mimic their native deciduous woodland (light in spring, shady in summer, moist but well-drained humusy soil), I mark the clumps to avoid decimating the dormant rhizomes with a carelessly enthusiastic plunge of a fork or trowel...

Erythronium 'Knightshayes Pink'
Erythronium 'Pagoda'

Sunday, 20 April 2014

More moths...

Ran the moth trap again on the night of 17th/18th April, catching 79 moths of 12 species – a very similar-sized haul to earlier in the week, but with a differing range of species, including:

Early Grey (Xylocampa areola) – larvae feed on honeysuckle
Frosted Green (Polyploca ridens) – typical of oakwoods
Muslin Moth (Diaphora mendica) – a male; the female is white
Pale Pinion (Lithophora hepatica) – overwinters as adult
Square Spot (Paradarisa consonoria) – quite an early date

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Plant of the moment No.21: Amelanchier lamarckii

A large shrub or small tree native to North America, Amelanchier lamarckii comes into its own in April, when the copper-tinged young foliage begins to emerge, quickly followed by hundreds of small, starry white flowers that create a stunning effect. Maintenance couldn't be easier; some basic winter pruning to maintain a good, open shape and to remove any weak or crossing branches and that's it – job done.

Springtime moth trapping

This week I dusted off my moth trap, which hasn't seen regular use in the garden for a few years, and had only one outing in 2013. The 'Robinson' trap, named after its inventor, runs off the mains and emits light rich in ultra-violet wavelengths, which attract moths from a considerable distance. The insects fall through a funnel and tuck themselves away in the nooks and crannies of stacked eggboxes inside the trap until I turn off the power at first light to inspect the catch. I then place the trap in a cool, dry place for the rest of the day, releasing the moths at dusk.

The night of Monday 14th to Tuesday 15th April was clear and chilly, with a bright moon – not ideal conditions for moth trapping, which tends to be more successful in mild, overcast conditions. On the plus side, there was just a light breeze (strong or gusty winds tend to depress moth activity) and I ended up with 75 moths of 13 species, representing a typical catch for this garden in mid-April. Most of these early-to-mid-spring species are cryptically marked in tones of greys, browns and russets, allowing them to be well camouflaged amongst leaf litter and the still-bare trunks and branches of trees during the daytime.

Hebrew Character
Brindled Beauty
Purple Thorn (upperside)
Purple Thorn (underside)
Common Quaker
Dotted Border
Red Chestnut
Early Thorn
Twin-spotted Quaker
Early Tooth-striped