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

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