Finally there is Chelsea Flower. Monday it starts with a very popular gala evening for those with the money, the contacts and the tickets. From Tuesday to Sunday, the program for the rest of us is in full swing on the Royal Hospital grounds and on TV screens, accessible to all who turn on. This happens for the first time in the fall, not in May.
The exhibitors and nurseries have definitely missed it, as Chelsea is such an important source of customers. What about me? During the first restriction in 2020 I was briefly sad, but the weather in the strangely beautiful May was so lovely that I resigned myself to not having to leave the garden and do an overdose of exhibitions in central London . I continued gardening, as the mission of the RHS would have liked, and was happy about the extra five days at the busiest time of the year.
This May it was different. Like Italy, Paris and Jennifer Lawrence at a movie theater, the Chelsea show was one of the things I really missed. I thought back to wonderful years: the early nineties, when specialized nurseries were on the right track with everything from sweets and lupins to wonderful fiery auriculas; the FT’s three gold medals for its gardens on Main Avenue between 1971 and 1973; the beautiful exhibits of the Alpine Garden Society; the exhibits of McBean’s orchids that have won countless gold medals; and Hillier’s ability to win 73 gold medals in 73 consecutive years.
I like to see first-class exhibits of plants I can’t grow at home, from tree ferns to camellias. I enjoy the wonderful tulips from Bloms Bulbs, knowing that the bulbs will only last a year in my garden. I can enjoy them just as much, protected from snails and storms, as cut flowers at Chelsea.
There’s always something unexpected, even the corgi in an outdoor garden I was photographed with a few years ago. An FT reader immediately recognizes the family tree and sends a letter about it, properly published. You’re unlikely to see a corgi at the Philadelphia Flower Show or the Ghent Floralies.
The fall timing is exciting. I’ve always loved the RHS’s Great Autumn Show in its two big halls in London. It was the show from which my own gardening earned the most. It kept dahlias in the foreground while the picky taste turned against them. I learned of September flowering border plants I would have missed, including the long white leucanthemella, best in moist soil. I love the daisies of Michaelmas, but the Great Autumn Show taught me that there is even more to the end of September than an ‘a’ aster, before the botanists assigned asters to many different Latin names.
In the main pavilions, the living heart of the show, the exhibitors of the nursery can show flowers we never see at Chelsea in May. Green J Jam from Worcestershire displays more than 50 different varieties of late summers, penstemons. Ornamental grasses will come out
power of Ashcroft’s Perennials or Merseyside, and enjoy the late timing they show at their best. Middleton Nurseries of Tamworth, Staffordshire, will showcase a large variety of sage that are such transformative choices for late summer and fall. The newspaper The Sun presents a preview of the latest bedding plants, including an excellent verbena named after veteran garden columnist Peter Seabrook’s recently deceased wife.
I always admire the gold-winning gladioli of Pheasant Acre Plants, but this year he can combine it with his other specialty, dahlias, which are grown on his Welsh clay soil and lifted every winter. D’Arcy and Everest remind us of a useful lesson, that alpine and small hardy plants do not decline in late summer.
It is amazing that such a variety of nurseries come from all over Britain. By controlling light and temperature, Binny Plants from West Lothian will even show peonies in bloom, natural candidates for a May show. The International Camellia Society sounds particularly inadmissible, as it is displaying autumn-flowering camellias for the first time. Of course, big hits like Notcutts will be essential, as will Raymond Evison Clematis, who keeps us informed of new varieties for the fall. I expect hours of fun.
Outdoors, designers and the RHS had plenty of time to adapt
the moods of the moment. It would be especially good to study the new emphasis on container gardens, window sills and balconies, the space of so many new recruits for gardening. The containers are conveniently diverse, from wooden cabinets to corrugated metal and an entire display called Pop Street Garden, full of vibrant paint and plants. Mika Misawa is the opposite, the designer of a Japanese garden for tranquility in a city, with only one type of flowering plant. This should fascinate the busy control fryers who want total control over a small garden without using a box prone to disease.
The Parsley Box Garden sounds indispensably strange, a tribute to ‘the celebrated Nordic restaurant Noma, which has held the title of the best restaurant in the world for four years’, as some of you may know. Its underlying themes are fermentation and preservation, and the main colors are orange and rust. The material aims to ‘point out the fluidity of changes in identity through life’ and ‘to subtly highlight the conversation around aging’. I did the same job for over 50 years and have no plans to switch in my seventies.
Alexandra Noble’s Balcony of Blooms sounds more promising; i’m also waiting to see how Martha Krempel combined a “rocking bed” and a look at the “subtropical leaves of the yucca above” as the leaves are usually very prickly. On and off Main Avenue these smaller landscapes have increased and should be very interesting.
On a larger scale, carbon capture and eco-planting are the main themes, especially the garden for the show’s sponsors, M&G, which plays with a ‘pocket park-like’ urban space that helps the sky, ‘supports the wildlife’. A modern garden by two Thai designers sounds particularly interesting, balancing the ‘frenetic energy of Bangkok’, presumably the traffic jams, with the tranquil simplicity of the plant. Another, by Jonathan Snow, evokes the excellent flora of Nepal and the Himalayas, no easy task.
The Bible Society also makes a debut and sponsors a garden by Sarah Eberle inspired by her local person Dartmoor. It is based on Psalm 23, without sheep but with lots of greenery, and advertises the efforts of churches and schools “to create shared, beautiful spaces”. Last year, they were tightly locked.
We are indeed coming from the ‘valley of the shadow of death’. One garden celebrates 80 years of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Society, without corgis. Another honor Florence Nightingale and the rather different subject, contemporary nursing. She apparently liked it fox gloves, so that their seed heads will be included. Gardens have been our lifeline for the past 18 months. They give Chelsea a turn in the autumn that is worth celebrating.