LAST year, the jubilee; this year, the centenary. The Chelsea Flower Show celebrated 100 years of horticultural excellence, which have seen a simple hobby fair grow into a billion-rand business venue.
In spite of the coldest spring for 50 years, (another one) the show gardens were immaculately prepared, the flower exhibits dazzling and as headily fragrant as ever. But there were surprises to come.
For a start: among all the floral splendour on show in the Great Pavilion (new rarities, orchids, exquisite bulbs, sumptuous roses, dreamy clematis) the plant of the year was an ominous choice – a mahonia, that most hostile and prickly of plants.
True, it was a new variety called “Soft Caress”, certainly less confrontational than most of its relations, but this Mary-contrary choice set the tone for a debate that rattled the gardening establishment and dampened the party atmosphere.
It was all about the awarding of gold medals in general and best garden in show in particular, which went not to British expertise but to a team of Australians.
The Trailfinders Garden was a tour de force of sustainability designed around rainwater capture, with solar power, a natural swimming pool and native plants. “It shows that anyone can have a billabong [seasonal pond] in their backyard,” jolly swagman/designer Phillip Johnson said.
“The whole design explodes with exuberance,” one of the judges, Andrew Wilson, said. “It has incredible swagger.”
One of Britain’s most respected designers, Christopher Bradley-Hole, commended the garden for its style and sustainability, but thought that others, including his own immaculate design (no sour grapes, he stressed), were better and called into question the competence of the judges and the whole judging process.
Many agreed with him, which put the Royal Horticultural Society on the defensive; but the debate also highlighted the seismic shift of the past decade: gardening is no longer simply about your own private patch but about the wider world and the environment.
The healing power of the plant world has always been a favourite theme at Chelsea, but in the new millennium it has widened to embrace healing the planet, with biodiversity, sustainability and recycling driving most designs and many product displays.
Imported plant diseases, invasive species, bee decline and high rise greening were among many concerns featured this year. And in the eyes of the judges it was probably the loud green message of the Australian garden that won the day.
Bradley-Hole’s own design was nevertheless an impressive reminder that gardens can also be high art; “a garden of the soul”, he called it. Inspired by the great Japanese garden of Ryoan-ji, it was essentially a meditative space – a fusion of Zen, Mondrian and English landscape. Clipped blocks of different evergreens were interleaved with woodland plants, pale and grassy, powdered with white and cream and the occasional splash of deep red peony and the old rose “Tuscany”.
SIMPLE FLOWERS In the Laurent- Perrier Garden there were old-fashioned, plain purple irises instead of elaborate starched and ruffled ones. We loved the plantings of forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica) in the Sentebale Garden, dedicated to Prince Harry’s charity for Lesotho children. (Sentebale means “forget me not” in Sotho.)
Most unexpected and delightful of all was the Indian flower seller’s garden: a sea of the best exotic marigolds breaking around a simple hut on stilts, hung with garlands prepared for sale. This garden was dedicated to the work of the charity, Water Aid in India, and reflected the transformation brought about by access to clean water and sanitation.
We also loved the Massachusetts Garden, which drew inspiration from the works of poet Emily Dickinson and backed its lovely plantings with colourful leather panels sewn with appliquéd magnolias, foxgloves and irises.
The Get Well Soon Garden, devoted to traditional and alternative healing, was another favourite with healing plants, a soothing rill and a reflexology pebble path, which looked superb. It would make a decorative addition to any garden as well as provide a beneficial (if uncomfortable) barefoot stroll.
THE STREET PARTY Much was made of the return of garden gnomes to Chelsea after decades of banishment. The aim was to appeal to children and encourage an interest in gardening from an early age.
All around London, however, the Chelsea Fringe was doing that with a lot less expense and much easier access.
This gardening free-for-all, launched to great acclaim last year, is all about getting city people involved with nature, growing things and having fun with plants.
Star events this year included:
The Meadow Line, which linked 10 London tube stations with a river of wildflowers in 2m steel guttering, bringing commuters eye-to-eye with heartsease, violets, clover and a butterfly or two;
The Edible High Road in Chiswick, a mile of mini-herb gardens in apple crates planted by volunteers – lavender and rosemary bushes around willow obelisks of borlotti beans, sweet peas and climbing nasturtiums, and
The Skip Garden, a self-sustaining vegetable, fruit and herb garden in King’s Cross grown by local young people, making planters, sowing seeds, harvesting crops and inspiring others to take part.
Many of the projects grow through summer, but during Chelsea week there were also fun events, including treasure hunts for kids and drop-in workshops on all kinds of topics, from biodiversity, planting for bees and organic growing in containers to baking herbal bread and making seed bombs.