Chelsea Calling

May is well and truly here, so naturally my thoughts turn to Chelsea and what we can expect of the world’s most famous flower show in its 101st year.

The omens are good. To start with we’ve enjoyed a milder, sunnier spring. Last year, in my summer finery, I caught the mother of all colds after twelve hours plodding around the show with temperatures barely in double figures. My abiding memory is of the Cayeux Irises exhibit, usually abundant with extravagantly-coloured, heavily-bearded irises, staged with almost every plant in tight bud. Chelsea was ready for May, May wasn’t ready for Chelsea. The Telegraph garden, Chelsea 2014A little suburban? This year’s design for The Telegraph Garden by Tommaso del Buono & Paul Gazerwitz

The RHS’ dubious secret weapon this year seems to be Alan Titchmarsh who, for the first time in 30 years, is designing a show garden. According to the media, some would-be show goers are buying tickets on the black market for up to £575 just to see the TV presenters design first hand. I am sure the RHS are delighted, with tickets sold out in the second-fastest time in the show’s history. Let’s hope Mr Titchmarsh, hardly known for being cutting edge, delivers something that will titillate the ladies of Tunbridge Wells.

However we will surely miss Trailfinders’ and Fleming’s Australian offering this year, usually so exuberant and wonderfully un-English. The travel company and nursery team went out on a high last year with a thoroughly deserved ‘Best in Show’. It won’t be quite the same without them.

Trailfinders and Flemings garden Chelsea 2013Trailfinders’ Australian Garden presented by Flemings won gold and ‘Best in Show’ at Chelsea 2013

The jury is out for me on this year’s big show gardens along Main Avenue. It would be wrong to judge any of them on paper, but I am just a little tired of the Laurent Perrier formula of crown-lifted, multi-stemmed trees planted in a sea of tightly clipped shrubs and meadow perennials. It’s a safe, attractive, crowd-pleasing formula, but let’s not pretend it’s cutting-edge any more. The garden will be immaculately presented, that’s for sure, but it feels to me that the exorbitant cost of creating a Chelsea show garden (£250,000 plus) is pushing designers to produce schemes which are guaranteed to win a their sponsors a prestigious gold medal rather than to explore the frontiers of their art.

Luciano Giubbilei's Laurent Perrier Garden Design for Chelsea 2014Beautifully rendered, design for the Laurent Perrier garden by Luciano Giubbilei

The main sponsors, M&G Investments, have allowed veteran Chelsea designer Cleve West to take slightly more risk. His design for a paradise garden was inspired by ancient Persia. Water will cascade from an octagonal fountain made from Bath stone and flint; it’s a feature that’s slightly reminiscent of the interior of Dr Who’s Tardis (a resemblance which I sure is entirely unintentional). The roots of the Tree of Life will be engraved into stone wall panels, alluding to English gardening’s origins in ancient history. Four multi-stemmed Cydonia oblonga surrounding the fountain will represent the elements of earth, water, air and fire.

Cleve West paradise garden Chelsea 2014Cleve West’s garden for M&G Investments. Persia meets the Tardis.

Other gardens with potential to excite me are Wilson McWilliam Studio’s design for Cloudy Bay which, you guessed it, includes yet more multi-stemmed trees. The idea is to represent key wine tasting notes using materials and plants, hence the inclusion of charred oak, minerally limestone, sparkling water, coppiced nuts and berry fruit. A delicious concept which I hope will be just as mouthwatering when realised.

Cloudy Bay garden, Chelsea 2014

A beautiful bouquet, the design for the Cloudy Bay garden

Finally, I am intrigued to see how Susannah Hunter and Catherine MacDonald’s exquisite watercolour rendering of a Cape Cod garden will leap off the page. Their design is inspired by the Massachusetts landscape, particularly the Cape’s wild sand dunes. Leather appliqué panels will depict a coastal scene and bold sweeps of roses and hydrangeas will provide a theatrical backdrop to the naturalistic garden. A contemporary building is inspired by the many artists’ retreats nestled within sand dunes near Provincetown.

The Massachusetts Garden Designed by Susannah Hunter & Catherine MacDonald, Chelsea 2014The Massachusetts Garden, designed by Susannah Hunter & Catherine MacDonald

The weather may disappoint, but Chelsea never does. The show gardens on Main Avenue will garner the lion’s share of attention and awards, but the real innovation will be found in the Fresh Gardens category and, indeed, the Floral Marquee, where real horticulture still reigns supreme.

Check back during Chelsea week, May 20th-24th, for more news and views from the greatest flower show on earth.

More details about the show can be found on the RHS website

The Cave Pavillion, Sophie Walker, Chelsea 2014Sophie Walker’s Cave Pavilion will illustrate the relevance and importance of plant collecting in the 21st century