Every year, in about the middle of May, my eyes, previously amused by any new flower or shoot as if it were a new-born baby, start to view my garden more critically. They spy dark, unplantable corners; leaf edges nibbled by unmentionable pests; jobs that I’ve put off for months; and design shortcomings consistent with years of rampant plantaholism. The reason for this sudden malaise? The Chelsea Flower Show.
It’s not that I have anything against Chelsea – it’s one of the highlights of my gardening year and an occasion which makes me proud to be British – but it leaves me feeling rather as I imagine women might after watching a Victoria’s Secret show: slightly inadequate. And so, I have developed a number of strategies which help me feel better about my own efforts and slightly less stupefied by the extraordinary excellence on display at the world’s greatest flower show.
First of all, I take time out to get both of my gardens in good shape before the show kicks off. May is the most splendid month for being outside, whether in the garden or the wider landscape. Everything is fresh and new, birds are singing in the trees, the earth is warm and the days are long. What could be better? I remind myself that Chelsea gardens have been coaxed and cajoled into looking picture perfect for just 6 days, whilst those I have created will give me joy and satisfaction for weeks, months and years. I leave the house early on Tuesday morning knowing that my plots, which are in no way comparable to what I am about to witness, are the best they can be – the real deal. They are living, breathing, pulsating organisms with a past, a present and a future. A Chelsea garden is no more than a firework, blazing a trail and exploding into glittering, gobsmacking, gorgeous glory before disappearing again, without a trace.
Getting down and dirty in my own garden also allows me to take stock of what I’ve got, and, more importantly, to remind myself that there’s little more I need. One of the great virtues of Chelsea is that plants are not available for sale, which makes for a much cheaper and more hassle free event than, say, Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. Sadly the RHS are slowly relaxing the rules to allow bulbs and now plug plants to be sold, which is a pity. Chelsea should be about admiring the staggering feats of the best designers and nurserymen in the land and must not be allowed to evolve into some kind of horticultural Bicester Village.
Secondly, I reassure myself that given a budget of £250,000, a team of experts, some talented tradesmen and access to the finest nurseries in the world I might also create a garden worthy of comment. I don’t underestimate in the least the skill and determination involved in creating a Chelsea show garden, but let’s not pretend they have been created on a shoestring (which is what many of us exist on), or be too lenient if they don’t quite come off. At that price they should be flawless and jaw-droppingly beautiful. Sponsors know what they are doing when they hire the big name garden designers and are looking for a return on their investment. Shipping the garden off to be “re-created” in the grounds of one hospice or another is a lovely gesture, but one calculated to further disguise what it is inherently a rather wasteful and vainglorious exercise. In real life £250,000 ought to go a very long way and last an awful lot longer. This may be why I often find the smaller, lower budget Artisan Gardens more appealing and easier to swallow.
Thirdly, which is rather churlish, or maybe childish of me, is that I revel in the sport of spotting mistakes in Chelsea exhibits. These most often come in the form of errors in botanical nomenclature, but very occasionally extend to entire, ill-conceived exhibits which, I am sorry to say, can usually be attributed to our nation’s floral art societies. There is no circumstance when it’s acceptable for a big non-horticultural company to create a monumental Chelsea stand amounting to nothing more than an overblown advertisement for its wares or dubious corporate social responsibility. I shun such aberrations with all the vigour and pomposity that my inner Lynda Snell can muster. And then there are the charming boys and girls, most of which I assume are from PR agencies or taking time out from chugging, dishing out the leaflets. Some kind of rehearsal prepares them to quote a series of fascinating factets – “it’s an exciting new umbellifer called cow parsley“, or “the designer found his inspiration in the Chilean Andes”, or “the cork oaks were imported from Spain at eye-watering expense to have their butts frozen off by the River Thames for a week” – but ask anything too taxing and they fall apart like a corn poppy in a stiff breeze.
I hope my wry admissions don’t make you think badly of me. Like many gardeners I possess an inner inadequacy when faced with all that one might know about the world of plants, gardening and design. Chelsea lays this painfully bare. Despite all the cost and artifice The Chelsea Flower Show demonstrates to gardeners of the temperate world what we all might achieve given the skill, training and imagination of those brave plantsmen and garden designers prepared to stick their head above the parapet and go for gold.