Sunday, May 18, 2008

Sunday morning at Chelsea with Mr T

For once, the weather has smiled on the Chelsea Flower Show. We had a hot spell a week ago, which brought everything on nicely. Then cool, wet weather arrived just as everyone was beginning to wonder whether they'd have to water like crazy. And today dawned cool but bright, which is perfect.
It was the usual chaos at Chelsea this morning, with some gardens seemingly only half-built. The real pros, people like Cleve West and Tom Stuart-Smith, who are veteran Chelsea show garden designers, were finished, bar the odd bit of last-minute fine-tuning, their gardens serene in the sunshine. Both designs had that special sense of place that you get with gardens that really work: a sense of being transported into another world far away from the roar of traffic and wail of sirens that wafted over the showground from the Chelsea Embankment.

Cleve's design, above, was sponsored by Bupa, and is going to be transplanted to a nursing home just down the road from me in Battersea. The residents there are mainly Parkinson's or Alzheimer's patients, so there were various restrictions that Cleve had to bear in mind. He couldn't use mirrors, for example, or too many busy patterns, as these might be confusing. And the hard landscaping had to be wheelchair-friendly, of course. The end result is fabulous: so tranquil, and yet with such strong lines that help promote a feeling of permanence.
I think that Best in Show will be between him and Tom Stuart-Smith's design for Laurent-Perrier, with its gorgeous cloud-pruned hornbeams (below). I've never seen cloud-pruning used on anything other than box or privet, and I loved them. (I'm rooting for Cleve, though, because he's a mate.)

Amid the chaos, the Royal Horticultural Society judging teams were going about their business; quiet, tweed-clad types clutching clipboards, and casting an eye over the planting. It looks very casual, but they don't miss a thing. There's a show of hands when they reach their decision, then they politely thank the staff working on each garden and move on to the next. It's all very British and very proper.

As a counterpoint to this, the journalists get together and gossip and decide what they think works and doesn't work. There was a lot of admiration for Andy Sturgeon's jungly garden for Cancer Research (right), and Arabella Lennox Boyd's design for the Daily Telegraph was also much discussed, thanks to her decision to go for an enormous pool, inspired, apparently, by Japanese landscapes and gardens. Arabella, another Chelsea veteran, usually goes for a much frothier, floriferous look, and this was very different (see below).

Because so many gardens were still being worked on, I didn't manage to get that many pictures. Any garden that didn't have people still working had judging teams or film crews. I was about to take a picture of Norfolk-based designer Clare Agnew's garden for Ruffer LLP, the investment specialists, only to find that yet another figure loomed into view. My lips framed an unprintable word, and then I looked up and saw it was Alan Titchmarsh. I swear he knew what I was thinking, because he smiled ruefully at me, so I asked him if I could take a picture of him for the blog. He's such a sweetie: a major television and gardening star, yet never seems to get flustered or harassed and always has time to be nice to members of the public.

It's not all sweetness and light at the show though. The guys building the Cadogan Garden, designed by Robert Myers for Cadogan Estates, who own half of Chelsea, told me they usually have a different plot, but had been moved this year so that Andy Sturgeon would not have to go next to Diarmuid Gavin. (The two designers had a spectacular falling-out after Gavin once accused Sturgeon of plagiarising his design.) I don't know how true this was, but all I can say is if the Cadogan Garden (below) is the Royal Horticultural Society's idea of a Berlin Wall, it's a darned sight more attractive.