Of course, gold is the top honour, but that shouldn't detract from the other medals. If someone wins a bronze medal at the Olympic Games, you don't say: "Huh, well, it was only a bronze." You think it's a pretty sensational achievement, because they are competing at the top of their particular field. It's the same at Chelsea. To win a medal - any medal - is an acknowledgement that you have reached a certain standard. Add to that all the incredibly hard work that goes into creating a Chelsea show garden or nursery exhibit, and the medal-winners jolly well deserve some sort of accolade.
Unlike the Olympics, however, the gardens and exhibits at Chelsea are not in competition with each other. One garden doesn't get a gold because it is "better" than another garden - it is judged against its own brief, in which the designer tells the judges what he or she is aiming to achieve. The planting, the quality of the hard landscaping (or build, as it's known) and the overall design are all taken into account, by judges who have expertise in those particular areas.
Of course, there are the nurseries and designers who win gold medals year after year. Hilliers, for example, or Bloms Bulbs; Andy Sturgeon or Cleve West. But that's not because they're friendly with the judges, or because the RHS feels it would be a shame if they broke their 62-gold-medal run. It's because, year after year, they sustain a level of excellence.
You can see the full list of results here but I thought I'd pick out my favourites.
There's one glaring omission, however, which is Cleve West's garden for Brewin Dolphin. It won a gold medal and Best in Show, but I'm going to Chelsea tonight to have a personal tour with Cleve, so I'll do a separate post on that tomorrow.
I think I'm becoming slightly allergic to pleaching, on the grounds that it's expensive, which automatically puts it outside the reach of the average gardener. With topiary, you can take your own box cuttings, grow them on, and clip them into your very own topiary ball - all you need is patience, skill and a good eye. But an avenue of pleached trees seems to say: "We cost a lot of money." (Anything from £200 upwards per tree.)
There's a garden across the road from me that has a screen of pleached hornbeam along the back fence. (There's a Porsche and a BMW in the front garden, too.) I'm not normally susceptible to twinges of political puritanism, but for some reason, the sight of it always irritates me.
Diarmuid Gavin's tower for Westland Horticulture, which featured a stainless steel flume, and a miniature gentlemen's club, won a silver-gilt medal, and the Most Creative Show Garden prize, which has not been awarded for five years. Everyone always has strong opinions about Diarmuid's designs - I loved it, but garden designer John Brookes described it as "attention-seeking" and wrote in the Daily Telegraph that both Diarmuid and the RHS deserved a slap. It just goes to show that you can't please all people all the time, but if you offer them an 80ft helter-skelter, some of them will be very pleased indeed.