Saturday, May 26, 2012

Chelsea Flower Show 2012: the last hurrah

Thank goodness that's over. The weather has been fabulous, the gardens were wonderful and the marquee was spectacular, with an astonishingly high standard of plants on display. But the Chelsea Flower Show is a really tiring week for me, and I've got to the point where I am just itching to spend some time in my own garden.

But I couldn't let the show end without showing you the final moments. I was at Chelsea this afternoon, manning the cloakroom along with the other Plant Heritage volunteers.  It's hard work, but a really enjoyable afternoon - you're working alongside people who know their plants and have interesting things to say about what they think of the show. If you want a free ticket to Chelsea, volunteers get passes that last the whole day.
One of the best - and the busiest - moments is when the bell rings at 4pm to signal the start of Break Down. That's the moment that the show gardens and the exhibitors in the Great Pavilion start taking their creations apart. Many of them sell the plants or cut flowers off and you can get real bargains.
(Not all the exhibitors sell off - the best thing is to ask earlier in the day, so you know where to join the queue.)

The cloakroom is a wonderful vantage point from which to see the public take Chelsea home. It always reminds of that bit in Macbeth, where Burnham Wood comes to Dunsinane.  I suspect it's a lot prettier though.

The plants seem to come in waves - first, there will be a wave of clematis, then a wave of roses, then a wave of foxgloves and so on. I don't know why this happens, since all the stands start selling at once.

But the biggest cause of wonder - and the question on everyone's lips - is: "How on earth are they going to get that lot home on the Tube?"

Friday, May 25, 2012

Chelsea Flower Show 2012: Sir Harry Veitch, the plantaholic's hero

Can you imagine a time when no one grew Japanese maples? A time when no one had seen a begonia or many of the magnolias that now grow in our gardens? Not to mention many of the conifers, shrubs and climbers that we now take for granted?
For these, we have to thank Sir Harry Veitch, who ran the James Veitch and Sons nursery in Chelsea and who, with his father, was responsible for sending out plant hunters to bring back so many of the species that we now take for granted from around the world. Appropriately, he was born in 1840, the year that Veitch Nurseries sent out the first of their plant hunters, William Lobb, to South America. (Lobb brought back monkey puzzle (Auraucaria), fuchsias, escallonias, ceanothus, and many conifers including Wellingtonia.)
As the horticulturalist and Veitch expert Caradoc Doy points out: "You would be hard-pressed to find a garden in Britain which does not either contain a 'Veitch' plant, or one derived from one of their collectors or hybridists."
For the past few months, Caradoc has been putting together a Veitch exhibit for the charity Plant Heritage at the Chelsea Flower Show. It included a life-size portrait of Sir Harry, surrounded by many of the plants he had helped introduce: streptocarpus on the Dibleys Nurseries stand; orchids from the Orchid Society of Great Britain; maples from the Hippopotterings nursery, Enterprise Plants' begonias and so on.

It was awarded a silver-gilt medal after being formally opened by Roy Lancaster, who has followed in the footsteps of many of the plant-hunters. Roy described Veitch as a great Victorian - a man with heart and soul, who was as active in charitable work as he was in his nursery business.
Sir Harry also had a role to play in the Chelsea Flower Show, which celebrates its centenary next year. In 1912, he organised a one-off horticultural exhibition in the grounds of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. It was so successful that the Chelsea Flower Show has been held there ever since. 
Dispatching plant hunters all over the world may be a speculative venture, but Sir Harry knew that this was not a get-rich-quick enterprise. The fruits of an expedition might not arrive for years, and then the skills of the hybridists and propagators would determine whether any new species, or cultivar, was going to be popular and profitable.

Transporting the plants back from South America, or China, or wherever they had been collected, was also a complicated business. The plant material had to survive journeys of thousands of miles, and protecting them was made easier by the invention of the Wardian case, by Dr Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, a keen naturalist, in around 1829.
There's a reproduction in the picture above, and as you can see, it's a fairly utilitarian affair. The triangular shape, and broad base, meant it was more stable for sea voyages. Until the repeal of the window tax in 1851, however, glass was prohibitively expensive. The Veitch plant hunters needed hundreds of these cases, and they cost a fortune.

Plant-hunting was a dangerous activity too - still is, as Tom Hart Dyke can tell you. He was captured by FARC terrorists in South America while hunting for orchids in 2000. Men who gave their names to some of the best-known garden plants - David Douglas, Reginald Farrer, Henry Chesterton - all perished thousands of miles from home. As recently as 1901, seven out of a party of eight orchid hunters died on an expedition to the Philippines. One was eaten by a tiger.
Ernest Wilson, who was sent out to China for Veitch in 1899, is the subject of one of my favourite plant-hunting stories. Veitch was keen to acquire the handkerchief tree, Davidia involucrata, which had been discovered by Pere David in 1868.
Wilson, who was only 22, and didn't speak a word of Chinese, got on the trail of a specimen that had been seen by the Irish plant hunter, Augustine Henry, 12 years earlier. He finally arrived in Yunnan, after surviving an attack by bandits, a serious illness and the capsizing of his boat in rapids, only to find that the tree had recently been cut down. I often wonder what he said - and whether it was spelt with a lot of asterisks...

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Chelsea Flower Show 2012: a private view of the Best in Show garden

I first met Cleve West, designer of the Best in Show garden, in 2002, when I was editor of The Independent Magazine. We were looking for a second gardening columnist - someone who would address a slightly different audience. Anna Pavord, who writes in the magazine every week, has always had a garden in the country, and while Anna's column is very popular, she felt it would be good to have something that talked to urban gardeners, and to the growing number of people involved in the Grow Your Own movement.
I'd always been impressed by Cleve's work, and felt that he was underrated. I knew he was more interested in contemporary garden design than in the traditional English garden look, and that he had an allotment, so he seemed an ideal choice for us.
He comes across as quite a shy, reserved person, but he has a dry sense of humour and is incredibly kind. I remember he came into the office for lunch, and was soon chatting away to the picture editor (he's a keen photographer) and the rest of the staff. He charmed everyone.
Since then, Anna and I have followed his progress with a proprietorial (verging on the maternal) interest, even though Cleve left the magazine a few years ago. We were delighted when he won Best in Show at Chelsea last year - even though he was sponsored by the opposition, the Daily Telegraph. And we were even more thrilled when he won it again this year.

Cleve's design philosophy is very much like Cleve himself - thoughtful, creative and considerate. He himself sums it up thus: "Architecture, surrounding landscape, site specifics all inform the creative process from the start. Drawing on the spirit of the place involves sensitivity to these elements and to the particular needs of the client, not to mention the welfare of the environment."
His 2012 Chelsea garden, for investment managers Brewin Dolphin who are celebrating their 250th anniversary, is the closest I have seen Cleve come to a traditional English garden. It features topiary in the form of huge yew shapes, beech hedging and reclaimed limestone. The planting is a romantic mixture of cottage plants such as poppies, alliums, cow parsley, cornflowers and orlaya, which creates a soft contrast with the stone pillars and the uncompromising shapes of the yew. 

There are unexpected features - the use of the stone pillars with their antique iron gates at the front of the garden is quite unusual and helps create an air of mystery and intrigue. This is not a garden built for barbecues or to show off to the the neighbours, but you could imagine yourself wandering in, sitting down and reading a book, with the hum of bees and the sounds of birds for company.

There are lots of little vignettes of planting, around the trees or the paving. Above, the white flowers of Libertia formosa light up a shady corner.

Ferns such as this one, Blechnum spicant, add structure to the little groups of plants.

There are injections of colour, from the peonies above, and the euphorbia, below.

And wonderful contrasts in texture, such as this grouping here, with the stately leaves of an ornamental rhubarb (rheum) softened by the lacy flowers of the umbellifer.

The red-tinted leaves of an epimedium, with another fern, at the base of a yew pillar.

I think the favourite ingredient, however, for Chelsea visitors, will be the red ladybird poppies, which provide one of the jolts of colour which are a trademark of Cleve's planting.

Cleve himself in the garden yesterday evening. It seems only fair that the man who once dreamed of winning a gold medal at the Olympics (he was with the Epsom and Ewell Harriers until an injury put paid to his dreams) should have won gardening's highest accolade in the year of the London's Olympics.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Chelsea Flower Show 2012: the winners

Yesterday was medal day at Chelsea, the most nail-biting moment for everyone involved. If you're lucky enough to be at the showground first thing in the morning, when everyone sees their certificate for the first time, you can hear the whoops and cheers as the news sinks in.
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.

 Andy Sturgeon's garden for M&G Investments, the sponsors of the Chelsea Flower Show. Andy has turned the typical rectangular Chelsea plot on its side, using the steps as a focus halfway along the pool. The metal bubbles sculpture is echoed by the wall, with its bubble pattern, and the huge clipped topiary balls. If you crouch down, so the plants are at eye-level, the bubbles almost seem to be emerging from the planting, echoing the round blossoms of the peonies. This is a garden that looks good from every angle, and thoroughly deserved its gold medal, in my view.

 Arne Maynard's garden for Laurent-Perrier also won a gold medal, as everyone had been predicted, but it wasn't one of my favourites. I found the pleached copper beeches rather sombre and depressing, while the exuberant planting beneath was confusing - it was difficult to know where to look first. I should point out that I was in a minority - Anna Pavord, for example, loved it.
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.

This is Sarah Price's garden for the Daily Telegraph. I'm not a huge fan of naturalistic bits-of-English-countryside planting, unless they happen to be in the middle of the English countryside, so from a personal point of view, this is not really my sort of thing. But I have to admit it is beautifully done, and the judges obviously thought so too, because it won a gold.

I wasn't at all keen on the central paving-cum-water-feature, though. Sarah Price had used huge natural boulders for her garden, which I loved, but I found the sudden appearance of stone cut into geometric shapes in the middle of it rather incongruous. It gave a weird optical illusion (which may of course have been intentional) that the stones were tilting upwards slightly. As one very grande dame of gardening confided to me: "It made me wonder whether I'd had too much press day champagne".

 Joe Swift's garden for Homebase and the Teenage Cancer Trust. I was knocked out by this. I loved the unusual colour palette - copper, green and white - and the choice of plants, which included Euphorbia mellifera, Libertia formosa and fabulous bearded iris. It was a much more romantic garden than I had expected, although the chunkiness of the cedarwood screens kept it well away from any tendencies to tweeness. These gave the impression of enclosure without being at all claustrophobic, and also served to frame the views of the garden. Like Andy Sturgeon's design, this looked good from every angle. It was Joe's first garden for Chelsea, and it won a gold.

In the Artisan Garden (ie small gardens) section, there were also some gems. This is the Satoyama Garden, designed by Kazuyuki Ishihara, and inspired by the Satoyama, which is the space between the lowlands and the mountains. It's about the link between nature and daily life, and the importance of living in harmony with the environment.

 Tony Smith's "Green With..."is in the new Fresh (ie conceptual/modern) category at Chelsea. It deals with the emotions of desire and envy, using moments from gardening history to illustrate this. There are tulips, for example, representing tulip mania, the moment in the 1630s when the competition to acquire the very latest bulbs led to prices rocketing up. The ferns are a reference to "Pteridomania", or Fern Mania, during the 1940s. The Victorians became obsessed by ferns - which until the 19th century and the invention of Wardian cases were difficult to grow in Britain. Societies were founded, botanical gardens were visited and "fern-hunting" in the wild became a craze, with the inevitable result that the countryside became denuded of its native ferns. But I digress. The grass is artificial Easigrass.

Jihae Hwang's Quiet Time, which marks the 60th anniversary of the conflict between North and South Korea, suffered somewhat from its position in the showground, which was directly beneath Diarmuid Gavin's tower. It is an evocation of the Demilitarised Zone, which is 250 kilometres long and one of the most heavily guarded borders in the world. However, this has resulted in the vegetation being allowed to grow undisturbed, overlooked by watchtowers.Wonderful concept - well-deserved gold medal.

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.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Chelsea 2012 ...and another thing (splutter)

I've spent two days now at the Chelsea Flower Show and as VP (who has been staying with me) can tell you, there are a number of subjects that really rattle my cage. Unfortunately, VP has gone home now, so she missed my latest explosion, which followed the item on BBC Radio Four Woman's Hour this morning.
I'd made a point of listening in order because Anne Wareham was joining a discussion on gardening. This was billed thus:
"The Chelsea Flower Show is a highligh in the calendar for gardeners. But while the designs exhibited may be beautiful, how environmentally friendly are they? Should we even be concerned about how green gardening is, or should we just enjoy the showcase of talent? And in our own backyards. And what efforts could we make to limit the impact our efforts have on the environment?" (Their words, not mine, which is possibly why they don't quite make sense.)
I was even more delighted when I heard that the other person on the discussion was the Irish garden designer Mary Reynolds, because I loved her garden at Chelsea years ago.
So. It started off with an item about the QR code garden at Chelsea, one of the conceptual gardens. Then the discussion came back to the studio. It was almost a self-parody. The BBC feels compelled (because it is the state broadcaster) always to give both sides of the "argument". This means that it is forever teeing up "adversaries" who are expected to debate a subject in less than two seconds. They usually end with the presenter butting in and saying: "Well, we really must leave it there as we've run out of time." This leaves the listener none the wiser, but the BBC thinks it is "good radio".
Basically, the discussion went along the lines of: "Should all our gardens look like the QR garden?"
Mary Reynolds seemed to be saying (I'm paraphrasing): "No, we have lost touch with Nature, because we're stopped growing our own food."
Anne Wareham (I'm paraphrasing again): "Any kind of garden can be a haven for wildlife, so long as it isn't solid concrete. We shouldn't feel compelled to stick to some sentimental template just because that is what everyone is familiar with."
There are two annoying things about this. First, there was loads of naturalistic planting at Chelsea this year. Wildflowers and trees were sprouting everywhere. The QR garden was making a specific point about QR codes - which as VP pointed out, are incredibly useful for gardeners, since you can click on the QR code and get lots more information about a plant that you want to buy. It beats those irritating V-VII plus half a sun symbols. So by taking it as a starting point for the discussion, the BBC was just being mischievous. Actually, stupid was the word that sprang to mind.
Second, why was Woman's Hour the forum for a discussion about gardening? Is it seen by the BBC as "women's interest"? Why not have a discussion about whether there will ever be a point when there are more female designers than male at Chelsea? Or why it is that men, on the whole, tend to do better than women in the medals league? Or why there aren't more women judges at the RHS shows? There ARE women judges, but having seen the judging teams go round at more Chelseas than I care to remember, I can tell you that the majority are men.

Chelsea Flower Show 2012: Inside Diarmuid Gavin's magic pyramid

You gotta love Diarmuid Gavin. Whatever he does, it's usually bigger, bolder and madder than anyone else. He doesn't always win the top awards at Chelsea (although I thought his Sky Garden last year was beautiful and thoroughly deserved its gold medal). However, when it comes to adding to the gaiety of the nation, I think he should have a place in the Horticultural Hall of Fame.
His pyramid, or tower, sponsored by Westland Horticulture, is a piece of work. It stands 80ft tall, with a scaffolding frame, and has seven floors altogether, which each have a different theme. On the first floor is a miniature gentlemen's clubroom, looking out onto a Japanese terrace. The second floor has flowers - peonies and roses - while the next floor has a greenhouse, a cold frame and a vegetable patch, grown in raised beds.
There is none of the meticulous finish you find at Chelsea - the floors are made of scaffolding boards with rather alarming gaps in between, and there is a very random selection of furniture, ranging from swing seats to Adirondack chairs.
A lift - of the most basic kind - takes you up to the sixth level, thank goodenss, because although there are stairs up to the first floor, further access is by ladder. Erk! I'm terrified of heights, so I went up in the lift, stood on the sixth level (with my legs shaking) long enough to take some pictures, and came down in the lift, feeling rather sick and looking rather pale.
VP, on the other hand, came down the stainless steel flume - like the ones they have at water parks - which runs from the top to the bottom. She said it was fab. I'm quite happy to take her word for it, and I'm full of admiration. As it was, I had to go and have one of Mark Diacono's cocktails afterwards to make me feel better (he was acting as bartender on Jo Thompson's Caravan Garden).

The great man himself.

Sculpture and planting on the ground floor

A seating area on the first level

Looking up through the lift-shaft

 The gentlemen's club on the first level, which looks out onto a small Japanese-inspired balcony

A miniature pond complete with water lilies

 Arriving on the ground floor by flume

The view of the showground from the top of the tower. This was taken quite early, about 9am, so it was still fairly hazy. Still, I'm glad we went up then - we just wandered on, whereas later in the day, there were huge queues of hacks.

 Looking down from the sixth level at the vegetable garden

 The view of the Thames, and Battersea Park, to the south.

 The greenhouse....

There has been a bit of controversy about Diarmuid's garden (no!) because there was some suggestion that he was going to let the public on, in defiance of health and safety rules. The RHS line is that if he chooses to invite people on, and they want to go, that's fine, but it's totally impractical for the public to have access. If you think the RHS might take rather a pompous attitude to Diarmuid's tower, then let me tell you that head press officer Hayley Monckton has already been down the flume.

Chelsea Flower Show 2012: There's nothing like a bit of bling

A lot of attention is paid to the show gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show - and quite rightly. However, each year in the Great Pavilion, where the nurseries show off their skill, you will find the most astonishing stands. Some are from the nurseries or producers close to home, such as the exhibit above, by the Jersey Farmers' Union, inspired by stained-glass windows. A gold-medal winner, I predicted - and I was right!
Many of the most spectacular are created by overseas exhibitors, such as the Nong Nooch Tropical Botanical Garden from Thailand, below. Most are celebrating their native flora - but they do it in the most fantastically theatrical way. Even if you know you'll never be able to grow vanda orchids or heliconia in your garden, you can't help but stop and gaze, open-mouthed at the sheer gorgeousness.

Much of the Nong Nooch display is created not with plants (although there are plenty of orchids), but with petals, thousands of them, which are used to cover every surface.

The Nong Nooch stand is huge, and there is something different to look at from every angle.

China may have the terracotta warriors, but Thailand, apparently, has the terracotta toddlers!


This is the Taiwan Orchid Growers Association display, designed like a traditional Chinese garden, with trees hung with orchid "blossoms" and Chinese lanterns.

Barbados Horticultural Society showed off an astonishing variety of heliconia (the plant that looks like lobster claws) and anthurium. The bromeliad at the front, on the right, with the amazing blue flowers and red stems, is an aechmea. I'm not sure which variety this is, but if you want one to grow as a houseplant, look out for 'Blue Rain' or 'Blue Tango'

Jamaica's exhibit, with strelitzia (bottom right) and sansevieria. I always used to hate sansevieria, which is the sort of dusty houseplant you see in dentists' waiting rooms, but grown in the garden, it looks wonderful. (Have to bring it in during the winter, of course). 

Finally, you can't much more theatrical than an auricula theatre! This is the W & S Lockyer stand, which also won a gold medal.