Saturday, July 5, 2008

Happiness is a day at Hampton Court

It's the eve of the Hampton Court Flower Show, and thus a moment to celebrate in the gardening year. (The show opens on Tuesday to RHS members: the public gets in from Thursday). The world may be more familiar with the Chelsea Flower Show, but British gardeners, especially those in the south, love Hampton Court. I've always found this rather intriguing. I can understand why many people have a love-hate relationship with Chelsea. It's a top show, they agree, but it can be a bit of an ordeal. Too many people, they say, too many wacky show gardens, too many stands selling tasteless/expensive/unnecessary gardening accessories.
Hampton Court also attracts crowds of people. Its show gardens tend to be far wackier (sorry, conceptual), than Chelsea's. And it is stuffed with stands selling garden accessories, including a huge Country Living marquee that, as far as I can see, sells nothing but clothes. Yet we love it. It's partly, I think, because it has the atmosphere of a traditional English village fete (albeit on quite a large scale). The showground is three times bigger than Chelsea's too, so it seems more spacious. It has a fabulous setting, beneath the nose of Henry VIII's spectacular palace, and beside the Thames, which by the time it gets to Hampton Court, has taken on a more benign, leafy, cygnets-and-ducklings aspect. Saturday and Sunday are family days, so good for taking children. Most important of all for gardeners, however, you can buy plants. (At Chelsea, you can only place orders, which may make you feel like Vita Sackville-West as you grandly order your bulbs, but is slightly lacking in the instant gratification department.)
So what are the highlights this year? For me, the Plant Heritage marquee, run by the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens is always worth a look, as they usually have around a dozen National Collections holders who are more than happy to talk about their chosen species. Last year, there was a Rubus National Collection with not only ornamental brambles, such as the white-stemmed Rubus cockburnianus, but also amazing things that you wouldn't even recognise as being related to the humble blackberry. I've never had the slightest desire to plant brambles in my garden, but came away determined to instal at least three R. Cockburnianus until I came to my senses and realised I didn't actually want to re-enact a scene from Sleeping Beauty every time I went outside. Fantastic in the right place, though, and that's what makes the Plant Heritage exhibits so interesting. You have the chance to find out about things you'd never normally see or seek out.
Hampton Court regulars might like to note that the Plant Heritage marquee has changed places this year: it's now on the right as you enter from the Thames gate, to make way for the Meteorological Office's Climate Change Dome, which I'm dying to visit. I'm hoping Emma from A Nice Green Leaf will rendezvous with me there as we intend to have our picture taken with at least one BBC weather forecaster.
There's a big emphasis on fruit and veg this year, with a Growing Tastes marquee that will include the RHS summer fruit and veg show, cookery demonstrations and kitchen gardens: no less than three of them, showcasing British, Asian and Mediterranean produce. There's also a bit of a Thai thing going on along the Long Water, with a floating market consisting of genuine boats shipped in from Bangkok by the Thai tourist board. I think that's got to be a must-see, don't you?
One of the reasons I love Hampton Court is that it's one of the few places you can find a congregation (perhaps that should be a shoal) of water-garden nurseries without having to travel miles out of London. I always head for Lilies, based near Reigate, which is where I got the Nymphaea 'Highlight' for my pond that is pictured (rather incredibly inexpertly) below. It was in flower today for the first time this year, which I like to think is its way of celebrating Hampton Court. Mine involves a large Pimms.