Sunday, June 5, 2011

What taking home a piece of Chelsea looks like

I went to the Crocus Chelsea sell-off sale on Saturday. I'd been to one of their open day/sales before and really enjoyed it, so I was looking forward to going back. This sale had been much more widely publicised, and anyone within 100 miles who had seen something they coveted at the Chelsea Flower Show was determined to pitch up and snag a bargain.
Crocus were the contractors on two Chelsea gardens, Luciano Giubbilei's Laurent-Perrier Garden, which won a gold medal, and Cleve West's design for the Daily Telegraph, above, which won Best in Show. They also supplied some of the plants for Robert Myers' Cancer Research Garden, so they knew exactly which plants each designer had used.
All around the nursery, plants bore labels stating in which garden they had had a starring role. The only major omission was the gorgeous dark red Dianthus cruentus used by Cleve West, below, which had been a sensation at Chelsea and had sold out days and days ago.

Saturday was a hot summer day, and Crocus was busy. Really busy. It was like the opening day of Harrods sale. As I arrived, at 10.15am (thanks to roadworks, I was held up for 45 minutes coming off the M3), there were already queues to pay and tractorloads full of plants waiting to be unloaded. One innovation was the presence of plant experts in blue jackets, who were available to answer queries.
I was charmed by the fact that the tractorloads looked like mini Chelsea gardens all on their own. No one had designed them to look like that, but the combination of colours and textures looked sophisticated all by themselves.
Does this mean we don't need garden designers? No, not at all. If Cleve and Luciano and Robert hadn't chosen those particular varieties, the public wouldn't be buying them. The designers had set the style and the public was following.
When I was at the Chelsea press day, Anne Wareham was interviewing people about whether Chelsea is still relevant. Caught on the hop, I wittered something about the RHS. But I think that ideas is what Chelsea is for. If all the show does is to demonstrate how to combine plants in a pleasing way - some of them cultivars that are a bit more unfamiliar, such as the white centranthus, or the now famous Dianthus cruentus, then that's good enough for me.

Here's another little mini "Chelsea" garden, below. What's interesting about these plants is that they belong to different buyers. At Crocus sales, you go round with a sheet of stickers and label the plants you want to buy, which are then picked up and taken to the central payment point.
So while at first I thought this was someone's selection for a border, looking more closely I found it included the choice of several buyers. Yet it all looked good together. Interesting.

Luckily - and no offence to Cleve - I didn't actually want Chelsea plants, but was hoping to grab some Canna striatus at a reasonable price instead of the normal exorbitant one. I very rarely see it on sale for less than a tenner a pot (come to that, I very rarely see it on sale full stop), but the special open day price at Crocus was £5. I bought four.
I also bought two Musa sikkimensis 'Red Tiger' bananas (also a fiver), a couple of bronze phormiums to replace the slightly ratty ones in my garden, two Trachelospermum jasminoides to replace the jasmine that got clobbered in the winter, a Dryopteris wallichiana (I have a bit of a fern habit at the moment).
And I bought two Euphorbia cyparissias 'Fens Ruby', to which I am also somewhat addicted. The label said this plant had been used by Cleve West in his design. Well, I couldn't go all that way to deepest Surrey and not bring home a little tiny bit of Chelsea, could I?