Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Chelsea Flower Show 2019: zombie apocalypse aftermath

Well, everything they say about Chelsea Flower Show is true. Yes, everything!

It's big, it's commercial, it's horrendously expensive: it's fantastic, there's so much to see, it's very well organised: there are too many trade stands, too many other people, not enough show gardens; there are lots of trade stands and shopping opportunities; it's all as fake as a fake thing (having to look at stands full of flowering hydrangeas - ours, locally, are barely budding  up - next to stands full of flowering daffodils is a bit of a strain on the horticultural credibility), but it was still a fabulous day out!

I haven't seen any of the TV coverage - on account of not having a TV - nor have I read any of the reviews etc, other than to have noted that "Kate" had created a garden, so this review probably won't say quite the same things as the other reviews...

After an early start, and a rather giggly journey on the luxurious Oxford Tube coach (still can't accept a coach called "The Tube" as to me, being London born and bred, the Tube is the Tube, and that's that. End of diversion, please drive on:), we arrived at Victoria, hopped on the shuttle bus and found ourselves in a steady flow of Chelsea visitors, entering the showground.

We worked our way gently through the security search ("Oy! Give me back my Hula-hoops!") then headed for the Pavilion, on the grounds that a) most people were heading straight for Kate's Garden,  and b) we weren't quite sure about the weather, and if it should chance to rain everyone would stampede for the shelter, so we thought we'd get it done first.

Good decision, as it turned out: it was sufficiently un-crowded that we could move round at a decent pace, and it hadn't yet heated up to boiling point in the sun.

So, the Pavilion: that's where the plants live. Lots and lots of plants, rather like a "Best of Village" gardening show, but on a large scale and - generally speaking - without the veg. Many of the stalls were one-hit wonders, a chance for the plant breeders to show you just how many garish colours they can breed into their specialist subject: but quite a few had made an effort to create a mini-show garden, which we all enjoyed more than just "here's our plant in red, here it is in yellow".

To give you an idea of how un-engaging the Pavilion was (to me, that is) I only took one photo:

... and that was more to remind me of the cunning positioning of a bonsai within a circle of painted wood.

Now I am looking for a garden in which to create something like this.....

After an hour or more in the Pavilion, and having narrowly avoided being part of the filming while we were - fruitlessly, as it turned out - trying to get to see the Ikea stand, we escaped and went out to see the D-Day landing memorial garden.

This is not quite a garden, it's more of a cross between an art installation and a memorial, and is quite wonderful.

On the right-hand side, you have the garden part: something like 11,000 individual Sea Thrift plants (Armeria maritima) in white and pink, all carefully grown in pots, crammed together on the forecourt of the Royal Hospital to form the illusion of a windswept, sandy beach. Among the plants are 15 stone plinths, representing the troops who fought at the D-Day landings: each engraved with a quote from an individual veteran.

At the front of the line is a life-sized statue of one particular veteran, Bill Pendell MM, who is a local man, he comes from Stanford in the Vale. The statue shows him as he was last year, age 97, and depicts him sitting, looking out to sea.

On the left is the "sea", an impressive structure of grey steel girders and chippings, representing the waves of the  landing. Among those waves are some ghostly images of young soldiers, cleverly made by welding washers together to form a chain-mail effect, but only detailing part of the soldier, giving them an ethereal, transparent quality.

(apologies for the photo, I didn't take one myself due to the excessive quantity of elbows and hats around me, so I pinched this one off the internet.)

The concept is that the 97-year-old Bill sits on the right, watching  his younger self rushing out of the waves. Of course, we all ask ourselves what he would be thinking, what he would say when he saw his younger self on the beaches: sadly, we'll never know because Mr Pendell died last December - after the sculpture was made, but before seeing the installation.

The garden was, like all the show gardens, fenced off to keep out the masses, but a special few people were allowed to go inside and walk around it.  And the lovely part is that after the show, the whole garden is being packed up and reinstalled in Normandy: not only that, but the foundation who raised the money for the garden are also paying for 75 veterans to be brought to London to see it.

After seeing this, we found somewhere moderately quiet to eat our packed lunches: we're not daft, we'd heard the rumours of huge queues and over-priced food, although to be honest, it didn't look that bad: £10 for a smallish portion of fish and chips seems quite reasonable to me, and the serving seemed to move along quite nicely.

Refreshed and renewed, we wasted 15 mins queueing for the loos - honestly, guys, come on: the briefest of brief surveys suggested that the ratio of women to men was a minimum of five to one, so how come there were so few loos for the ladies? The organisers had made a bit of an effort, with a large block of mobiles loos (nice solid ones, not those nasty blue plastic tardis things) and a team of young staff chivvying us along ("Come on ladies! Move all the way through, more round the back, chop chop!") and a very effective mass handwash arrangement.

However, by the time we'd all been processed, the queue was faintingly long, and the volume of the grumbling was getting quite worrying. Fearing a riot, we hastened off to see the show gardens.

As always, they look lovely on tv (I used to have one, I know what the presentation is like) but in real life, you can only see one side of them, and then you have to fight your way to the barrier, and if there is someone particularly tall/stout/behatted in front of you, well, it's quite tricky to get a good view. And you don't like to spend too long looking, as you are very aware of the crush of people behind.

But we managed to get a feel for the themes of the show gardens: to me, there was nothing particularly new there, it was all a bit derivative: lots and lots of rusty iron, and a strong theme of zombie apocalypse eco aftermath. You know, the zombies have eaten everyone, and nature is returning to take over.

Those show gardens which resisted the rusty iron, still went for the mock "wild" look, which - as a gardener - I find teeth-grittingly annoying. Why? Firstly because it looks lovely now, for the five minutes of the show (allowing for the fact that many of the plants at the show have been forced/held back/tortured in some way to get them perfect for that one week) but - as several astute visitors said out loud - once this plant and that plant have gone over, there'll be very little left to look at for the rest of the summer, and nothing at all left for winter interest.

And secondly because creating and maintaining a "wild" garden takes just as much time as creating and maintaining a traditional garden, which many people don't realise. I don't mind if a garden owner wants a wild garden because it's wild, because it reminds them of their childhood, because they want to be friendly to wildlife etc. I start gritting my teeth when they want a wild garden because they think it will be low maintenance.

Oh no it won't! I'll be writing about this separately, so come back later if you want to  know more on that topic!

So what did actually catch my eye?  Well, first was this very contemporary garden, mostly because one of my Clients wants to install a narrow rill in their garden, and wanted ideas:

...this isn't quite what they are looking for, but I rather liked the idea of the very narrow stream, easy to  step over. And I liked the idea of using different coloured stones for the edges, so you can see them!

Not so keen on the "concrete slab" footbridge though - it's not the concrete slab-ness that I dislike, as that is actually quite in keeping with the rest of the garden, but the fact that they've put it behind (from the point of view of the chair and table) the wall. With greenery overhanging it.

Why would you choose to do a tightrope balancing act on a narrow footbridge, then squeeze round the back of the wooden wall - actually the side of a pergola - brushing through foliage en route?

I can't help feeling there was a slight mistake in the build.

Please note, again, the "wildflower" style planting. Nice for five minutes.... not exactly lovely all year round, though.

The next thing that caught my eye was the garden produced by the Australian adventure holiday company, and not just because they were dishing out free goody bags.

(I do love free goody bags!)

Love the dear little wombat on the left (comment overheard from another visitor "Oh look, a beaver!"), and the iconic Koala. Not quite so sure about the Foxgloves, though: I would not  have considered them to be native Australian plants.

*slight pause while I go and check*

Oh! "Naturalised in some parts of south-eastern Australia"

Well, that told me.

Meanwhile we were hearing from other visitors that the queue for "Kate's Garden" was now reaching inter-galactic lengths, so we decided to give that a miss.

Instead, we hopped up into the exhibit next door, which was a treehouse, in the hopes that we'd be able to see over and down into it, but alas, "Kate's  Garden" was surrounded by trees and we could not get a single peek. Drat!

Finally, I took a photo of this stand which showcased some fantastic metal water-feature trees sculptures.

I've wanted one of these since seeing the copper weeping willow water tree at Chatsworth, and these were far, far better than that.

They had a stand full of them, so they'd built a shallow tank to house them, and the sound of the "rain" was like that of a thunderstorm!

The trees are getting more and more realistic, and as you can see, they're now making strange but colourful flowers which also spout water.


I'm not quite sure how I'm going to fit one of these into my tiny garden... in a perfect world, I'd have the whole thing installed!

Alas, the firm who make them have had a total "Fail" on the advertising front, as I can't find them on the internet: I've searched for Chelsea 2019 trade stands, artificial trees, water sculpture, water trees, copper trees, etc etc and I still can't find who makes them.

So, that was Chelsea 2019: zombie apocalypse aftermath, wildflowers and weeds, rusty iron, and well worth getting up very early in order to get there not long after opening time, in order to have a chance to see round before it got too crowded.

Best points: showground policy is "no dogs, no prams, no pushchairs, no babies, no children under 5". It's a show for grown-ups, and it was lovely. No screaming children, no perpetually being run over by buggies, no having to watch your every step for fear of treading in dog poo.

Worst points? Definitely the queueing for the loo. I have submitted feedback to the RHS. *laughs*

Will I go again? Unlikely: having now looked at photos on the internet (while searching for the metal tree people), I can  honestly say that you get a better idea of the show gardens from the tv coverage and the internet - after all, they are able to compose the shot (hahaha, I typed "compost" instead of "compose" there and had to go back to change it!) to show off the relevant/best features of the garden, and you don't get bumped into, while you are trying to see them.

However, I do think that the Chelsea Flower Show is something that everyone should go to once (everyone who is interested in gardening, that is!) and I am extremely happy that I have now ticked off that box, with grateful thanks to the kind friend who invited me to go!

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