The Chelsea Flower Show falls in the week that seems to teeter miraculously between spring and summer. It is a time that is full of promise, but the show cheats it by just enough to whet your appetite for what is yet to come – roses in abundance, strawberries smelling of real strawberries and tapering lupins in full and spectacular flower. It should be a good show this year, in contrast to last year’s, which followed a hard and drawn-out winter. The growers have little to complain about after the mild winter and well-measured spring, so we should be in for a good display of flower and optimism.
I have the luxury of visiting during the build-up to the opening. The show gardens have now got wise to the press, the photographers and the filmmakers, and by the Saturday many are ready, waiting smugly for the limelight to shine. But under the shade of the tent, there is a hushed concentration as the organised chaos within is slowly honed to perfection.
You can talk to the growers, if they can be drawn away from unwrapping their irises and peonies from cotton-wool or dusting their auriculas, to glean years’ worth of hard-won knowledge. By Monday’s press preview this magical atmosphere has gone, the people walking the aisles doing so in business and party suits. It’s a day for meeting and greeting, champagne, royalty and industry lunches.
This year I have been asked to speak at the RHS President’s Lunch in support of its apprenticeship scheme, which was launched last year to bring to the attention of the government the fact that horticulture is an undervalued and underinvested industry with a bad reputation among young people. The apprenticeship scheme is being delivered through the RHS School of Horticulture and will provide 16 apprenticeships over four years based at the RHS gardens at Wisley, Hyde Hall, Rosemoor and Harlow Carr. My own education started at Wisley on a two-year diploma course which was, in many ways, the equivalent to this scheme. It was the best start I could possibly have had, given that there were no garden design courses and a horticultural education offered my only route in. A number of RHS apprentices will be helping to build some of the show gardens this year, and the combined exposure to outstanding plantsmanship and first-rate design that Chelsea offers can set youngsters off on different paths.
Flower power: tulip mania inside the Grand Pavilion. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA Archive/Press Association Ima
I, too, saw behind the scenes when, as Wisley students, we came in to sweep the aisles ahead of the royal visit. Then, in the early 90s, at the age of 28, I was lucky enough to be given my first show garden. There were very few young garden designers in those days and I was lucky to benefit from the experience and early exposure that cutting your teeth at Chelsea gives you.
This year there is plenty of new blood looking to make a mark, and many gardens have strong narrative themes of sustainability, conservation and environmental responsibility.
Twenty-six-year-old Hugo Bugg was voted RHS Young Designer of the Year in 2010, and is one of the names for the old guard to keep a keen eye on. A first-time Chelsea designer, he made an inventive sculptural design for the Royal Bank of Canada Waterscape Garden showing how natural water-management features can be incorporated into the garden, with geometric corten-steel walkways cantilevered over channels and filtration beds which direct water through the garden at different speeds. The planting features a high proportion of native species common to watery landscapes and wet woodland, including alder, sedge (Carex pendula), wood rush (Luzula sylvatica) and purple meadowsweet (Filipendula purpurea).
Brothers Harry and David Rich (26 and 23 years old, respectively) made their first Chelsea Show garden in the Artisan Gardens section last year, for which they won a gold medal. This year their Night Sky Garden sees them moving to Main Avenue and exploring themes that relate to the night sky, drawing attention to the prevalence of light pollution. Once again they promise accomplished naturalistic planting in starlight shades of whites, blues and purples featuring a combination of British natives and ornamentals including angelica, aquilegia, astrantia, foxglove, iris, maple, birch and pears. British vernacular hard landscaping of dry-stone walls and boulders will be juxtaposed with steel-edged moon-reflecting pools and a grassy bowl offering up places to stargaze.
This conjunction of the natural and the modern, the rough and the sharp, the wild and the cultivated looks to be a key theme in many of the younger designers’ gardens this year.
Another name to watch is 28-year-old Sophie Walker, who won the People’s Choice Award at last year’s Hampton Court Flower Show. She is exhibiting here for the first time, in the Fresh Gardens section with her Cave Pavilion. Produced in association with the Garden Museum to raise awareness for the museum’s new extension fund, it features a Perspex pavilion, a 21st-century take on the Wardian case, the terraria used in the 19th-century to transport plants from their native habitats. The planting, designed to emulate a dreamlike jungle Eden, is composed of plants supplied by Crûg Farm Plants, whose owners, Bleddyn and Sue Wynn-Jones, are famed for their plant collecting from the wild all over the Far East and beyond. It is the first garden at the show where the plants are fully traceable, each having its own collection number, and is designed to raise awareness of international plant conservation.
In with the new: Chelsea is the place at which to find the latest introductions, like this Lilium martagon ‘Claude Shride’. Photograph: Alamy
As well as selections of some of their favoured daphniphyllum and schefflera, there will be a range of maples hardy across a range of temperatures, including Acer campbellii var campbellii; the Vietnamese A heptaphlebium with bronze foliage; A takesimense from Korea, which is cold-hardy and has spectacular autumn colour, and one genus completely new to cultivation, Uocodendron whartonii, which the Wynn-Joneses discovered in Taiwan in 2003. I will definitely be making my way here, for there is always something new and garden worthy from this remarkable nursery.
Another theme explored by a number of gardens is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. Matthew Keightley, 29, is another first-time Chelsea designer who looks to be demonstrating a clear and simple vision in his design for the Help for Heroes garden, inspired by the experiences of his brother’s tours to Afghanistan. The ethos of Help for Heroes to inspire, enable and support wounded soldiers during their recovery translates into a garden that appears calm, reflective and therapeutic. Again the design plays with a progression from wild and rough to structured and cultivated, and the use of repeated granite blocks, both rough and finished, among abundant cool green planting has strength and humility. In tune with the show’s increasing awareness of sustainability, the garden will be relocated to the grounds of Help for Heroes in Essex after Chelsea is over.
I say it every year, but with the intense media focus on the show gardens, it is easy to overlook the Grand Pavilion. I actually spend most of my time here and never quite feel as though I have seen everything. I’m always niggled by the feeling that I have missed something amazing. The old faithfuls are here every year, but rather than feeling jaded at the familiar collections of plants, I never cease to be inspired by the displays and encouraged to try new plants.
This year I am particularly looking for plants for a shady garden planted in gothic shades of green and black. Bulb specialist Jacques Amand has excellent collections of unusual and exotic woodlanders, and I am hoping to get a clutch of Asarum maximum, Paris polyphylla and Arisaema concinnum, which is one of the easiest to grow.
I have also got into the habit of placing my autumn bulb orders at the show, and it is here that I have often seen new introductions which have since become regular features in my planting plans. One such is Lilium martagon “Claude Shride”, available from Bloms Bulbs and Jacques Amand – the latter also stocks varieties in a range of unusual oranges and caramels, such as L “Orange Marmalade”.
I will also be looking to increase a collection of cool-grown houseplants for a client, and so will head to Dibleys for its unsurpassed range of streptocarpus and foliage begonias. And from McBean’s I hope to add to a collection of cymbidium orchids, with C lowianum “Concolor” and C tracyanum.
At last year’s show I was about to leave when I caught sight of Erythronium “Susannah” on the Harveys Garden Plants stand. It is supposed to be a great improvement on E “Pagoda”, and I immediately placed an order for 12, which are now doing very well in the studio garden.
There is no time like the present for following through on orders that can otherwise end up as undecipherable scribbles in your notebook. If you place your orders now, when the bulbs and plants arrive in the autumn it will be a delightful reminder of a show that takes place on the cusp of summer, and it will offer encouragement for next year’s growing season before the winter descends once more.