It’s the most prestigious flower show in the UK, perhaps in the world. For five days in every May the highest levels of horticultural excellence are displayed to over 150,000 visitors by more than 500 exhibitors. It is so popular that all tickets must be purchased in advance and this year they sold out in record time.
The Chelsea Flower Show has itself become, aptly enough, a force of nature.
Held in eleven acres of the grounds of London’s Royal Chelsea Hospital, this red letter week in the gardening calendar is presented by the Royal Horticultural Society, and can trace its illustrious history back to 1862. Only world wars have halted its annual blossoming; a fact made all the more poignant by one of this year’s major themes.
As ever, four grades of awards; gold, silver-gilt, silver and bronze, were given in various categories, along with Special Awards for Best Show Garden, Best Courtyard Garden and more. Yet in the final reckoning the show is not about prizes. Not really. It’s about our interaction with plants and landscape, and the possibilities inherent in combining human creativity with the majesty of nature. These possibilities were realised in abundance this year.
As we know, 2014 marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, and quite rightly this event inspired some thought provoking and moving creations. The Birmingham City Council’s display in the Great Pavilion was based around a sandbag lined battlefield trench, with wartime memorabilia, roses, a grass-covered model biplane centrepiece and, of course, a fountain of poppies. This imaginative display drew approbation from Her Majesty the Queen, a regular visitor to the event.
Continuing the Great War theme, Charlotte Rowe’s No Man’s Land featured mounds resembling the weathered trenches still to be seen in the fields of Northern France, along with bunker-like slabs of stone and a tranquil pond representing a water filled bomb crater.
Bringing the theme up to date, 29 year old Matthew Keightley drew inspiration from his brother’s military service in Afghanistan in creating his Help For Heroes garden. The supportive role of that organisation was reflected in the soothing, tranquil ambience of the garden, with cool greenery and granite blocks charting a course from the rough hewn to the structured, blending humility and strength.
On a lighter note, garden guru Alan Titchmarsh may be gone from the B.B.C. coverage of this year’s event, but he proved determined not to be forgotten. His and Kate Gould’s From The Moors To The Sea celebrated fifty years of the Britain In Bloom campaign and featured plants indigenous to the Yorkshire Moors and the Isle of Wight and included a traditional Yorkshire dry stone wall painstakingly reassembled in Chelsea.
Hugo Bugg garnered a lot of attention as the youngest ever gold medal winner at the show. Produced in collaboration with the Royal Bank of Canada, the 27 year old garden designer’s Waterscape Garden highlighted global water issues and conservation techniques. Hawthorn, bluebells and other traditional British blooms, along with raised beds of exquisite anemone and astrantia, were highly pleasing to the eye but also served to draw attention to the designer’s demonstration of how rainwater can be stored for year-round use. Hugo’s system used pools and chambers to collect runoff water and filter it to the plants at varying rates of flow according to their requirements. Both ingenious are artistically valid, this was a real show stopper.
On the rock bank of the hospital grounds the Garden For First Touch at St. George’s, by Patrick Collins, was a fabulous example of how to design a garden on a slope, using the stepped incline to create a hypnotic water cascade amidst alpines and herbaceous perennials symbolic of the unsteady journey faced by a premature baby and its parents.
Perhaps the most spectacularly colourful display was the Thailand Garden, designed to showcase the finest aspects of Thai culture and utilising 100,000 blooms, elaborate Buddhist temples and a pair of white peacocks.
Sadie May Stowell’s Viking Cruises Norse Garden celebrated the Viking spirit of exploration with some wry humour. Fierce-looking Viking warriors clad in chain mail and battle helmets tended to their plot with loving care and a green plastic watering can, while behind them the authentically recreated prow of a longship projected from the earth and offered a fur draped bench for the weary visitor.
Each year as spring is poised to hand the seasonal baton to summer, the Chelsea Flower Show reminds us of the possibilities inherent in our own modest plots of good earth, even as we ponder the perennial mystery of how the designers get those astonishingly extravagant displays to bloom in unison and right on cue. The inspiration sends us out into the garden with our sleeves rolled up ready for action and our hearts brimming with a renewed sense of purpose.