Chelsea Flower Show preview
On the Main Avenue, Foreign & Colonial Investment Trust [site number: MA24] has sponsored
a garden inspired by Candide. Created by Thomas Hoblyn, it's a remarkably apt choice of theme, not just for a financial firm in the current climate, but for the Flower Show as a whole. Voltaire's 1759 satire ends with Candide telling his absurdly optimistic mentor Dr Pangloss that plans, ambitions and theories go wrong. After many adventures, the lesson he has learnt is that one has to make the best of what one has: ‘We must cultivate our garden.'
After last year's worries, exhibitor numbers have recovered and the sponsors are once more reassuringly blue chip. There is, however, a strong sense of cultivating one's garden at Chelsea this year, of avoiding risks and grandiose dreams and focusing instead on what we have, know we like, and can do well. The most innovative feature of the show may be this reluctance to innovate. It's a relief. Truly new departures in garden design are rare and shouldn't be forced.
For some Show Garden designers, this means looking back, to Victorian splendour, for example, or to Pagnol-esque Provence-or, indeed, and unusually for Chelsea, an evocation of Scandinavian forest glade beside a Norwegian fjord. The most striking of these trips down Memory Lane is the M&G Investments Garden [MA18] designed by Roger Platts. Described as ‘a celebration of the traditional', it's a superbly executed specimen of middle-class outer-suburban taste between the years 1930 and 1980, complete with oak-beamed summer house, rose-entwined pergolas and redbrick curving paths. There's nothing wrong with the Gerrard's Cross School (I grew up in it myself); it's just that I never expected to see it at Chelsea in the 21st century. It's strange how shocking the recent past can be. But all is not retro this year. A few Modernist designers prove that taking stock isn't the same as standing still. The result is their best work yet.
Andy Sturgeon has created something that is both exciting and necessary. A gravel garden filled with drought-tolerant plants, The Daily Telegraph Garden [MA21] is also an outdoor room, and a small enough space for a town house or the yard of a country dwelling. A series of stone paths and rectangular terraces is separated by sliced steel screens and low walls to reveal varying views of the garden's compartments. These are filled with plants from Mediterranean-type climates chosen for their intriguing colours and sculptural qualities. Mr Sturgeon has left areas of bare gravel between his islands of vegetation. It's a brilliant decision and brilliantly done: emptiness is a precious material far too rare in British gardens. On the fringes are a cork oak (Quercus suber) and the gracefully pendulous pepper tree (Schinus molle). Their shade apart, the garden is filled with sun and warm-hued surfaces, a basking spot for people and plants.
Robert Myers's garden for Cancer Research UK [MA22] is a beautifully considered and constructed design, rich in sources and symbolism, and yet still imbued with moving simplicity. A ghostly grove of single-stemmed birch (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii) is underplanted with sylvan vegetation, dark-leaved and white-flowered. Through it wanders a path of sunken granite planks, their ends staggered so that the undergrowth intervenes in places-an ingenious note of naturalism in what is otherwise a very sleek design. As the path recedes, so the stone becomes paler and the planting grows prismatically colourful, the progress towards light and enlightenment being the aim of this garden. It expands in a terrace around a circular pool that matches a circle cut overhead in a canopy of cantilevered steel and wood. At the garden's end, a grid of cubic evergreens creates a living abstract tableau.
This design resurrects one of the oldest garden types, the garden of contemplation. It's surrounded by a cloister, reinvented here as an arcade of dark timber slats in yin-yang contrast to the white-trunked birch. For reviving this feature and bringing it to Chelsea alone, Mr Myers has proved himself worthy of a gold medal.
The Great Pavilion teems with the world's flora, enough raw materials for a world of gardens. With spires of starry flowers produced in that awkward time just after the tulips have finished, the North American bulbs Camassia have grown in popularity of late. Long-lived, exulting in damp, and tall enough to overtop their competitors, they are superb when naturalised in rough grass. But they are usually only blue. Now Broadleigh Gardens (GPG11) is introducing a new group of variants, Broadleigh Belle, with flowers in pink, mauve, opal, and white. Growing to 3ft tall, they are capable of turning a small managed meadow into a spangled early summer sensation.
Meanwhile, Knoll Gardens (GPF4) is exhibiting a new grass for places where grass wouldn't normally grow. Festuca idahoensis Tomales Bay is less of a bun than Festuca glauca. This makes it easier to use en masse without producing a bed that looks like a failing hair transplant. Steely blue, slender and spilling, the foliage lasts well through the winter. This cultivar's greatest merit, however, is its exceptional drought tolerance, once watered-in and established. I may try it in a gravel garden near another drought-proof debutante, Philadelphus maculatus Sweet Clare from Hillier Nurseries (GPE15). A hardy selection of a Mexican species, it's a shrub to 5ft tall with slender, arching branches and petite silvery leaves. Produced from June onwards, its flowers are large, downward-facing, and white with ruby centres. Despite its demure appearance, this Mexican mock orange is yet more powerfully fragrant than its familiar cousins.
This year, David Austin (GPG10) has surpassed even his own stratospheric standards with six new roses, at least three of which merit instant classic status. Rosa Princess Anne makes a compact bush
of lustrous deep green foliage, to about 3ft tall. The flowers appear in June and continue until the first frosts. Densely double and ruffled, the petals are deep carmine on opening, with a gold highlight on their undersides, and fade through magenta to finish in pure pale pink. If you have ever wished the naïve beauty of our native eglantine could be replicated in concentrated and courteous form, then Rosa The Lady's Blush is for you.
Although it commemorates the 125th anniversary of magazine The Lady, this new rose puts me more in mind of an older and grander lady altogether: it would not look amiss in a miniature by Nicholas Hilliard. A rounded bush to 4ft high, it's ideal for mixed borders, but I'll be using it (as per its Elizabethan aura) in the gaps of a knot garden. Opening from finely pointed buds, the flowers are semi-double and shell-pink with a white central zone. This accentuates their finest feature, a brush of bright gold stamens attached to a red-ringed disc.
Finally, Rosa Susan Williams-Ellis is the realisation of something that has long been on gardeners' wish lists-a rose that's beautiful, small, strong, scented and white. An exceptionally hardy and long-flowering shrub to about 4ft tall, its clusters of snowy, sweetly perfumed blooms contrast with gleaming dark green leaves. Crêpe-like and closely layered, the petals give the flowers the appearance of miniature double peonies. This outstanding new variety commemorates the founder, a half-century ago this year, of Portmeirion Potteries, and the designer of the firm's famous rose motif.
Since last year's show, much has been revealed about the horticultural habits of politicians. The discovery that some of our legislators were such devoted gardeners might have been a vote winner, had we not been asked to pay for their pleasures. It comes as no surprise that they arrange things differently in the country that put the tumbril at the heart of the political process. What is surprising is just how differently. For the past 150 years, France's senators have been able to enjoy their very own private orchid collection.
Housed at the Palais du Luxembourg, the collection comprises more than 10,000 plants in 150 genera. It's notably strong on natives of France's former colonies, among them 60 species and 540 cultivars in the genus Paphiopedilum. Pet-named Sabots de Vénus (Venus's shoes) with almost fetishistic indulgence, these tropical Asian slipper orchids are the senators' favourites. There are also remarkable rarities from the jungles of French Guiana: if only Steve McQueen had been an orchidophile, Papillon would have been softer than Porridge. As for les citoyens, they get to see the collection for a few days each year. But they don't complain. Unlike the artifacts jealously guarded by parliaments elsewhere, at least the senate's orchids are used for scientific research, breeding work, and conservation.
To mark their collection's 150th anniversary, the senators have sent the pick of their plants to Chelsea. The Jardin du Luxembourg exhibit (GPD7) is a unique glimpse into one of the world's oldest and greatest orchid houses. A hybrid of rain-forest and Belle EPoque conservatory, it evokes both the romance of the era of elite plant-collecting and the realities of conserving species whose forest habitats are being felled by the minute. So far as France's parliamentarians are concerned, these orchids are national treasures and an international resource. If our lot had claimed for this kind of horticulture, I, for one, would not have begrudged them.
This year's Chelsea Flower Show takes place on May 25-28, 8am-8pm, and May 29, 8am-5.30pm (show sell-off 4pm), at Royal Hospital Road, London SW3. All tickets must be booked in advance. There are no sales on the day. For further details, telephone 0844 338 7524 or visit www.rhs.org.uk
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