After staying away for a few years Charles Quest-Ritson is delighted to report that the Chelsea Flower Show is as great a treat as ever — but that's not to say there aren't a few things that have changed...
I went to the Chelsea Flower Show last month – my first visit for several years. I started in the 1970s and used to go regularly: I remember the ladies up from the country arriving at Waterloo station in their hats and floral dresses. Sometimes, I asked if I might share their taxi and we chatted excitedly all the way to Ranelagh Gardens.
In those days, Chelsea was free to members and there was space to move around. For some years now, the RHS has been run on corporate lines (which means, say its critics, that numbers and figures count for more than horticulture), so members have to pay and demand is such that tickets sell out very quickly. It’s still worth it — it’s a treat, an education and a mega experience all in one. Better than ever.
‘Cow parsley and buttercups came as a bit of a shock — pretty they may be, but most of us spend our gardening days weeding them out’
Monday is the day to go, but you have to be very rich or very important to be invited. Or a member of the press. My first visit as a journalist was in 1991 and, once you’ve been on the Monday, you will never again want to go with the crowds on other days. There’s plenty of room to move around and the exhibitors have time to talk to you.
I’ve always found the show gardens a bit of a conundrum. They look expensive and, clearly, their backers reckon the publicity gained is worth every penny of the expenditure. However, it’s hard to imagine actually wanting to own any of them. Some are so way-out that I struggle to see what I can learn from them.
Woodland settings with a back-to-Nature theme predominated this year. Cow parsley and buttercups came as a bit of a shock — pretty they may be, but most of us spend our gardening days weeding them out.
I asked the press office if it could let me have a copy of the rules that the judges apply when they evaluate the gardens, but it couldn’t. There was no doubt in my mind, however, that the M&G garden was the best of the bunch and I was pleased to discover it received the top award. The ensuing publicity will help to impress the initials of M&G — and perhaps also its financial services — on millions of newspaper readers and TV viewers.
The Great Pavilion is the empire of horticultural excellence. I used to go up and down the aisles lengthwise and then transversely, so I missed nothing. Now, however, the layout is much more spacious than it used to be. The standards of display have also greatly improved and I’m not surprised that more than half the exhibitors won a gold medal.
There was an impeccable show of daffodils from Walkers Bulbs, but I missed the displays of spring bulbs that used to come from Broadleigh Gardens and Avon Bulbs — mounting a show at Chelsea is expensive of both time and money. However, it was a great joy to see magnificent begonias and delphiniums from the ever-faithful Blackmore & Langdon’s and scented pinks from Calamazag in Cornwall. Raymond Evison’s Clematis hybrids were simply wonderful — I’d have bought them all immediately if sales were permitted.
‘I asked the lady in front if I might share her taxi — she gave me a quick look-see and said she would prefer to travel on her own’
Peonies, I noted, are definitely on the up — Binny Plants brought them from Scotland and another display featured a lady wearing nothing but a flesh-pink leotard painted with peonies. I wondered how the nursery got that idea past the RHS censors.
And the roses? David Austin’s two new roses did not look — to my eyes — all that different from some of its older introductions, but I may be wrong. Peter Beales had an excellent new shrub rose called Liverpool Hope (large, double, scented, creamy white with a butterscotch centre) and Harkness Roses launched Chawton Cottage, the first British climbing rose with the dark-crimson splodges that come from years of breeding with Rosa persica. It was, for me, the best new plant of the whole show.
I left before The Queen arrived and queued for a taxi at the Embankment Gate. The lady ahead of me was going to Waterloo, so I asked if I might share the journey with her. She gave me a quick look-see and said she would prefer to travel on her own — proof, if proof were needed, that much has changed since I first went to Chelsea more than 40 years ago. Even an old buffer like me is no longer considered safe in taxis.
Take a look at the award-winning gardens from the 2019 RHS Chelsea Flower Show.