There’s no event quite like the Chelsea Flower Show. In many ways it’s crazy. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of pounds spent on gardens that are several years in the planning, several weeks in the building and all for less than a week’s existence before being broken down. Some live on in new homes, others don’t.
But for garden designers, the show can be the ultimate calling card. Win three gold medals and the business pours in, one of the show judges told me. So designers return year on year, putting themselves through the stress of a society wedding and birth combined.
Monday is Press Day, which is when the royals, celebs and the press get the show to themselves. In Chelsea terms, it’s rather like flying business class. Public days, when people stand five rows deep at every garden, is definitely steerage. My previous Chelsea’s have all been steerage. Breezing through the flower-clad entry gates on a clear Monday morning feels very special. For our guide to all of the action at this year’s event, click here.
The celebs are out in force. Three-metre trees walk down Main Avenue. Esther Ranzen and some celebrity I think (I’m not very good with celebs), hop into an old boat at the Welcome To Yorkshire garden. The designer looks nervous. The boat isn’t in the greatest condition, she tells me.
I spot that chap who is friends with Ewan McGregor. He appears to have stolen a child’s push bike. He wheels it back and forth in a somewhat Victorian country gentleman manner but never actually rides it. I summon the courage for my first celebrity interview and plump for Jennifer Saunders. She is lovely, as is her friend. I find myself asking the most idiotic questions until her friend whisks her away in search of champagne. In my old journalistic life I have interviewed heads of state and war criminals. Celebs are definitely harder.
Jennifer’s favourite garden does happen to be one of my show highlights. Kate Gould’s ‘City Living’ garden, in the Fresh Garden category, shows what can do with your unloved terrace. Built on three levels, the garden offers ideas on how to turn city terraces into tranquil green spaces, enjoyed by people as well as bees and butterflies.
Unlike many of the gardens on show, it isn’t remotely conceptual. ‘I can’t do conceptual, maybe I’m not very bright,’ Gould tells me, which is clearly nonsense. She’s a smart designer who has created an intricate building on three levels that clearly deserves a gold medal, if not best in class. But with no sponsor backing her, Gould had to foot the six-figure bill herself. She describes it as a ‘marketing expense’, but clearly one she hoped to avoid.
Sponsorship is a thorny issue at Chelsea this year. There are half the number of large show gardens than in 2016. To mask the gaps on Main Avenue, the show organisers hid the empty spaces by hooking up with BBC Radio 2 presenters and commissioning a series of gardens inspired by the five senses. Chris Evans and Mary Berry talk to camera in the ‘Taste Garden’, Jeremy Vine stumbles over plant names in the ‘Texture Garden’ and Zoe Ball lucks out with the beautifully designed ‘Listening Garden’ which features speakers hidden in the rusted steel water containers. When music plays, the surface jumps and ripples.
Fiona Cadwallader’s ‘Poetry Lover’s Garden’ is another self-funded garden, in the Artisan category. Inspired by Coleridge’s ‘This Lime Tree Bower My Prison’, Cadwallader has created a beautiful, secluded space. As the early afternoon sun poured down over Chelsea, the lime tree canopy cast dappled shadow and her self-designed water feature looked all the more inviting.
She had started looking for a sponsor in 2015, but none were forthcoming. I ask if she was tempted to give up the project. Like Gould, she had been determined to carry on. Judging by the numbers of people milling around her garden, she may stand to do well from her courage. I hope so.
The heat forced me into the Great Pavilion, where (hurrah!) there were freebie cucumber gin and tonics on offer and the lovely people from Harkness Roses to talk to about scent, chemical-free gardening and their glorious new roses ‘Simple Yellow’ and ‘Simple Peach’. I find more free booze. Pimms this time. I covet dahlias and irises, then wander in search of the rumoured free champagne.
I’m distracted by the beautiful limestone boulder sculptures of Nicolas Moreton. So much garden sculpture is plain tacky but Moreton’s are anything but. They’re illuminated too, and warm to sit on. Perfect for sneaking out on cold evenings. You’d need to find £5,000 for the little one and six times that for big brother. Aside from being a terrific sculptor, Moreton is a breath of fresh air. We have a lively chat about gardens – the good, the bad and the plain goddamn hideous unfortunately not a million miles from his stand.
The champagne didn’t materialise. I grab lunch and eat it on a VIP terrace. The sun burns down. I’m reminded of the no.1 rule for building springtime show gardens – pack the sun cream!
Opposite is the Chengdu Silk Road Garden, which is meant to feature dancing pandas. They don’t appear, but the chap with the stolen push bike does. He’d have trouble packing this giant pink installation onto his getaway toy.
I wander off, steeling myself to chat to more celebrities. The lady off Dragon’s Den seems friendly, but I bottle it. There are troupes of children, some singing, some line dancing. Models pose in the gardens. 3m trees walk down Main Avenue. I stay out of their way, trying to pick the winning garden. My personal favourite is James Basson’s re-imagining of a Maltese quarry for M&G Investments. With huge limestone blocks towering 10m above a sunken pool, smaller limestone blocks and trees and flowers native to Malta, Basson’s monumental exhibit is one of the largest gardens ever to be built at Chelsea. There is also a delicacy to it – the blocks cast welcome shade, grasses rustle in the wind.
The garden is the bookie’s pick for the Best in Show award, something that makes Basson nervous. He admits that he would love to win – it’s what’s kept him coming back to exhibit five times in the last six years. But he’s wary of being too confident.
‘The British don’t like favourites, they like underdogs. I’ve always been an underdog.’
I remind him that he works in the South of France. I’m not sure his mentality is as British as he claims – which is a good thing. Win or not, Basson’s garden has attracted considerable press coverage in Malta. He hopes that it will encourage developers to turn many of the island’s disused quarries into conservation areas, instead of landfill sites. He also hopes that in our Brexit world, it shows EU partnership at its best. He talks about the sharing of skills and knowledge that helped create the garden.
It’s time to go. The Queen and other royals are coming. I walk out through the floral gateway into traffic and the real world of flower boxes and the odd jasmine tumbling over railings. This is a pared down Flower Show from previous years, but there’s some real magic on offer. The sensory gardens are an inspired papering over the sponsorship hole.
Gardens don’t need to be huge or expensive to impress, they just need to do everything well and live in your imagination as well as your backyard. Perhaps this is the year that sees the large gardens give way to the more intimate spaces.
The Chelsea Flower Show 2017 is one of my favourite of recent years. I’m already looking forward to 2018. In the meantime if anyone has any tips for the perfect celebrity interview…