FLORAL TRIBUTES – and foliage fisticuffs


I am not a flower person. I do not have green fingers, green thumbs and if there was green anything else, it would be more likely to be evidence of gangrene than my horticultural skills. Whilst I enjoy walking in gardens, I rarely enter one clutching an odd shaped implement with a curious name (I don’t know what a “matock” is, nor do I wish to). I have never bought nor read a gardening magazine, watched a gardening show on TV and am not sure I would recognise Alan Titchmarsh if I bumped into him at the check in at Gibraltar Airport.

So, why was I, on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in May, wandering around the Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show, with a stupid grin on my face thoroughly enjoying an occasion I had never previously had the slightest ambition to experience?

For the uninitiated, Chelsea is a kind of Mecca for gardeners and gardening enthusiasts. I had been invited by my friend from Chicago, who is a member of the RHS and consequently visits the UK to attend every year (I said it was like Mecca). As such, I got to go on the first Members’ day. This apparently means it is less crowded and you get to see the flowers and gardens at their best before the week begins to take its toll. The previous night had been the gala evening with lots of frocks (the purchases of which no doubt resulted in the emptying of stock in Laura Ashley shops throughout the Home Counties), blazers, straw hats and champagne. I wasn’t invited to that bit.

As an aside, my friend from Chicago is also the one who edits and proofreads every article I write. This has the advantage of the fact she is very good at it, having done it professionally. This has the disadvantage that she will be editing this as well and so can censor any comment she deems inappropriate.

Anyway, if this was the less crowded day, the public days must be like the start of the Harrods sale. The site for the show is quite small and they pack a lot in. Aside from the show gardens, there are marquees with every kind of flora and fauna imaginable. There was the awe-inspiring 5000 Poppies Project on display in front of the Royal Hospital. Comprising 26,000 handmade felt poppies it carpeted the lawn (clearly having hit their 5000 target they kept going, or simply failed to keep count). There was a floral tribute to the Queen. The papers that morning had a picture of her looking at it with the face of someone who clearly would have preferred being unattributed.

The breadth of imagination shown, and the love involved in the creations would make a diehard cynic smile (no wonder I was grinning like an idiot). There was realism, there was surrealism. There was a boundary dispute between two of the designers when one, whose creation “Harrods British Eccentrics Garden” and which seemed to partially comprise a rusty old shed, moved said shed next to his neighbour’s more aesthetic “Cloudy Bay” garden. The latter, which was named after a rather decent antipodean white wine, shows in my view a refreshing honesty as to under what influence the design process might have been conducted. Apparently, the dispute actually revolved around the existence or absence of a hedge. The dispute ended amicable, one hopes over a glass or two of the Sauvignon Blanc.

Only a British flower show could include a boundary dispute involving a hedge. Perhaps it should become an annual event, “Layllandii v chain saws at dawn”. Imagine the profits from the TV rights alone.

There then followed wandering amongst the show gardens, peering at the vast array of stands selling everything imaginable to put in, on, above or underneath your garden. There were rocks which balanced on each other, apart from when the wind blew and they suddenly didn’t. £4,350 for that sculptural wonder/do it yourself rubble. There was a man selling his patented slug repellent, his stall complete with a picture of him presenting one to a surprised looking Prince Charles. There were clothes for gardening in; there were framed prints of people wearing clothes to garden in. There were gardening implements which would have scared Freddie Kruger. There were more gazebos than you could shake a rake at.

Then there was the price. Taylor Wimpey sells houses in the London suburbs for less than some of the furniture on offer. To be honest, if I paid that much for a bench, the last place I would put it is outside.

To these must be added the artisan “studios”. I believe that the word artisan is now massively overused. Farmers markets have artisan bread and olives. You can drink artisan coffee in an artisan tea room. To be clear, artisan is a French word which simply means “a skilled craft worker who makes or creates things by hand that may be functional or strictly decorative”. It doesn’t mean it is more environmentally friendly, tastes nicer or is better for you.  Indeed, many artisans seem to regard even the need to be skilled as non-essential. It seems to now mean anything made in a shed by someone with a potter’s wheel, some paint for ceramics, and a dream of the hills of Tuscany, but not necessarily any discernible talent.

Despite everything, I loved it all and briefly considered carpeting the deck on the flat roof of my house in artificial grass simply to create somewhere to place some of the, otherwise pointless, articles available for purchase.

Ok, there was a bit of pretentiousness. The inevitable explanatory notes which accompany the show gardens ooze it.  For example Cleve, the designer of the M&G garden is quoted as saying “What I plan to do this year is explore a contemporary space that acknowledges and reinterprets my memories within a contrived garden context”. Result… a pond. A nice pond I grant you, but a pond. Next year Cleve, keep it simply, like “this year, I plan to do another pond, maybe with some grass”.

Apparently, it is not even grass. Cleve’s pond was encased in “Briza media Golden Bee”, “Descahpsia flexuosa” and “Melica nutans”. Looks like grass, feels like grass but the seeds cost so much that I swear some dope head somewhere has tried to smoke it. Nice pond though.

Finally, after a couple of wines (not Cloudy Bay, regretfully) and a fair amount of Pimms (editor’s note; him not me), we toddled out into the streets of South West London. The bag in my hand indicating I had succumbed to the enticements of some of the stalls. The purchases comprised a new multi-function nozzle for my hosepipe and the patented slug repellent.  I have to report, only one actually works, but I am now getting good at drowning slugs with a very accurate burst of water from the hose.

Oh, and that Friday I went to Kew Gardens, Maybe I am becoming a “flower person” after all these years and only a few decades late. Now, where did I put the keys to my Volkswagen Campervan?

words | Marcus Killick