The Magazine

Britain in Bloom

The Chelsea Flower Show celebrates its centennial.

Jun 17, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 38 • By SARA LODGE
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

You can’t buy plants to take away at Chelsea—at least until Saturday afternoon, when the show is dismantled. The tension between the omnipresence of beautiful plants and the fact that you can’t have them (or not yet) creates a frisson of quasi-erotic wistfulness. Concrete as the exhibits may be, the Chelsea Flower Show is all about fantasy. It is about the garden of your imagination much more than the one in your backyard.

Ranged around the Grand Pavilion are the 15 official “show gardens,” and you will have to be patient if you want a good look at any of them. Rock concert-style crowds throng and surge against the wire barriers as if trying to glimpse a zoo tiger or the Mona Lisa. You may suffer a middle-class, middle-aged elbow in the kidneys, or a Cath Kidston chintz tote swung perilously close to your glasses. 

These mini-idylls, the largest of which is 32 by 72 feet, are scrutinized for their design as closely as any catwalk creation. Some are classical in inspiration: The 2013 Laurent-Perrier garden, designed by Swedish art-throb Ulf Nordfjell, featured a bronze sculpture of Orpheus leaping lyrically upward in a movement echoed by five tapering oaks—tall, golden trees that had the slim, paintbrush shape of cypresses. These oaks (Quercus fastigiata) became one of the most talked-about items at the show. Other gardens are more urban in feel. The Midlands city of Stoke-on-Trent, famous for the industrial potteries that produce Britain’s tableware, sponsored a garden this year that was designed to reflect the regeneration of the city. It contained an extraordinary open structure in the shape of a kiln, partially stacked with white china “flower bricks.” Behind this was a living wall of plants in colors supposed to represent the Staffordshire landscape. Water cascaded through a series of tiered pools, toward a circular, tiled tabletop depicting plants exhibited in the garden. 

I’m not convinced that I’d want any of this in my personal oasis, but, with perhaps the addition of a few flamingos, I think Gwenda Pottingdon would be impressed.

Each of the gardens and pavilion stands is assessed by a committee and awarded a class of medal: gold, silver-gilt, silver, or bronze. Part of the pleasure of the show is tutting in outrage at the decisions. As with the Oscars, members of the public often suspect that politics trumps talent. If a garden is sponsored by Prince Harry, highlighting the plight of AIDS-affected Lesotho (as the Sentebale garden did this year), then—many whisper, and I cannot demur—it will win gold regardless of how ugly it is.

Some of the more quietly attractive gardens this year were in the smaller “Artisan” and “Fresh” categories. In “The Massachusetts Garden,” inspired by the poetry of Emily Dickinson, designer Susannah Hunter, who normally works with textiles for handbags, had created a floral backdrop that was like a Japanese screen, but entirely made from appliqué leather. She estimated that there were 15,000 handsewn petals in the garden, creating imaginary hollyhocks and foxgloves and a wisteria trellis behind some lovely naturalistic planting by Catherine MacDonald, including irises, poppies, and dogwoods. 

I liked the soft planting, too, in the “Get Well Soon” garden by the National Botanic Garden of Wales, which was full of medicinal herbs and restful, creamy-hued tulips (“Maureen Double”), aquilegia (“White Star”), and delphiniums (“Galahad”), with now and again a splash of wine-red anemones (“Bordeaux”) to revive the drooping spirit.

The Artisan Gardens are designed to showcase natural and sustainable materials, and it is clear that concern about sustainability has risen up the Chelsea agenda in recent years. Several universities had stands in the Great Pavilion, presenting their work on grass-free lawns—why not try a wildflower meadow instead, which will need less watering?—and allowing visitors to play with scientific instruments that can measure chlorophyll in wheat varieties, making fertilizer application more efficient. Products for sale included wool compost and various kinds of batboxes, “frogitats,” and “hogitats” (to encourage hedgehogs). Iconic animal species such as the nightingale, turtledove, and hedgehog have diminished by 90 percent in Britain in the last 50 years: a sad toll that is attributed to habitat loss, pesticide use, and changing climate patterns. Hedges, which provide nesting sites for birds and allow hedgehogs to move between gardens, are currently “in”; fences are “out.”

Recent Blog Posts