My day at Chelsea

Monday, 17 June 2013

The ethereal blue poppy at the Chelsea Flower Show

Many, many years ago, a kindly friend of my parents gave me a copy of The Garden, the monthly magazine of the British Royal Horticultural Society. I had never heard of this august organisation before, and as a fairly novice gardener, the magazine opened my eyes to a world I could never have imagined. I joined the Society and have been a member ever since. Though much of the content of the magazines over the years I now realise is not that applicable to a Sydney gardener, I have learned much about gardening, garden design, garden history and a wealth of plants - and the possibilities of garden writing beyond the pedestrian articles of how to prune the roses. I received seeds from the Society's seed exchange for a number of years, and some of the plants that resulted from those seeds still grow in my garden.

Through the magazine, I learned of the Chelsea Flower Show, run by the Society in London every year, and one of my lifelong ambitions has been to attend. Many friends have been and raved about it and I have watched videos of how it all happens. But as the years went past, I never had a chance to attend it - with work and family commitments, it was all too hard. However, it remained my dream and so it finally happened that on Tuesday 21 May this year, rugged up against the bleak and cold weather, my husband and I were standing in the queue outside the 100th Chelsea Flower Show! The atmosphere in London in the days before the show opened had been exciting in itself, with the event making front-page news in the papers, featuring on television every night, and spawning a number of fringe events. The show was the cover story for the May issue of the Where London tourist guide and I felt so thrilled to feel we were actually part of it all!

Some of the team behind the winning Trailfinders Australian Garden, designed by Phillip Johnson, at front

When we were allowed through the gates at 8 am, we had no idea where to start, so we wandered aimlessly down one of the roads, suddenly finding ourselves in front of the Trailfinders Australian Garden, designed by Phillip Johnson and sponsored by Flemings Nurseries. We had seen the garden profiled in the papers and on television in the lead-up to the show, and it was hard to miss, with its bold, metal waratah-like structure as its focus. Just as we arrived at the garden, the team received the news that their garden had won not only a gold medal but had been judged as 'Best Show Garden' - something no Australian exhibit had ever received before at Chelsea. Their spontaneous outburst of excitement (including one of them leaping into the freezing-cold billabong in the garden) was a delight to behold, and we felt totally caught up in the euphoria of the moment.

The giant waratah studio in the Australian show garden

A naturalistic, sustainable 'bush' garden within an urban setting, using hundreds of tonnes of rock and structural Australian plants such as the Queensland bottle tree, grass trees and tree ferns, highlighted by the huge waratah studio, and given colour by a ribbon of massed native flowers along its front edge, its elements felt familiar to us but it was a total contrast to most of the other 14 Chelsea show gardens. Many of them were formally designed, with those ethereal plants that flourish so well in the English climate, and which I had hankered after for years. A number of them were focused around the theme of change or a journey; some had an almost abstract look. The sheer feat of creating a show gardens from scratch in a very short time to give the effect of being permanent and long-established, is just mind-boggling, and I enjoyed each and every one of them. The perfection of every leaf and flower was just incredible. The trees looked as if they had been growing there for years!

The Homebase Garden

Some stood out for me more than others, and I particularly liked the Homebase Garden - a modern family garden designed 'to provide a small family with a space to enjoy an everyday connection with their food and nature'. Its goals included providing a space for children to be in touch with the natural world and to encourage wildlife. It was amazing how much was able to be packed into one small area, including a number of vegetables and a beehive!

The Arthritis Research UK Garden

The Arthritis Research UK Garden was also a favourite of mine (and indeed won the 'People's Choice' award) and was intended to reflect the personal journey and emotions of someone with arthritis, in a space divided into three areas, beginning with a shaded woodland garden, a formal area with a pool and then a section with stunning perennial borders of brilliant colours. It used sculptures in a most effective way. As well as the main show gardens, there were smaller displays known as the 'Artisan Gardens' where an artistic use of materials is required, and 'Fresh Gardens', where designers must 'think outside the box'. These were all fascinating in what they achieved in compact spaces.

Display of Auricula from W & S Lockyer in the Great Pavilion

Inside the Great Pavilion - a huge marquee in the centre of the site - a dizzying number of nurseries, gardening societies and other organisations displayed magnificent flowers of every type that one could ever dream of. A couple of the nurseries have been exhibiting since the very first Chelsea Flower Show in 1913. Though most (but not all) of the flowers were ones I had failed with in my humble garden on the other side of the world, this was of no consequence: the enjoyment was in simply succumbing to the beauty and colour of the blooms, and being in gobsmacked awe at the standard of the displays, their inventiveness and the flawlessness of the plants. It was a celebration of quintessential British gardening, and felt like a floral banquet, almost overwhelming in its scope. It was wonderful to be able to just admire without the need to feel I had to grow them in my own garden, and in the end I was very glad I had come to the show at this point in my gardening life - had it been 20 years earlier, I would have been in agony at not being able to order anything and everything on display.

Badger sculptures at the Chelsea Flower Show

Despite being at the show for eight hours, I don't think we saw everything. As well as the gardens and flower displays, there were myriad stalls selling garden-related items - ranging from elegant conservatories to birdbaths and sculptures to posh gardening clothes. Some of these things were truly exquisite but we could only look, given our baggage restrictions for the flight home! But we enjoyed every minute of our day at Chelsea. I hope that every gardener who has never been will have the opportunity to attend this event one day.

Reader Comments

  • By Maureen 2118 Tuesday, 18 June 2013

    Thank you Deirdre for sharing your Chelsea experience with us - a joy to read especially as I have only been there by TV. How fantastic that you were actually at the Oz exhibit as they received their news!!! Thanks, Maureen, hope you"ll get to go one day. Deirdre

  • By Lindy 2093 Tuesday, 18 June 2013

    What a wonderful experience! One day I"ll get there, too. Love the "Badgers"! Thanks, Lindy, hope you will get there one day. The badgers were so cute and there were many other wonderful animal sculptures, including some made from driftwood! Deirdre

  • By margaret 2122 Tuesday, 18 June 2013

    Thank you, Deirdre, for your eloquent sharing of your Chelsea experience - it brought back many happy memories, which are forever stored in my mind. I agree, anyone who has the chance, please visit Chelsea - you will not be disappointed! Thanks, Margaret - yes, it was certainly a fantastic experience. Deirdre

  • By Richard 2112 Tuesday, 18 June 2013

    Deirdre, I am extremely envious! I have never been in the UK at the right time of the year to do any of the great gardens, and hope one day to rectify this! Until then I will have to content myself with books and magazine articles! You will get there one day! Deirdre

  • By Sue 2074 Tuesday, 18 June 2013

    I visited 2 years ago - a great experience and any gardener would love it - the sights in the Grand Pavillion were breathtaking for me and I have a very similar snap of the auricula stage. Another of my favourite stands was the veggie stand with parsnips and carrots almost a metre long. What a great year to go with the Ozzie win. Thank you for the pics and inspiration - I wish we could see more as they do in UK with the daily TV coverage direct to Oz. The TV and newspaper coverage was amazing in London - really added to the overall buzz about the event. The vegetables were fantastic - loved those displays. Deirdre

  • By Audrey 4216 Tuesday, 18 June 2013

    A wonderful experience for any gardener or flower lover to visit he Chelsea Flower Show. Originally from England I now live in Australia, and loved every minute of my visit to this fantastic Exhibition four years ago - and am hoping to visit again next year. Audrey Thanks, Audrey - hope you get to go next year. Deirdre

  • By Jan 2582 Tuesday, 18 June 2013

    Thanks for sharing - very envious but now feel like I"ve experienced a little bit of it. I hope you"ll get to go one day - took me many years to get there! Deirdre

  • By Ian 2519 Tuesday, 18 June 2013

    Wonderful to hear of your trip to Chelsea Deirdre. I think I enjoyed the pavilion with the flowers the most. Amazing to see those giant Delphiniums and perfect Sweet Peas. Thanks for sharing, regards Ian Thanks, Ian - yes to see those magnificent specimens in the pavilion is just a unique experience. They are all so perfect!!!! Deirdre

  • By maree 2118 Tuesday, 18 June 2013

    So glad you had a great time and how wonderful to be right there for the anouncement! Phil is such a nice guy ,and friends and I heard about the garden from him, when it was in the design stage. So glad the show was up to expectations and you found the desgns inspiring, I must have gone in the wrong year! Maree Thanks, Maree. My husband actually got to chat to some of the team later in the day (whilst in the queue for the Gents!!) and he said they were great, very down to earth and friendly. I think the Australian win added to the feelings I had about being at the show. Deirdre

  • By Carole 2230 Tuesday, 18 June 2013

    meconopsis betonicifolia was your first pic, I love it, it is the poppy that I first saw a picture of over 40 years ago, bought the seed from Thompson and Morgan but never managed to grow it. A bit of unrequited love. Loved the photos you must have had an absolutely marvellous day. I am sooo happy for you. Plan another trip ! I too tried to grow the blue poppy years ago - it represented the pinnacle of English gardening to me. Thirty years on, I accept my own climate much better and what I can grow. I didn"t pine to have all the things I saw that day - just was able to enjoy their essential beauty for their own sakes - very liberating feeling. Deirdre

  • By Anne 2518 Wednesday, 19 June 2013

    thanks for sharing Deirdre - I was wondering where you were! I was lucky enough to go while living in London in "69 but it has surely gone on to bigger and better things since then. how lucky you were to be there for the century show. Loved the badgers. I still have a go with auriculars every now and then. My Mum would have loved to have lived where she could grow the blue poppy - a stunning colour. Thanks again. I still hope I might get there again :) Thanks, Anne. I think so many of us wanted to grow the blue poppy - I had never actually seen one in real life before I went to the Show. Hope you"ll get to go to the Show again one day. Deirdre

  • By Jenny 2120 Wednesday, 19 June 2013

    Love to go! But you can see more detail of the Flemings garden and how they did it on their website. Interesting how to construct a gorge wall! Jenny Thanks, Jenny. The link you have provided above is now connected to their website. Deirdre

  • By Mary 2031 Thursday, 20 June 2013

    Chelsea. Wow - and thank you! Mary M Thanks, Mary. Hope all well in your garden. Deirdre

  • By keith 2066 Thursday, 20 June 2013

    Dear deirdre, thanks for the info on Post Office Farm Nursery. We were blown away by the choice. Have (so far) ordered some purple and yellows to go under our Magnolia Regards Keith Thanks for the feedback, Keith. They will look great under that tree. Deirdre

  • By Dar 2350 Friday, 21 June 2013

    Thanks for a fabulous precis of Chelsea, Deidre. Terrific that you happened to be right there for the Best in Show announcement - I reckon that might be highlight of your gardening career! I too yearn to grow meconopsis betonicifolia successfully. Living in the New England region I have a better opportunity than those who garden at lower altitudes in Aust, but so far that success has eluded me with one flower maybe 10 years ago - your blog has prompted me to try again - thank you! Dar Thanks for your comment, Dar. Good luck with your blue poppies - they are the most exquisite flowers! Deirdre

  • By Stephanie 2075 Sunday, 23 June 2013

    Deidre, you should get the gold medal award for your eloquent Chelsea experience! I went there a few years ago, as my daughter who was working in London, managed to get tickets for us to go .We were impressed even then with the unique style of the Flemings design garden. I agree about finally letting go of our "Sissinghurst" horticultural ambitions! I am writing this in a vibrant tropical garden, north of Cairns,plants to die for .No chance for cuttings, on a 3 month trip! Thanks so much, Stephanie. Glad you enjoyed the show when you went to it. Your current trip sounds fab! Deirdre

  • By Lois 3216 Sunday, 23 June 2013

    I went to Chelsea about ten years ago and it was a wonderful experience.It would have been great to be there this year when the Australian team won gold.I love Philip Johnson"s garden designs. Thankyou Deirdre . Thanks, Lois. Glad you enjoyed your visit to Chelsea. It certainly was wonderful for us to be there this year. Deirdre

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