We went to the Chelsea Flower Show today. We arrived at quarter past eight this morning, and at quarter past four this afternoon I had to admit that we might be getting tired. It was wonderful. We avoided watching any of the TV coverage beforehand, so as not to spoil the initial surprise of the displays, but the machine was set to record and we'll watch them now, then go on following it for the rest of the week.
It's always a pleasure to see old favourites. Peter Beales and David Austin roses were both there, and both got gold medals (phew). Ditto Blom for their tulips, or at least I assume they got a gold. I don't think I actually saw it, but Blom always gets a gold. The chap I spoke to didn't know why the heads might have broken off my tulips, though. Apparently it is not a common problem. Avon Bulbs looked marvellous as ever, and the Alpine Garden Society, and Dibleys with their streptocarpus and begonias. We got home to find a Dibleys catalogue on the doormat, complete with Chelsea selection if we wanted one. I was planning to put an order in, but will choose my own.
I have found an alternative supplier of violas. I paused to admire their display, and the nurseryman asked if I'd smelled their new introduction for 2016, so I did, and it was delicious. I established that they had a website, and he told me that orders submitted by Christmas were not charged until later and that they would always contact customers to discuss alternatives if there was a problem with anything not rooting as well as planned. He agreed that five substitutes out of ten was too many, answered my question on compost with advice on fertiliser doled out for good measure, and off I went, a potential new customer.
Fibrex were there, and gave me their best guesses on the identities of two pelargoniums I'd acquired without names, one as a present and the other bought unlabelled because I liked it. The British Pteridological Society were happy to dispense advice on growing ferns and a fistful of leaflets, and warmly urged me to join them. There was a man specialising in Mandevillia. I didn't speak to him, but saw from his display that if Budgens had another Dutch trolley of them I would be OK overwintering one in the conservatory as long as I kept it very, very dry. One of the things I like about Chelsea is the opportunity to pick people's brains and deal with some of the year's accumulated garden niggles and queries.
Some things were sadly lacking. There were no reckless plant stands at all this year, and what is Chelsea without an auricula theatre? Although every other show garden in the main avenue seemed to have pine trees in it, there were no conifer growers in the great pavilion at all, if you don't count one bonsai firm, which I don't. A couple of years ago it looked as though conifers might be valiantly nudging out of the wilderness to which they had been consigned by the end of the 1970s, but evidently not.
But there was a gloriously blingy parks department display, with Birmingham doing the honours this year. I love the Chelsea version of municipal bedding. I wouldn't want to live with it all year at home, but I really like looking at it annually at the show. The stand of impossibly tall and perfect delphinium stalks ranged above equally impossibly huge and brilliant begonias was there, exactly the same as it was last year and every year for as long as I can remember. There were two cactus nurseries, both excellent, and I like cactus. And lilies, and orchids. Really the great pavilion is my absolutely favourite bit.
The show gardens were fun as well, none ground breaking, some downright silly (especially the garden concealed inside a granite box with peep holes in it, and a long queue of people waiting to look through the holes). After we'd watched Diarmuid Gavin's topiary cones rotate and his box balls go up and down we got bored of waiting for the other bits of the garden to move as billed in the programme, but we really liked Cleve West's Exmoor inspired garden, and this year's slice of the Provencal countryside. Weeds and wildlflowers are increasingly in at Chelsea, while a couple of gardens that were still using yards of box hedging, corten steel, crown lifted multi-stem shrubs and pleached hornbeam took us back to the noughties. The show gardens are using more colour and less pure white and green than a few years ago, while this year apricot and burnt orange and yellow are all the rage. I counted no Dianthus carthusianorum at all, while it was all over the place a couple of years ago, and the early flowering red peony 'Buckeye Belle' ubiquitous a decade back has likewise vanished, but Orlaya grandiflora first introduced several years ago by Tom Stuart-Smith is still going strong.
The internet is a great adjunct to Chelsea. Instead of having to go home with armfuls of catalogues I can look everybody up when I get home, as long as I can work out who was who from the show catalogue. Better still, designers and sponsors of show gardens are starting to put up to date versions of the final planting list on their websites. It is so frustrating when you see one unfamiliar plant that you really like in a show garden, only to find when you accept the planting list and obligatory free bag from the polite young person on the stand who is not a gardener and knows nothing about the plants, that the particular subject of your interest was a late addition or substitute and isn't included in the printed brochure. Cleve West's M&G garden gets round this problem by putting the list as of 22 May on the M&G website, where a quick session with Google will let you identify any charming unfamiliar species. Though I am not planning to buy any investments from M&G as a result, only to make a note to order fresh seed from Derry Watkins at Special Plants once it's available in August.