We spent yesterday at the Chelsea Flower Show. In the ordinary way I'd have blogged about it when I got home, but as I made my final tour of the Grand Pavilion I began to feel unnaturally tired, and on the train coming back began to feel rather shivery and prickly, and when we got in I simply went to bed, leaving the Systems Administrator to water the plants in the greenhouse.
Chelsea is changing, I am afraid. Doubtless I am changing too, and after attending for the past three decades I can't expect it to have the same impact as it did when I started off. I have encountered more plants since then, so the thrill of making new discoveries is less than when practically everything was a new discovery, and every show garden now is weighed up against my memories of hundreds of other show gardens. Nonetheless, Chelsea is changing, and not necessarily in a good way. It is becoming more of a lifestyle show, which is all very well, but not what it primarily used to be or what I would like it to be.
In the Grand Pavilion, which was always my favourite part of a fabulous whole, there were still some excellent displays and some proper nurseries. Rosy Hardy was there with the largest stand I've seen her on yet, and Kevock from Scotland where I could feast my eyes on blue Himalayan poppies and the wonderful red Meconopsis punicea without falling into the trap of trying to grow them in Essex. The City of Birmingham had produced a completely over-the-top tower of bedding in every colour imaginable so long as it was bright, topped by a Heath Robinsonesque animated train. There were sumptuous exotic orchids, and Protea from Kirstenboch exhibited by two fabulously enthusiastic South Africans. There was the identical same display of unbelievably huge and perfect delphiniums above massive bright orange begonias that Blackmore and Langdon have exhibited at every Chelsea I've been to, and so far as I know at every Chelsea since the very first show. Kelways had brought mouthwatering intersectional peonies with petals like tissue paper, Blom's tulips were as splendid as ever, and there was a fascinating display of tubers of different potato varieties.
And yet. There were no auriculas. There was one stand with violas, but it must have been very small for I never found it. In fact, there was a marked decrease in the number of smaller nurseries taking part, with the sort of stand where you can ask for advice from somebody who actually grows the plants and knows how they behave. The flower arranging section was much larger than in previous years, but floral art leaves us both cold. The big site around the war memorial, that was inhabited by Notcutts for years before passing to Hillier, had been subdivided leaving Hiller with a smaller stand, and the rest of the space given to the Wedgwood tea garden. Proof comes from the show catalogue (now priced at an eye watering ten pounds) where the list of exhibitors of perennial plants is half the length of the list of exhibitors selling sculptures and there are more firms listed under Stationery than Trees and Shrubs. Maybe the cost of exhibiting at Chelsea, now it extends to an extra day and everything to do with London from the congestion charge to the price of overnight accommodation is so expensive, puts smaller firms off. Maybe now they can showcase their wares via the internet they don't need to come in person to hand out catalogues to potential customers. Whatever, the reason, they are not coming and I miss them.
It had been well flagged in the press that the number of show gardens was down, only eight in the large Show Garden category, with a ninth sponsored by the RHS based on ideas for greening City developments. That was designed by Prof Nigel Dunnett of Sheffield University, who was responsible for the Olympic Park gardens. I have a lot of time for Nigel Dunnett and liked his Chelsea design. Of the other eight we only really liked one, the Royal Bank of Canada's wetland forest garden. The garden based on the Chinese Silk Road was madly kitsch and quite hideous, the garden about breaking down barriers in education cluttered with weird structures vaguely resembling giant wine racks that were presumably meant to symbolize barriers being broken down but failed to divide the space in any aesthetically meaningful way, and we didn't see one of the gardens at all. The design inspired by Maggie's Keswick Jencks' cancer centres was one of those enclosed gardens where you have to queue to file past it, and we looked at the length of the queue and decided not to join it.
The County of Yorkshire had sent a diorama of a boat on a beach, below a slope of wild flowers and a decidedly dodgy background painting of Yorkshire scenery. Dioramas used to be a big thing at garden shows before falling out of fashion and this one was quite fun, except that somebody had decided that the way to create the effect of waves on the beach was to attach one of the three mooring buoys to an underwater motor that sent it plunging up and down like a space hopper.
It had also been well flagged in the press that many of the design stars of recent years, including Tom Stuart-Smith, Cleve West, and Andy Sturgeon, were all taking a break from Chelsea. That needn't be a barrier per se. I like all of their work, probably in that order, but it's good to make space for new talent to come through. If only it does. There has also been talk of the lack of sponsors, variously blamed on Brexit in particular or the climate of uncertainty in general. It was depressing to read in the Standard on the train home that the winner of the Fresh Gardens section, which was a really good expression of ideas for planting around some low rise flats, had been unable to find a sponsor despite having won three previous Chelsea gold medals, and ended up financing her entry from her own landscaping business. Does that confirm a general lack of available sponsorship, or just prejudice against female designers?
In the Artisan Gardens category there was one standout good display, based on the greening of a post industrial landscape using rusting cranes, recycled wood and metal and some covetable rusted metal sculptures, and we were pleased when we found out it had won in its category. The others were pleasant if not brilliant. The difference between Artisan and Fresh Gardens seems to be that if it references traditional crafts or historic customs it is Artisan, and if it includes giant pink perspex triangles and half the planting is hidden underground it is probably Fresh.
I had one shopping mission for the day, to buy a packet of beige plastic stick in plant labels. Beige does not sound very exciting, but that is the point, since it blends discreetly into the background in terracotta pots and I wanted some for my display pots, but I drew a blank since the place I got them last time didn't have any. A quick Google search this morning revealed that of course I can get them somewhere else online though the cost of delivery will be almost twice that of the labels.
So that was Chelsea. Nice but not as thrilling as it should have been. The trouble with the plethora of sculptures, statuary gifts, ceramics, candles and diffusers, jewellery, and non-gardening accessories and footwear is threefold. Firstly, many are quite horrible and I wouldn't receive them with joy as a gift. Secondly, I couldn't afford to buy most of them even if I wanted them. And thirdly, I could look at that sort of thing at the Country Living Fair for £14 or the London Art Fair for £15, instead of paying the RHS £72 for the privilege of going to the first members' day at the Chelsea Flower Show. We agreed as we left that we would go next year, but if it continues down the same path I doubt we'll be there in three years' time.