Notes on...

The magic of the Chelsea Flower Show

25 May 2019

9:00 AM

25 May 2019

9:00 AM

Chelsea, the most famous flower show in the world, pulled in its devotees once more this week, with its accustomed mixture of colour, scent and glamour. The continuing success of the Royal Horticultural Society’s ‘flagship’ show has much to do with the BBC’s need to fill schedules, the foreign media’s enduring fascination with ‘Englishness’ and royalty, and the desire of committed gardeners to worship in the company of their co-religionists. It cannot be any kind of fun for plant nursery people, who stage the exhibits in the Great Pavilion, since the logistical difficulties are fearsome, but they mostly cannot resist the buzz. The ranks have thinned a little in recent years, especially among the smaller concerns, which makes getting around the Great Pavilion easier. But something has been lost.

On the subject of loss, this year’s show features a memorial to David Austin, who died last year, aged 92. A Shropshire farmer, he took to experimenting with rose breeding as a young man, crossing modern hybrid tea roses with old roses, and so producing a race of elegant, scented, perpetual-flowering roses, the so-called English roses.


Austin’s roses at Chelsea are not the only flowers to bloom earlier than they do at home. Seasonal manipulation in the Great Pavilion can be seen in displays of daffodils, tulips, lilies and dahlias; all have been speeded up or retarded by clever nurserymen using cold storage or heat under glass. One of the most striking exhibits is Medwyn Williams’s artful tableau of immaculate vegetables. All spring I follow his posts on Twitter (@medwynofangles), and thrill to the sight of him pulling enormous carrots or washing snow-white, dead-straight, longer than my arm, leeks. There is something almost magical about his capacity to produce a heart-stopping display of August vegetables in May, whatever the weather.

Although it is the nursery displays in the Great Pavilion that draw the knowledge-able, it is the show gardens on Main Avenue that pull the real crowds. These layouts cannot happen without deep-pocketed sponsors, which make them as random as a dream. This year’s big spenders include Ikea, Savills, the Forestry Commission, Welcome to Yorkshire, Dubai Tourism, Wedgwood, Trailfinders, Morgan Stanley and Warner’s Distillery. True to the zeitgeist, their garden designers all emphasise the ‘-sustainability’ and eco-friendliness of their visions —  although, ironically, these ‘sustainable’ gardens are pulled apart after a mere five days.

The show has been staged on the Chelsea Hospital site for more than a century and, not surprisingly, has often attracted satellite events. These days, the local shops are charmingly en fête, as part of Chelsea in Bloom. And since 2011, we have enjoyed the Chelsea Fringe, consisting of nine days of community gardening activities, garden openings and exhibitions all over London. Founded by Tim Richardson, the Fringe events are unsponsored, run by volunteers, sometimes anarchic, and very jolly. (Who would not enjoy climbing trees in the Inner Temple gardens?) This year, I would also recommend Bryan Poole’s exhibition of beautiful botanical etchings, painstakingly created using the intaglio method employed by Pierre-Joseph Redouté. They are on view this Saturday and Sunday at the London Sketch Club in Dilke Street.

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