Garden review – 2010 Chelsea Flower Show (a newbie’s perspective)

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Friday afternoon I went to the Chelsea Flower and Garden show. Key vocab item for day: Fairy Toad Flax.Fairy Toad Flax It is an incredibly cute flower that looks good in big piles, very wildflower-y. It was a part of the garden the Leeds team put up. Not sure why Leeds wanted to have a garden at a London flower show, but there you have it.

Anyway the flower show is about a ten minute walk from the Sloane Square tube stop. This neighborhood always seems posher than posh, a place where the moms’ diaper bags look more expensive than my (former) car. I joined the stream of people walking to the Chelsea Barracks. I don’t know much about the grounds, only that the “Chelsea Pensioners,” which as near as I know are soldiers above a certain age with no living children or spouses, live. They were a red uniform, and as I walked into the gravel path leading to the grounds, they were out collecting donations, wisely enough.

There was a line of people waiting to get in (I think for the third entry period that day), but no line to pick up tickets (though there were touts outside trying to sell them – I hear they were going for 200 pounds a pop – as it was sold out). I went and got mine and discovered, though I hadn’t been able to remember the correct entry time for my “afternoon” entry, in fact I’d shown up just 15 minutes after the entry time (3:30), so I went in right away.

Victorian Butterfly PavillionThe grounds of the festival were HUGE and the volumes of people unspeakable. To see any of the actual gardens you had to kind of bounce along like a stick in a stream, waiting for an opening so that you could get up to the front and have a peek – even worse than the Seattle Flower & Garden show I went to for years and years, although this was nicer because so many of the gardens were outside – and it wasn’t raining. I think people who went yesterday did not have my kind of luck.

However, the festival seemed very little about the gardens – I don’t know what I was thinking – and much more about the selling of garden junk. Clippers, trellises, garden design, gloves, flowers, memberships in various societies, it went on and on. The initial entryway, the gravel walkway, turned into a giant wall of vendors on each side. To be honest, the press of people was making me not feel good and at one point it all got a little sideways and then LARGE AND CIRCULAR and woo woo and I remembered that it was really just a bit late for me to have not had any lunch yet.

And just where were the actual gardens? Well, off on these side paths from the main one were little nooks that had been turned into display gardens. Some of them were clearly ideas for back yards, some more sculptural displays, some really about showing off the plants. It was a lot less about blooming flowers than the Seattle show usually is. I particularly enjoyed the Victorian Aviary garden (see picture above) with its cast-iron trellis and peacock stone inlay, made better by the inclusion of tiny terra-cotta bird tiles within the main design. Pretty much it was exactly what I’d like my back yard to look like. Another nice garden had a focus on bronze flowers, a nice change from previous trends of black and variegated foliage.Bronze iris

These gardens were a transition area between the main path and a giant, covered pavilion, the purpose of which was somewhat of a mystery to me. I only allowed myself about 45 minutes inside, as it was packed to the gills and I had to be somewhere on a pretty hard deadline after I left and couldn’t really dawdle. The pavilion – about the size of two football fields – seemed to be mostly about garden designers and plant sellers showing what they had or what they could do. There was also a display of the “plant of the year,” which I had a look at but can’t describe now as it’s left my brain. The Thai exhibit was quite exciting, just cascades of orchids and all of these exotic statues Thai floral sculpture made of flower petals that looked like entrants in the Rose Parade in Pasadena. It made me want to go to Thailand – probably exactly the effect they were shooting for.

Not surprisingly for me, the various companies displaying tulips – while impressing me that they’d manage to get them to bloom about two months later than the flowers wanted to (I still have about six in my backyard right now but tulip season was over, way over) – failed to wow me with the varieties they had on display. So many of these cultivars are just common, common – though it’s only fair to say that they displayed way more creativity than the Seattle ones, which were Golden Appledoorn and Red Appledoorn everywhere as if red and yellow were the only acceptable tulip types. So I saw Shirleys and I saw Zorels but I was not wowed at all – though I was pleased to see a display from Dobbies, which had done such a nice job of kitting me out this year. But the big highlight for me was seeing the David Austin exhibit – so many of his gorgeous, gorgeous roses, all blooming at the same time, ready for me to admire and sniff. I did notice they almost all tended to look a bit floppy, as if the blooms were just too big for the stems to support. It was exciting, though, to see the new varieties for this year – but of course you really can have too many rosebushes, especially when you only have a tiny little yard like I do. I also got to see in some other garden a Himalayan blue poppy, which was exciting because they are so very forbidden to grow in the US. Himalayan blue poppy

Probably the best part about this show is the fact that there’s a giant bandstand on the grounds (on the other side of the Row Of Vendors Of Doom) where the Chelsea Pensioners play music in a very brass-heavy way. I heard them play “I Am What I Am,” some other showtunes I can’t recall now, and at one point “The Mexican Hat Dance.” There were all sorts of seats set up to sit in and enjoy the show, and lots of stands selling ice cream and (even better) glasses of Pimms. I was desperate for a chance to decompress after all of the crowds, and while this was still crowded, there was a bit more room (thank goodness). I think this is probably what is at the heart of the flower show mentally as well as physically – a chance to enjoy a lovely spring day with some music and a little bit of something nice to drink. There were a few more gardens on the far side of the grounds, near the exit, but these were pretty unimpressive compared to the larger gardens and generally forgettable.

So my thoughts: too crowded, too expensive, but a really good way to load up on all of the gardening tat you could want if you think it’s a good idea to pay to go somewhere to go shopping. If you could go without the crowds maybe it would be fun, but frankly I think I would have done better going out to a proper garden somewhere and just seeing it in person.

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