Chelsea – digging myself a big hole?

May 27, 2013
Tulips at Eldenhurst

Tulips in my garden (click to enlarge)

I just don’t get it, I am afraid.

Whilst I appreciate the skill, the team-work and the sheer pressure involved, I find the very idea of competitive gardening a la Chelsea Flower Show totally perplexing.

Fellow writers and garden designers probably despair about my naïvety – but I do acknowledge another view:  We should appreciate Chelsea for what it is – the best and the most prestigious garden design arena in the world.

For the designers, a Chelsea medal (preferably gold) is as good as it gets. Long live aspiration and ambition; for the most innovative and inspirational few, the rewards can lead to international respect, megabucks even, and almost chef-y celebrity.

And I also get the idea of charities big (and especially small), using Chelsea  to raise their own profiles by sponsoring gardens and, in so-doing, showcasing the work of less well-known designers.

But how is it that big-hitting Chelsea-style competitive design has become so divorced from the day-to-day pleasure of fiddling-around-getting-soil-y gardening.

An ‘ordinary’ garden is a place of creativity and personal achievement, often – but not always – beautiful in the eye of the beholder. But more importantly it is a place just to be in, to potter in, or simply to sit and do nothing in (albeit for two nanoseconds after which you notice something that needs ‘adjusting’).

Is a garden that has nowhere obvious to sit – with walkways that are so narrow, between stylishly clipped, broad and dense hedges that you would have to travel around it on a scooter, and where you can scarcely even reach to touch, smell or tend the pretty pockets of plants between them – really a garden?  Not for me it isn’t.

And I don’t think that a garden loomed-over by a vast rusty-looking lump of something that resembles a chunk of space debris (containing a ‘studio’, apparently) cuts the mustard as a place to relax, either.

I should love to have a gander at the clipboards of the RHS judging posse as they stand around stroking their beards wondering which Emperor, this year, is wearing the very best new clothes:

Dominating inanimate but incomprehensible feature… tick.

Arty torrents or mesmerising black water (no blanket weed, not a single stray leaf floating in it)… tick.

Something deeply symbolic made of rough-hewn stone… tick.

Uniformly sized perfect trees planted too close for comfort all in a row… tick.

And (this year) muted fluffy planting, lots of cow-parsley-lookalikes and not a square inch of the essential brown stuff showing anywhere… tick.

Meanwhile, pressing against the ropes, the gardening public ogles, overwhelmed – or in some cases, dare I say it, somewhat under-awed by it all.

Ah, but following months of preparation and a frantic week of high-brow discussion, there is a special award to placate the traditionalists and design-numpties like me: The People’s Choice Award, voted for by the gardening public, invariably goes – surprise, surprise – to the garden that looks the most comfortable to be in.  Sadly, it doesn’t seem to have anything like the cachet of the others.  After all, what would the gardening public know?

So every year I return home from Chelsea, breathe a sigh of relief, pour myself a glass of Sauvignon, go outside and slump on to a bench to take in the day’s delights and think:  My garden – right now.

For me that’s the place to be.

Chelsea Flower Show – a SPANA in the works

May 31, 2008

The SPANA garden at Chelsea (BBC)I have always moaned about Chelsea for all the usual reasons – the crowds and the scrum; the inevitable domination of the whole event by the show gardens and the fact that they often deceive, horticulturally; and all the drossy, tasteless things on sale (not in the main thoroughfare where the big players have their stalls, but in the ‘off piste’ avenues – it was worse than ever this year).  

So I thought that this year I would try to get under Chelsea’s skin a bit more… to see if my prejudices were actually justified.

I was therefore really pleased to have a small input into the SPANA Courtyard Garden – its Moroccan theme, complete with donkey cart, was conceived initially by SPANA’S Chief Exec. Jeremy Hulme and designed by Chris O’Donohue, winner of a Silver Gilt medal at last year’s Chelsea Flower Show.

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