‘Bring kneeler, trowel, and nail scissors’ read the email. Usually only comically referenced for the ludicrously finicky of gardeners, though at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, nail scissors are simply convention. Detail and precision is the name of the game, far beyond anything one could ever imagine. At Chelsea, not even the brawniest of builders, lifts an eyelid at the scrupulous hoovering of garden walls, washing of trees, meticulous cleaning of plants or the clipping of hedges with nail scissors. Orson Welles once described bullfighting as being ‘indefensible but irresistible’, somehow the great man’s turn of phrase is duly relevant to the great illusion that is, RHS Chelsea.
Experiencing the making of a Chelsea show garden, as part of Jo Thompson’s dedicated and delightful team was tremendous. Being merely a keen gardener, working with budding garden designers, experienced horticulturists and the talented Thompson herself, is not just an education, but inspiring. In the midst of novel garden design, plants, plant combinations, so prevalent throughout the entire show ground, you quickly discover that we can become rather too ‘comfortable’ in one’s own gardening ‘style’. Directly signing up to the Inchbald’s of this world is not on the cards for me, as I wish to remain an amateur gardener. However, I will certainly look at our garden differently, and perhaps more critically, from now on.
Keep it real
My account may be biased having worked with her so closely, but Jo Thompson is a special garden designer. Not only is she sincerely charming, but as her show garden will reveal, her eye for beautiful plants, combinations thereof and design is irrefutable. Thompson’s show garden for the Caravan Club, entitled ‘A Celebration of Caravanning’ is a marvel. As intended, this is a real garden, filled with delightfully lovely plants, positioned to show off the best of their colour, texture, whilst complementing the simple and geometric layout of the garden. Plants include both old as well as new favourites such as; Thalictrum Elin, Nepeta Walkers Low, Geranium Phaeum Samobor, Silene Fimbriata, Chaerophyllum hirsutum roseum, Salvia May Night, Anthricus Sylvestris Ravenswing, Pimpinella Major Rosea, Lychnis Flos-Cuculi, Rose Our Beth, to name but a few. In light of the abundance of entrenched Chelsea ambition manifested in the 80ft high towers, magnanimous pear trees, luxurious infinity pools, assortments of enormous rocks; presenting such a relatively simple garden is not only refreshing, but courageous.
Space at Chelsea is a luxury that no one can afford, not even for the largest of show gardens. As the week progresses, plants are finally liberated from the myriad of trollies, which too eventually (and gratefully) disappear, providing those much needed extra inches to work in. Much time is spent on the constant juggling of plants in an attempt to keep areas ‘workable’.
Depending on the quality and flowering status, plants are selected and positioned by Thompson, after which planting can take place. Some plants, remain in their pots to facilitate watering but also to keep desired form and shape where required. Others, are removed from their pots to encourage growth and ‘colonisation’ of the garden to ensure that natural, ‘always been here’, look.
The logistics of planting up a show garden are complicated. Not only is one limited by lack of space due to burgeoning plant trollies, bags of compost and construction equiptment, but newly built paths, walls, benches and other garden features cannot be walked on, or used. Similarly, delicate plant stems, must not be damaged during planting as height, volume, and flowers, are crucial to the design. Only the most nimble of the team, make their way through, whilst others pass on required soil, compost, plants in controllable quantities, all under the careful gaze of Thompson and Nina Baxter (team manager). Teams must therefore work together closely, to ensure efficient and effective results. Team Thompson, were delightful, hard working and riotously funny. Qualities, not just characteristic of our team, but seen across the entire show ground.
Only those plants in mint condition, and at exact required flowering stage, are used. Weather conditions in the run up to the show have been challenging for all nurseries growing plants for Chelsea, where some have thrived and others stunted in their growth. The actual (soft) planting scheme, seen by the show’s visitors this week, will in many cases therefore, be surprisingly different from that originally intended. Much of the magic therefore happens in situ, providing me with an opportunity to see the work of garden designer at first hand.
Selected plants are all carefully ‘cleaned’, which means that any browned leaves, flowers, broken stems etc., are painstakingly removed (with nail scissors). For most plants, this is not too difficult a task, but for Stipa this is a different ball game. Stipa cleaning involves going through each grass, spear by spear, to remove any that are browned, or browning. The result of plant cleaning is immediately visible and hence understandable. Subsequently, my initial huge astonishment soon waned.
The assessors have already been through the gardens, taking notes for the judges who will assess the gardens tomorrow. My fingers are crossed for all participating designers, especially Jo Thompson, who in my eyes is already a winner.