My Chelsea experience
I went to Chelsea with Italy still wafting about me. I had Ischia sea salt in my hair and what Henry James called 'the ghostly confessions' of ancient gardens swimming around my thoughts. I'd also picked up one of my oldest friends from New York along the way. He was having a brief spell in London. Before that he'd been in Japan covering the tsunami as a photojournalist. I wanted to see Chelsea with new eyes and thought his lens might allow a different view.
RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2011 (Photo: Jake Price)
The truth is I could barely move for seeing old colleagues and friends. I wrote two lines down in my notebook. It said motorway verges, meadows, roadsides, Mediterranean and C.W. nice use of yellow umbels (they turned out to be parsnips in flower) and clever Dianthus.
Cleve West's garden was quite wonderful--serene, beautiful, and detailed with all the right 'ghostly' nods. It was the perfect garden to find after a week in Italy.
I liked the Malaysian gardens for its contrasts to all this dreamy pastels and tonal colours. The Mediterranean influences that appeared left, right and centre were lost on me. They work wonderfully in hot spaces, but just look like a pastiche here. As for the LA lounging, Riviera inspired thing- well I guess you have to go brown to like that sort of thing.
Art imitating nature can be a pretty hollow gesture. You need something, an acknowledgement, a nod at least, otherwise nature plays you at your own game and she's always a little bolder than we can ever be. Cleve's planting plan is a fine example. It was inspired in part by the patchwork camouflage of the bark of the London plane's around the site.
Jake, the photographer's take on it all made me laugh. He thought the show gardens were very Las Vegas, the floral pavilion, a little Disney world and the artisan gardens much more to his taste. Though the bit he liked best was a Cornus kousa flowering in the grounds.
We both agreed that one of the most authentic takes was the delightful Korean garden based around a loo. It was charming, the planting was loss and seemingly uncontrived. There was a young woman playing the Korean harp and the whole experience was truly surreal. If I have enough space to build a garden for a loo, then I want it too look just like that one.
The Hae-woo-so (Emptying One's Mind) Artisan Garden (Photo: Jake Price)
As for the flowers there were lots of achilleas, geums, Cirsium rivale atropurpurea, there were some fine blue poppies and alliums of all kinds, especially Nectarscordums. There was lots of tonal planting plans and more yellow than in previous years (possibly because the season has been so early). There were lots and lots of circular ponds and shallow pools. I'm not even going to try and read into that, other than they were all rather lovely in their own way. Water and gardens are perfect bedfellows.
There was THAT hanging pod, the garden below was graceful and rather grown up. It was a clever contrast.
There were edibles in the show gardens, many to my eyes, seemed to be pumped up on steroids. The B&Q garden nodded towards permaculture and that was exciting. There was upcycling (a shipping container into an office for instance) and recycling.
I was literally swooned at the smell of Ken Muir's strawberries and Raymond Evisons clematis' tunnel was truly awe inspiring. There were lots of wildflowers and even weeds (A Child's Garden in Wales, another delightful artisan garden had chicory growing between its vegetables), done in the most tasteful way possible of course.
I think this year is a good vintage. The gardens were on the whole beautiful and restrained. Apart from flying pods many of them seemed practical (well for Chelsea). We're still rooted in a romantic ethic of post-industrial Britain (Arts and Crafts influences were everywhere) that doesn't quite match up to where we're heading. We've made all of those mistakes already. But as gardening days go out, I'll be back next year.
Alys Fowler is a writer and broadcaster.