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27 November 2014
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Sheila Chapman

Clematis exhibitor

Shelia Chapman grows about 800 varieties of clematis from all over the world in her nursery in Abridge, Essex. She opened her business, Sheila Chapman Clematis 10 years ago. She has exhibited at Chelsea three times before and has achieved one silver and two silver gilts. This year she is going for gold!

Q) Once you’ve been accepted as an exhibitor at Chelsea, what’s the first thing you start planning?

The first thing I do is plan where I'm going to stay,mainly because I don’t want to walk far after a long, exhausting day on the stand. Places get booked up very quickly around the time of Chelsea. So I book into a B&B just before Christmas.

Q) Is the prospect of exhibiting at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show something to look forward to or does the stress outweigh the excitement?

It’s an honour to be asked to exhibit. Also it’s wonderful to do a show at a time when the large-flowered cultivars are looking their best and of course big flowers cover a larger area, making the job of filling a stand easier. However, as you get older, standing for 12 hours a day is stressful. It’s a very long day as you have to be at your stand from 8am until 8pm. If you don’t have varicose veins at the start of the week, you will certainly have them at the end!

But it’s certainly worth it as it’s exciting and interesting meeting all the people at the show.

Q) How do you manage to keep your plants looking so healthy during the whole week of Chelsea?

It’s mainly a case of making sure that they’re well watered before and during the show and removing any flowers that have died or become damaged.

One of the main problems exhibitors have is contending with all the dust. When people talk about having a 'Chelsea throat' they’re not referring to having talked too much with customers, they’re referring to the amount of dust generated from the thousands of visitors walking on the grass. The dust covers all the plants and it can’t be watered off, because it leaves brown streaks. This is particularly a problem with large, white flowers.

Q) You’re releasing new clematis varieties at the show - how do you create your varieties?

At the moment, our new clematis come about either by growing seed from The British Clematis Society to see if we can achieve any interesting results or by collecting seed from named varieties.

By selecting from a named variety it’s very unlikely to come true and will therefore result in a new variety.

Q) How do you select which plants you are going to use at the show? E.g. type/colour/theme?

My aim is to show unusual clematis on the exhibit not just clematis that people can buy at their local garden centre. The types I select tend to be the large-flowered hybrids, because they are in flower at the time of Chelsea and also because they’re the showiest.

We can’t really select plants too early in the season, because it all depends on the weather. Some plants will have finished flowering by the time we get ready for Chelsea, particularly if it’s a sunny, warm spring. Other plants will be coming into flower too early and so removing their flower buds in an attempt to slow them down, but the risk of doing this is that you might not get any flowers at all. So we have to use whatever is available and looking good at the time of the show, therefore it is not possible to go for just one colour scheme. This year so far, for the first time, I'm spoilt for choice - there are lots of clematis just coming into flower because of the miserable spring that we've had so far.

Q) Do you have any growing tips for clematis?

Firstly, buy a decent sized plant. A good plant should last a lifetime if you look after it. It’s possible to buy small clematis plants in 7cm or 9cm (3in or 3.5in) plastic pots with just green sticks and a label. These are basically just rooted cuttings, and if they’re planted out into the garden there’s a good chance they’ll die. This experience puts many people off growing them. If you do buy one of these plants, then pot it on into a two-litre pot for at least a year to give it a chance to establish a proper root system.

Secondly, water your clematis regularly. This can mean as much as two gallons of water twice a week in warm or windy conditions. Often people think that their plant is suffering from clematis wilt when really the plant is just dehydrated.

Thirdly, although many clematis like to be planted deeply, C.armandii and herbaceous types should be planted to the same depth as they were in the pot.

Take a look at the new Clematis varieties in our new plants section.

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