Dark matter and bright blooms at the Chelsea Flower Show

By Victoria King
BBC News


From giant jammy dodgers to death and dark matter - the Chelsea Flower Show is certainly diverse.

Throw in some heavy downpours and a lot of symbolism and it could feel like the beauty of, well, the flowers, is slightly drowned out - literally, in the case of the rain. But actually, in between the layers of meaning, the place is also just gorgeous to look at.

Tightly packed tulips create a mattress you feel you could almost lie on. The aforementioned super-sized biscuits sit alongside huge tea cups overflowing with flowers. Miniature Buddhist temples are festooned in pink and white.

Every now and then a man in a suit covered entirely in flowers strolls past, resplendent against the hi-vis jackets and umbrellas. It's arresting, eccentric, and a real visual treat.

Of course, that isn't to say that some of the stories behind the blooms aren't fascinating too.

image captionDark Matter Garden

An astrophysics professor at a flower show seems incongruous, but Prof Mike Bode, from Liverpool John Moores University, has helped create a garden inspired by dark matter - the elusive stuff that seems to make up so much of space but that no-one has quite got a handle on yet.

The garden, designed by Howard Miller in association with the National Schools Observatory, contains a light source at one end - representing the deepest of deep space - from which rays burst in the form of steel rods. The rods bend as they pass over the greenery just as light would bend as it passes massive objects in the universe.

"It represents the way - or one of the ways - we can detect dark matter, from the gravitational effect it has on light," Prof Bode explains.

"At the other end of the garden is the telescope, where we're standing," he continues, pointing to a giant oculus wrought in metal. "From here we're looking back in time, 13.7 billion years, to where the light first originated. It's mind-boggling really, but we hope it'll help enthuse youngsters about space and astronomy."

For most of us, the idea of dark matter presents some intellectual challenges, but for Howard's team the hurdles were more practical. The rods were made by a company which normally make bike racks.

"It took a bit of convincing they could bend pipes to represent light rays instead," says Howard.

From science to faith, and another show garden is devoted to the Beauty of Islam.

Designer Kamelia Bin Zaal, a Chelsea first timer, explains: "It's a representation of Islam, of Arabic culture, in particular the spice route. For me, it maintains the principals of Islamic garden design - light and shade, functionality, spirituality - but in a contemporary way.

image captionBeauty of Islam Garden

"It was also really important for me to shine a positive light on Islam. That's why I put in the calligraphy. It says, 'The gates of the garden of Eden are open to them.' The garden of Eden is mentioned in most religions and that's what I wanted to get across, that idea of shared values."

image captionHealthy Cities Garden

A few doors down is the Healthy Cities garden, sponsored by bank Morgan Stanley, where the watchwords are community and sustainability.

Sustainability is taken very seriously at Chelsea, not least because all of the displays will be dismantled in just a few days time, so finding ways of reusing things - transplanting them elsewhere to beautify other less prestigious corners - is crucial.

Multi-award winning designer Chris Beardshaw explains that the garden was created in conjunction with a community in Poplar, east London, and it'll be returned to them permanently after the show.

image captionChris Beardshaw explains his Healthy Cities Garden

"They already had a very strong garden group, but nowhere to use that enthusiasm. People live in blocks of flats with a large area of green space in between but it was unused. All their balconies are dripping in plants - gourds, herbs - and there's a real appetite for growing more. They also wanted an ornamental garden, somewhere to sit and somewhere to play."

He continues: "They talked about the frustration and sense of loss that many of them felt about not having a functional green space. Somewhere to retreat to.

"A lot of them come from places like Pakistan, Bangladesh, India - it's a very mixed area - so we wanted to give them a sense of security and belonging through green space. One of the things about having no green space is the lack of boundaries. Without boundaries the community becomes diffused."

Around another corner is The Living Legacy Garden, which commemorates the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. It also celebrates Wellington College, the public school which serves as a living memorial to the battle.

image captionLiving Legacy Garden

The tableau begins at one end, with an undulating landscape which symbolises the Belgian fields before the battle. As designer Andrew Wilson points out with a hint of pride, "Wellington hid his smaller army in the hills where Napoleon wasn't expecting it."

"You can see his ghostly hand," he adds.

From there you move to the scorched earth of the battlefield itself, a black gash of gravel punctured by spears of metal. A waterway then runs through a section of planting in which different colours represent different regiments who fought.

At the end you emerge at the gates of Wellington College - the real ones, transported for the show. On the walls beside the gates are the names of students scratched into the bricks - the juxtaposition of graffiti alongside the gravity of conflict is striking.

image captionA Perfumer's Garden

The subject of death crops up again in a more unlikely place - A Perfumer's Garden, sponsored by cosmetics company L'Occitane. It recreates a traditional garden in Grasse, southern France, the perfume capital of the world - replete with jasmine, cassis, lavender and the like - but as designer James Basson points out, not all is rosy.

"The big thing for me is the effect created by death in the garden," he says. "The fact we allowed that to be there. We've celebrated imperfection which is unusual for Chelsea.

"So you have dried stems, flowers that have fallen over, seeds from last year. It's more natural."

How did your sponsors react when you told them you wanted dead stuff in the garden?

"They were nervous," he says with a grin. "But they wanted an authentic garden so they let us get on with it."

On Thursday, you can vote for who you'd like to see win the BBC RHS People's Choice Award 2015.

Photography by Paul Kerley.

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