Saturday, May 26, 2012

Postcard from Chelsea: Saturday

A rare treat this year: waiting for a taxi after finishing particularly late, I went for a wander up Main Avenue and got to see the magical world that is Chelsea after dark.

Andy Sturgeon's garden in particular came to life after the sun went down. I'll confess that until this point I haven't really been that taken with it. It was all right - the planting was lovely and it was beautifully judged - but I felt the copper sculpture was swamped by the monolithic and mildly brutalist walls marching down the back. For me they were too distracting and diminished the rest of the garden.

By night, though, those walls fade into the background and the copper bubble sculpture shines and dances like a thing alive. The holes in the walls are black by daylight: but by night they light up like glowing circles of gold, echoes of the gleaming sculpture winding through the plants.

There were other gardens, too, which were transformed by light: Tony Smith's "Green with..." was positively funky in red and silver while Diarmuid Gavin's tower became more like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and less like a theme park as the scaffolding retreated under gentle lighting.

There should be special tickets for people to come in and see Chelsea's gardens lit up like this. In fact I think Andy's should have stayed under wraps until post-9pm just so people could see it at its best. It completely changed my mind about it: which begs the question, why show it to the public at a time when it's patently not the most beautiful it can be?

But then that would mean all those bankers and society sorts couldn't have their swanky parties (for this is what Chelsea becomes after the gates close at 8pm: one huge party in which there are no longer ropes around the gardens and everyone gets to actually use those beautiful buildings for which Chelsea is so famous). I think one evening, though, could be set aside to let the public in: this is one sight which really shouldn't be missed.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Postcard from Chelsea: Friday

(c) Thompson & Morgan
 The Plant of the Year stand is a funny one: a motley collection of plants out of context, drawn from all over the Pavilion. It's a bit like the 'remainders' trolley in the garden centre, only with good-quality plants.

Anyway, almost everyone who brings a new plant to Chelsea nominates it for the award: but only the very best make it onto the white podiums for the public to look at.

Among this year's 20 finalists were a massive pitcher plant (Nepenthes 'Linda') from Hampshire Carnivorous Plants, rubbing shoulders with one of Peter Beales's roses ('Queen's Jubilee' - of course), a ridiculously vivid blue hyacinth ('Royal Navy', from J S Pennings de Bilt) and two new aeoniums from Trewidden in Cornwall - 'Cornish Tribute' is compact and has extraordinary purple rosettes with a glowing lime green centre: and 'Logan Rock', which turns purple in summer.

My own tip for the top was a foxglove, Digitalis 'Silver Cub' - a fabulous silver-foliage perennial white foxglove which just shone out from the stand and made you want to stroke its leaves. It flowers in its first year from sowing and has multiple stems - seriously lovely thing.

But the winner was another foxglove altogether, D. 'Illumination Pink', bred by Thompson & Morgan. Though on appearance I still prefer the 'Silver Cub' you've got to take your hat off to them for achieving what was thought impossible: a cross between Digitalis purpurea and the evergreen Canary Island foxglove, variously referred to as D. canariensis or Isoplexis canariensis depending on whether you think it's botanically a foxglove or not. T&M's achievement would suggest that it is.

Its exotic origins have given it a very un-foxglove like colouring of candy pink with butter yellow centres. On the plus side, it's perennial, semi-evergreen, flowers for absolutely ages, and is nice and sturdy so it doesn't need staking. On the minus side, it's sterile - clever marketing ploy, but disappointing for gardeners who like to raise their own plants from seed.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Postcard from Chelsea: Thursday

Podophyllum 'Spotty Dotty', a gorgeous specimen and in flower, too: my plant of the week, spotted on the Edulis stand (also my exhibit of the week - I'm so delighted they've made it to Chelsea at last, and though they're first-timers they've shown off an exceptional collection of edibles, many of which I'd never come across before).

I adore podophyllums - big, blowsy foliage plants and as this one shows, no slouch on the flowering front either. 'Spotty Dotty', a cross between P. delavayi and P. difforme, is one of the most colourful with its generous brown-spodged leaves.

I've always struggled to grow them a little in my old garden, bone-dry acid sand that it was: but I think I might have another go in this one as it has plenty of nice shady damp corners - right up Dotty's street. I was a little surprised to see it nestled among the other Edulis plants until I found out that though most parts of the plant are toxic, its ripe, yellowish or red fruit is known as the May apple (in this case, the Chinese May apple). About the size of a crabapple, it's said to taste a little inspid - but I'd really like to give it a try.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Postcard from Chelsea: Wednesday

Sorry - this simply doesn't do justice to the spectacular exhibit that is the HW Hyde & Son lily display in the Great Pavilion, winner not only of a Gold but also of the coveted award for the best exhibit in the show.

It's a walk-through stand - this is one of two paths around a central island. There are more walk-through displays than I've seen for a long time this year: Hardy's, both David Austin and Peter Beales' Roses, and Hyde's allow you to wander through the plants, immersing yourself in them and surrounding yourself with them.

Massive-flowered oriental lilies are almost impossible to place in a garden: they're just too big, too blowsy, too 'look at me'. I don't care: I love them anyway.

I have several in containers around the place: they get very little care, far less than they should have I expect, but they come back year after year. As long as I can defend them from the horrors of the lily beetle (can there be any larvae more disgusting than those of the lily beetle, I wonder?) they're incredibly easy, yet incredibly breathtaking when those long fat buds finally break.

Not one of them, though, is a patch on the sensational glamourpusses on Hyde's, though. Here are just a few.

 'Big Brother'

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Postcard from Chelsea: Medals Day

Congratulations - once again - to the wonderful Cleve West, winner for the second year running of Best in Show for his sublime topiary garden for Brewin Dolphin.

Rumour has it he thought they'd made a mistake when they told him. But this is a garden which creeps up on you gradually: go back a few times, take another look, and you'll find yourself slowly falling in love.

At first glance you take it for your standard formal symmetric stately home style layout.

Then you take some photos, and realise it isn't actually symmetrical at all.

The craggy well head wall sculpture at one end has a corner knocked off; the weighty topiary, like anchors holding the garden in place, is a little wonky in places.

Unlike conventional 'symmetrical' gardens, you can't see it all at once: you try taking a photo of the whole thing and it's just about impossible.

Slowly it dawns on you: the whole thing is one big illusion, a mischievous game played with a twinkle in the eye. I found it enchanting.

And the planting... It was vintage Cleve: romantic, beautifully judged, passionate. Soft umbels, little fireworks of green and sparkles of white valerian over a froth of Geranium pyrenaicum 'Bill Wallis' (one of my own favourites - I have it gambolling about my garden and adore it with a passion). And all lifted with just the perfect splash of ravishing scarlet here and there from dancing 'Ladybird' poppies.

I loved the contrast between the solid, reliable topiary sitting there like grumpy old granddads while the light twinkly fairy plants danced about their knees. Here's another picture. Actually I took quite a lot. It really was very, very lovely, especially today when the sun came out.

It took me a little while to 'get' it but when I did, this garden stood head and shoulders above the rest for me. Quite, quite brilliant.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Postcard from Chelsea: Press Day

Oh I know: Press Day at Chelsea is all about celebrity spotting (Michael Caine, Jerry Hall, Sir Cliff Richard, gardening telly presenters passim, and I was working with the marvellously talented and charming Johnny Ball all morning, since you ask).

But for me the real stars of today were these wonderful Chelsea pensioners, who are deceptively sprightly and climbed on to that grown-up's playground glorified climbing frame spectacular 80ft tall vertical show garden by Diarmuid Gavin to have their photos taken this afternoon.

The garden towers above the BBC compound, where I'm working this week, and the delicious sight of rows of red-clad pensioners waving and smiling had us all out of our Portakabins en masse amid a mad scramble to find cameramen (and for those of us who like the still kind of picture, cameras) to capture the moment. Now that's what I call star quality.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Malvern flowers

No... it's no good. I know we're a gnat's breath from plunging into the all-embracing tsunami of Chelsea, but I couldn't quite leave this year's Malvern Spring Gardening Show behind without paying homage to the beautiful, charming, extraordinary plants in the Floral Marquee.

Here, to feast your eyes on, are the true stars of the show.

Arisaema serratum var. mayebarae (Edrom Nurseries)

Primula fassettii (Kevock Garden Plants)

Geum 'McClure's Magic' (Proudplants)

Heuchera 'Southern Comfort'

Lilium 'Dimension' (Harts Nursery)

Ornithogalum saundersiae (Warmenhoven)

Paeonia peregrina (Tale Valley Nursery)

Tritelia ixioides 'Starlight' (Avon Bulbs)

Rheum palmatum 'Ace of Hearts' (Hardy's Cottage Garden Plants)

Iris 'Jewel Baby' (Broadleigh Nurseries)

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Malvern 2012: The Awards

Oh, I know, the RHS go round handing out big gold medals and stuff. But here are the really important gongs to be had at the RHS Malvern Spring Gardening Show....

The Constant Gardener Awards for Malvern 2012

Plant of the Show 2012:
The Olive Trees on 'Un Poco de Hogar' (Silver-Gilt)

Somewhere between 100 and 200 years old: gnarled, impossibly ancient, adding instant permanence and making this garden look like it had always been there.

Highly Commended:
Dryopteris affinis 'Cristata The King'

Infinitely understated: no flowers: pretty much a filler. An unlikely candidate for wowing the punters - but this was the little filigree fern on 'A Place to Reflect' (Gold and Best in Show) which had everyone who saw it exclaiming how pretty it was. Including me.

Garden I'd Most Like To Take Home:
The Family Garden (Bronze)

Oh all right, the garden my kids would most like me to take home. The planting was a bit iffy, the spacing patchy (I kept wondering if they'd brought enough plants) but oh - just look at that to-die-for hollowed out log. My kids would adore one of those. There were teepees and one of the best 'water features' ever.... but more of that in a minute.

Plant Combination of the Year:
Culm View Nursery (Silver)

Lysimachia ciliata 'Firecracker', Lamium orvata and Tiarella 'Braveheart' in a sublime froth of purple and pink.

Most Original Use of Plants:
Umbrageous Places, Painting with Plants Gallery

They nicked the idea of recreating paintings with plants from Melissa Jolly's 'Picturesque' at last year's Hampton Court Flower Show - but if you're going to nick an idea, this is the one. There were some fantastic interpretations here but the best, for me, was Tanya Batkin's original take on the Rousseau painting 'Equatorial Jungle'. It's a textbook example of a sumptuous woodland planting: Asarum europaeum, Fatsia japonica, half a dozen different ferns, an Epimedium or two and just the right little star of white from Anthericum liliago 'Major', all overhung by the filigree foliage of Rhus typhina dissecta. Fabulous.

Highly Commended:
The Good Life, Tudor Grange Academy (Highly Commended)

I just adored the idea of a green roof on a caravan. Someone, somewhere, has to do this for real. It could revolutionise the view from campsites forever.

Best Re-working of a Tired Theme:
Pitmaston Past and Present, Pitmaston Primary School (Highly Commended)

You've heard of stacked car tyres as planters, usually with the words 'potato' and 'Bob Flowerdew' not far behind. And then you've shuddered a little and turned away to do something more aesthetically pleasing instead. Well - it's a good idea, just a little challenging on the attractiveness front: so here's what the kids at Pitmaston Primary School did with it. Now you're talking.

Wackiest Feature of the Year:
Hasten Slowly (Silver)

I kept staring in fascination at this rather elegant swing seat in Imogen Cox's 'Hasten Slowly', mostly trying to figure out how it works. Do you sit in it or sort of crouch? Don't you get embarrassing ridges around the bottom area? Isn't it back-crunchingly uncomfortable? And how the heck do you get in it without falling in the water? In the end I came to the conclusion that it was an elaborate joke to be played on visitors who fancied themselves wafting around in elegant swing seats. That'll teach 'em.

Fence of the Year:
George's Marvellous Garden (Best School Garden)

Isn't this fantastic? I must try it with my girls. The kids at Burlish Park Primary School mixed clay and mud, slapped their hands in it and then made prints all over the slats: elegant, wonderfully personal, and fun at the same time. Lessons were never this much fun when I was at school.

Water Feature of the Year:
Family Garden (Bronze)

Ooooooohhhhh.... I want one of these. I so want one. This is the water feature of your dreams: a hot tub, in a big metal tank with a tube leading straight out to a wood-fired stove burning merrily in the corner. The surface of the water steams gently, you step up onto the rather lovely wooden platform and ease yourself into the heat of your very own outdoor bath.... mmmm.....

Highly Commended:
Foxgrove Plants (Silver)

Copper pipe, wound cleverly into a perfect sphere, makes for a mesmerisingly shimmery background to a gentle cascade of water. Ideal if you have small children and don't want to drown them.

Sculpture of the Year:
Florilegium (Bronze)

The sinuous lines of this shoulder-height etched metal sculpture wove their way through the garden and around the central tree, revealing a new view at each turn. The letters - plant names and sayings, but you could have a poem or song - were cut right through the metal and cast shadows or offered glimpses of what was beyond. Inspired.

Wall of the Year:
A Place to Reflect (Gold)

Bored with brick walls? Here's one very elegant solution: whoever did that exquisite brickwork in the middle deserves a medal.

Nickable Idea to Take Home:
A Place to Reflect (Gold)
Another one from the show-winning garden, but I'm not apologising: there was a lot to like. I'm a big fan of using plants instead of cement to fill the gaps between paving slabs: I did think my options were limited to creeping thyme or chamomile, or maybe pennyroyal or Soleirolia soleirolii if you're feeling brave. But this is Opiophogon 'Little Tabby': altogether more original.

Highly Commended:
Un Poco de Hogar (Silver-Gilt)

Look a bit like box lollipops, don't they. But no: they're actually olives, pinched out to make standards and clipped into neat balls. And they even fruit. The guys at Villagio Verde, olive specialists and with Alchemy Gardens the ones who created the garden, say they're flying off the shelves: you can see why.

The 'You've Got To Hand It To Them' Award:
'Cow Pots'

Imagine the thought processes you must go through to look at a cow pat and think, 'Hey, now there's a fantastic commercial opportunity, right there.' And - even more amazing - actually pick the thing up and turn it into something useful. In this case, a biodegradable pot which feeds your plants as it breaks down: it won product of the year, understandably.

The 'Trying Too Hard' Award:
Diapason of Colour (Silver)
This garden name-dropped Pythagoras, Plato, Newton and Goethe, almost in the same sentence, in its description of what it was all about. There was talk of the 'law of the octave', the visible light spectrum and string theory. I'm sure it's very clever but... eh? Still, it was a nice garden. I liked the swirly metallic sculptures curving across the changing levels (wavelength relationships, apparently). A diapason, incidentally, is the interval in Pythagorean tuning, sometimes also used to group the flue pipes in an organ. See what I mean?

Plant That Really Shouldn't Exist:
Pelargonium 'Little Fi Fine'
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: sometimes breeders should just stop. Right there. Before it gets ugly. Who is it who came up with the idea that lime-green and brown leaves would look good topped with coral pink flowers? And could they stop it please? Now?

Bonkers idea of the year:
George's Marvellous Garden (Best School Garden)
This may look like a path: but it's actually a rag rug, an idea so off the wall it's actually rather good. You can just see all those acres of allotments cheered up no end by people ripping up their old clothing and turning it into a good, thick, weed-suppressing path covering. Inspired.

Highly Commended:
The Extreme Gardening Challenge
Yes: that is a toaster. Actually it wasn't the most bizarre in the little hummock of oddities that was the Extreme Gardening challenge: there were teapots and socks and handbags and a football and an old toy car and an upturned umbrella: a little disturbingly, one person had cut the top off a large plastic doll's head and planted into that. The imagination of gardeners is a wonderful, and sometimes rather unsettlingly odd thing.

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