It’s been far too long since I visited The Chelsea Flower Show. When I was a Vogue girl, we used to get first dibs on the press tickets. And – being a junior member of the team – I usually got Sunday, the crowd-less day before opening day, where I could witness the last-minute tweaks and dramas. I saw Dan Pearson’s genius for the first time there and persuaded my editor, Alexandra Shulman, to let me do a feature on his new, dark and velvety aesthetic.
I stopped going when I had children. Babies aren’t allowed at Chelsea. Quite sensibly, for the baby and the parent, I realise now. But, at the time, I thought it was a case of the Royal Horticultural Society, who run the show, being patriarchal and thoroughly old-fashioned. Besides, I was finding the crowds hard to deal with.
Going back after fourteen years, I realise how much I’ve missed this annual shot of garden excellence and inspiration. Some things are different – there are noticeably less show gardens now that sponsors are thin on the ground – but, reassuringly, so much is the same…or better.
I went on my own this year. Which could have been a little lonely, but, in fact, was the best way of staying focussed and seeing exactly what I wanted to see. Going in the morning, just after it opens, is a very good idea. The light is prettier, if you are taking photographs, and you are always just ahead of the crowds. The show gardens – inventive showcases for established and up-and-coming garden designers – are the biggest attractions and the best horticultural theatre, so I head to them first. Then I duck into the main pavilion, which is always quieter, and absolutely my favourite part of Chelsea
There is so much that I saw and loved and so many beautiful plants and ideas, that I’m dividing my Chelsea post in to two parts. Here is Part 1, focussing on my favourite flowers:
Roses! Peter Beales and David Austin, the two biggest rose growers in Britain – and, no doubt, arch rivals – always create the most fabulous stands. It’s the best kind of floral one-upmanship. Obelisks, arches, arbours and borders overflowing with their newest and best varieties, all at their peak a good month before they are flowering in our gardens.
Visitors get to walk through the gardens and under the arches. It’s like being in cross between Heaven and a Hollywood movie set – but one full of people burying their faces in flowers.
The scent, as you can imagine, is extraordinary.
Two roses I plan to add to my Garden are David Austin’s Vanessa Bell, launched in 2017 and a perfect, sorbet yellow and Peter Beale’s fabulously blowsy and deliciously scented climber, Sir Paul Smith (climbing up the pyramid in the first image).
I’m also adoring this combination of palest yellow and pink here – the pink is David Austin’s classic, Queen of Denmark, the yellow is my new favourite, Vanessa Bell.
Some stands are brilliantly naturalistic, others, like these Alliums from Dutch bulb specialists W. S. Warmenhoven, are fantastically graphic. What’s brilliant about Chelsea is that you can see the flowers and order them on the spot for next year. This stand had 52 varieties of Allium on show…!
More single species – Foxgloves – but the effect couldn’t be more different. I have quite a thing about Foxgloves and had no idea there were so many different varieties. I could have spent all day working my way through this beautiful stand, but was thrilled to see that The Botanic Nursery, who had created this dreamy display, were only a ten minute drive from where I live.
The peony stands always remind me of how much I’m missing out on by growing easy-to-find favourites like Sarah Bernhardt and Duchess de Nemours (beautiful though they are). At Chelsea, you have the chance to meet the specialist growers and see the very latest varieties, sometimes fresh from the United States (where they seem to be leading the way with Peony growing).
I’m always drawn to Intersectional Hybrid Peonies. The rather unromantic name does nothing to describe the glamorous beauty of these flowers. A cross between Tree Peonies and herbaceous peonies, they are like a floral version of silk taffeta ball dresses. I definitely need some of these in my life…..!
These beauties were on the Kelways stand. Heaven!
This divine, butter-yellow Peony is Lemon Chiffon. Love at first sight! And I’m determined to get my hands on it, even tho’ the grower, Primrose Hall Nursery, told me it was the most expensive plant on the stand….Gah! Why am I always drawn to expensive things??!
Downderry Nursery is a family-run specialist Lavender grower. I first discovered them when I was looking for white Lavender for my London garden (they’re used to catering for strict colour schemes!). Their nursery in Kent is surrounded by fields that look like something out of the South of France. Again, I had no idea there were so many lovely varieties….
Here I am shopping for Clematis. These stands also give me great ideas about colour combinations. How lovely does this double white, Duchess of Edinburgh, look with the velvety plum, Fleuri?
Or this delicious double red, Charmaine, with the pale lilac (whose name I, stupidly, didn’t write down…)?
In Part 2 of my Chelsea round up, I’ll be writing about my favourite colour trend, more brilliant single flower specialists (I love a garden nerd!) and inspiring ideas for planting, pots…and sheds.
Lavender – www.downderry-nursery.co.uk
Alliums – www.warmenhoven.co.uk