The Chelsea Flower Show is the Paris Fashion Week of gardening, the stage upon which plants and designers debut. And I went this year – for the first of many, many times to come.
The Chelsea Flower Show is presented by the Royal Horticultural Society and held on the Chelsea Hospital grounds in London, England. Since 1913, Chelsea has been the most prestigious of Britain’s flower shows and features nurseries displaying their plants and model gardens by star designers.
The gardens themselves range from the avant-garde (picture inverted wheelbarrows or charred landscapes) to the trend-setting (naturalism has been in of late). The gardens are profoundly complex and expensive to execute – designers balance bloom time and hardscaping requirements, then transport and install the whole business, so that the garden actually looks like a garden for the public to view. It takes 800 people 33 days to pull this off. Such tremendous effort is sponsored by banks or fittingly champagne companies, but before we poopoo the opulence of Chelsea, let’s recognize that creating art out of living material is no small feat.
Plus, we are all affected by Chelsea as gardeners. Yes, all of us.
Here I’m reminded of that great take-down of Anne Hathaway by Meryl Streep in the movie The Devil Wears Prada. Hathaway claims she’s not into fashion, donning as she is a frumpy blue sweater from the Gap. Streep levels her with a disquisition on all the designers and fashion trends that led to the creation of that sweater, from its cut, to its colour, to its price. So it goes with the plants we find at our local garden centre: many were launched at Chelsea.
Case in point: Remember the sooty tulips, the deep plums of ‘Nora Barlow’ columbine and Anthriscus ‘Ravenswing’? Well, umbels are still in – 2014 was the year of the cow parsley at Chelsea – but by 2015 blacks receded and orange popped up – rusty Libertia, the new Geums, and Erysimum ‘Apricot Sprite,’ a plant that has been around for a while, but not presented naturalistically. This year the plant which won second place for 2016 ‘Plant of the Year’ was Geum ‘Scarlet Tempest,’ a stunning long-stemmed clear-orange version we shall see on shelves in a few years. (First place went to a gorgeous Clematis chiisanensis ‘Amber’ with double-flowered nodding cream blooms flushed with pink.)
Personally I fell in love one plant new to me: Lysimachia atropurpurea ‘Beaujolais’ which has silvery leaves and slightly drooping spires. I also re-kindled my Eremurus envy, a long-standing affliction only to be ameliorated by serious spending.
Other older plants that have come back into vogue: Orlaya grandiflora, the lacey white annual, and Valeriana officionalis, the herb garden favourite.
At Chelsea, garden fashion extends from plants to furniture to sculpture, and also the people who visit.
I spotted a fantastic Gucci floral purse, noticed buttonholes or boutonnieres were making a bit of a comeback, and floral prints on everything from throw pillows to umbrellas to shoes. With more than 500 exhibitors and approximately 25,000 visitors every day, the eye candy almost overwhelmed.
My favourite area of the show was undoubtedly the Great Pavilion, home to nurseries showcasing their plants, an outlandish floristry section, and numerous horticultural nonprofit stands. Irises bred in France, South African proteas, pedestals of tulips, whole walls of Heuchera and Begonia, stands of carnivorous Sarracenia and literally a whole double bed of various lavenders…meant it was possible to see varieties side-by-side, to notice the subtleties of colour and size.
Notes were made, seeds purchased, photos snapped, and countless plans hatched before I collapsed with a glass of wine – unglamorously, unfashionably, but absolutely fabulously (of course).
Christin Geall is an avid Oak Bay gardener and creative non-fiction writing instructor at the University of Victoria.