Chelsea Flower Show: The Garden of Eden must have looked a lot like this

Britain holds its breath. London SW3 today witnesses the annual miracle. ”And the parched ground shall become a pool,’’ prophesied Isaiah, ”and the thirsty land springs.’’


He wasn’t talking about the Chelsea Flower Show, but might have been. Yea, even the drought-stricken lawns of the Royal Hospital will bring forth gardens. The habitation of dragons, as the Prophet might have continued, shall become a field of tents, and it shall blossom abundantly, and there shall be petunias, and strawberries, and Pimm’s. Chelsea takes place every year, and every year I can hardly believe that it has happened. It is a spectacle, a folly, a garden show which seems to contravene every principle of Nature. I love it.

It is absurd that it should take place in the capital. Any other nation would hold its most prestigious garden event in the country, where there are acres of space, rather than cramming it onto a restricted site in the centre of town. But the British are gardeners. Look at the wisteria and the windowboxes around Chelsea itself. We don’t have grand boulevards, ending in show-stopping monuments, like the French: instead, we have parks – Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, St James’s. Gardening is in the British soul, and we’re partly defined by it. One of my favourite sights is that of people who have purchased plants from the show gardens on the last day carrying them home. The Flower Show symbolises the joy that gardens give to country folk and city dwellers alike.

Only three weeks ago, the ground on which the show is held was a sward. Since then, it has been transformed into the most prestigious parade of horticultural art in the world. Nurserymen and garden designers, conservatory makers and administrators have been planning for this, ever since the last Chelsea was dismantled.

To create the show gardens in the 21 days available requires an epic feat of logistics. When Country Life made its centenary garden in 1997, I used to go to observe progress with my eldest son, then nearly three. He loved it; it was digger heaven, mud everywhere. But then, as though by a wave of Professor McGonagall’s wand – one sees a lot of McGonagall look-alikes at Chelsea – the scene changes.

What, this year, would have been a dust bowl becomes a picture of order, the calm only broken by argument over the admissibility of the flying pod over Diarmuid Gavin’s Irish Sky Garden, inspired by the film Avatar. Avatar, that triumph of animatronics, could provide a metaphor for the show, which is nothing if not a dazzling feat of horticultural special effects. But that’s Chelsea: nobody said it was about real life.

Looking at the mesmerising displays of plant colour in the marquees, I feel that some should carry the warning: “Don’t try this at home.” Gardening can be heartbreaking enough, given the surprises Nature can pull on even the most skilful planters. Chelsea rings out as a glorious paean to the optimism that makes gardeners carry on.

The showmanship can be blinding. Flamboyant tulips and brazen chrysanthemums are massed for maximum effect. The scent of roses is enough to make a Victorian maiden swoon, and goodness knows what Freud might have thought about the lupins. Look, here are the cacti – unlikely though it may seem, a visual feast. Even the vegetables look chic.

There is something for everyone, from the socially aspirational (I’m told they like the irises: you need a lot of garden to grow them) to the gardening elite, extolling the shy charm of the aquilegia over more obvious plants. Yet all are present, begonias not excluded.

Aficionados will look out for Bleddyn and Sue Wynn-Jones from Crûg Farm Plants in North Wales; for the first time, they will bring the fruits of their many plant-hunting expeditions, including Schefflera macrophylla from North Vietnam, whose leaves can be three feet across and emerge with a covering of ginger-coloured velours.

Each bloom will be the very best of its kind; perfection is standard. Any caterpillar who thought this a good place to have a meal would have made a big mistake. While this year has given us an extraordinary spring, with so many flowers blooming together, at Chelsea it’s like this every time.

By a grand horticultural mystery, putting some plants into cold stores and others under sun lamps, the nurserymen manage to get everything into flower for this one week. This has not been generally available to human eyes since Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden. Such is the wonder of Chelsea. Prepare to be amazed.

Clive Aslet is editor at large of ‘Country Life’

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