Thursday, 21 May 2009


Well TGCO! (see footnote) That’s all I can say. TGCO! I might even say TFCO, but that would be unnecessarily rude. Today’s pictures, apart from the one below, are by the Photographer General, who was in the Royal Hospital, Chelsea's ground for the same number of hours as I was, this week, but who kept as far away from me as possible.

The Photographer General at Chelsea, in pre-opening chaos, composing a portrait of her left foot.

EACH YEAR, as the days begin to lengthen, a tiny black cloud begins to develop in my otherwise moderately well balanced psyche. At first, it’s no more than a puff of acrid vapour but over the weeks, as snowdrops dissolve to crocuses to daffodils to primroses to tulips, that small nag of blackness grows to a vast, billowing thunderhead of despair and rage and evil foreboding.

My absolute favourite New Plant at this year's Chelsea:  Conus 'Venus.'

And as May moves into double figures, my full loathing of the Chelsea Flower Show finally erupts into an all consuming grump. Scrooge is merely a little downbeat about Christmas, compared with my attitude to the ‘World’s Premier Flower Show.’ I know I shouldn’t resort to the carrion comfort of despair – Gerard Manley Hopkins says so – but when we move into the third week in May, I begin to wish I was Jacob Marley. (Or maybe Bob Marley – still dead, but the music’s better!)

But now its over, for me, and for everyone else on Saturday. Praise be! Hallelujah! Juggle my jimmy in a jamjar – it’s done, dusted, concluded, completed. It is no more. It is a show gone by. A has been. And there are just over fifty one glorious weeks before we have to suffer all over again.And you know, the really stupid thing about bloody Chelsea is that once I’m there, I quite enjoy it. 

There are no scarring memories, this year, but I have to say there were some extremely peculiar moments. So at the risk of boring you, this Ascension Day, I’ll jot down a few things that come to mind.

Bloms Tulips decided to try something completely new and different, this year - big vases of tulips!

Long hours.  Sunday wasn’t too arduous but on Monday, I started work at 7.15 am and finished chairing the final moderation meeting with judging panel chairmen at 10.23pm. In those hours, I moderated all gardens as part of a panel to ratify awards with show garden, urban garden and courtyard garden judges. I’m not, I confess, a great fan of Chelsea type gardens, preferring to wallow in the ill-designed mess that is my own back yard, but I recognise excellence when, as in the case of the Telegraph Garden and the Laurent Perrier Garden, it gets up and smacks me imperiously in the face.  All those hedges, and plants beaten into shape.

The corpses of hyacinths, freshly out of cold store.  Another example of the natural world at Chelsea.

I also had to chair the Tender Ornamental Plant or TOP committee, as we like to call ourselves. We discussed activities for next year and assessed some new Streptocarpus varieties.

After that, lunch. The PG and I hosted a table whose guests included the High Commissioner of Singapore and his wife, Toby Buckland, the Lord Mayor of Kensington and Chelsea and a delightful couple who had donated telephone numbers of money to the Wisley Glasshouse. The lunchtime speech was by Prof. Steve Jones who rewrote Darwin’s Origin of Species in an gloriously readable and gripping book entitled Almost Like a Whale.

Then I had to dash off and moderate the floral exhibits. With a team of three, to cover everything, we had little time to assess the newly finished exhibits. My top choices were the Hardy Plant Society, for an utterly enchanting exhibit of perennials, many rare, all beautiful and superbly arranged. 

Winchester Growers’ Dahlias were also utterly fantastic. What an achievement, to get so many dahlias into bloom in May! That takes horticultural skill, a certain amount of foolhardiness and total faith. I also loved the Cayman Island’s underwater scene. Very clever, and you would hardly have known that the corals were plastic. The goose barnacles, on the other hand, were absolutely real.

A wholly naturalistic arrangement of gerberas on the City of Durban's Stand.

Then, off to wipe dust from shoes, tighten the tie and go to meet the Royals. The PG and I had Prince Charles and Camilla to show round, along with the brilliant and charming Highgrove head gardener, Debs Goodenough and supported by the RHS Director of Science and learning, Simon Thornton Wood and his wife. Good manners prevents me from repeating anything that was discussed, but all I can say is that the experience was terrifying, because we had to keep re-developing our itinerary, but utterly delightful.

HRH was to receive the Victoria Medal of Honour – the highest award the RHS has to bestow – from his Mum, and we had been told that there was to be not a moment’s delay, when she arrived. Thus, we had to do a bit of studied shimmying around Peter Beales’ exhibit, near the presentation dais, where HRH was presented with a huge bush of the Highgrove Rose, and also around the Hardy Plant Society’s stand until Her Majesty turned up. But after a few tense moments and a series of stately gavottes with equerries, detectives and Persons in Waiting revolving around each other, Her Majesty arrived and it all came together as smoothly as a Bonio slides down a Labrador’s gullet.

A bonsai specimen of Crataegus laevigata 'Crimson Cloud.'  A wholly unnatural cultural process which result in the most natural-looking plant, but in microcosm.  Miraculous!  

I was determined to drag Their Royal Highnesses round the back of the show, through Ranelagh Gardens, so that they could see my out and out fave – the Fenland Apothecary’s Garden. This was a charming evocation of a Fen Tiger’s shack, not much less humble than our own abode, which happens to border the Fens, and which made me homesick. The dignitaries were a bit dubious about disappearing into the trees, but Their Royal Highnesses were, I believe, pretty delighted with most of the Courtyard Gardens round there, and particularly with the Fen one.  

It was gratifying to know that the Royal visits were being commentated by A.W.J. James the Hat, who is pretty much a TV treasure, these days.  I've never seen him looking so spruce.

No dinner for me, but more meetings followed the Royals’ visit and by the time I got out of the showground I was ready for a very very very large whisky and soda.  Another day on Tuesday – but I think you’ve had more than enough.

The apotheosis of good garden design and sound plantsmanship: a garden made with plasticene.

And that was Chelsea.  Oh, apart from two jolly outcomes: I’ve got a greenhouse coming in August. Hartley Botanic – what else!? – and can’t wait to get it home, erected and stocked with pretties.  And also, I’m going to Singapore, with the PG,  to help out with Community Gardening Projects next June.  A really bad time to leave England, but heck, it’s South East Asia!  Any excuse to go to my favourite part of the world.

I’m listening to Bach’s Cantata number 11 – for Ascension Day. A lovely old recording with Kathleen Ferrier singing the big contralto aria (hairs bristling on neck with pleasure, tears ready to start) and conducted by Dr Jaques.

This day in 1985  I visited the Hillier Arboretum and was impressed by a magnificent Malus transtoria, among other trees. We stayed in Winchester, visited Jane Austen’s grave and listened to Winchester Cathedral Choir singing Byrd and Tallis for Evensong.

No film this week. Just Chelsea.

Oh Lor – another endlessly overlong post. I’m so sorry. I really must stop getting carried away.

(Footnote: TGCO: Thank God Chelsea’s Over but you got that, didn’t you? Of course you did.)

Goodly bye.


  1. It was my first visit ever on Tuesday and I loved it. The Telegraph and Laurent Perrier gardens don't grab me either - I've never really liked that kind of style, no matter how good it's executed. I've still to reveal my favourite garden over at mine, so I won't give the game away here ;)

    It was interesting to see how some of the gardens differed in their promise or non-promise on paper and how it sometimes translated to just the opposite in reality.

    I loved the Winchester Growers exhibit - the absolute highlight of the show in the Great Pavilion.

    And I got to sit in a show garden! For the ordinary punter like me that is tippitty top.

    Goodness! What a long comment - so sorry. Byeeee!

  2. How wonderful that Victoria has a medal named after her!

    Kathleen Ferrier is my favourite soloist. (Though I'm confused what tense to use.)

    The very words 'Byrd' and 'Tallis' give me a jolt in the chest.

    Esther Montgomery

  3. Sounds tiring - but brilliant.

    Congratulations on everything - your work at Chelsea, buying a greenhouse, being invited to Singapore . . . imagine every day being like that!

    Special mention for the Photographer General too.


  4. So, you're not that keen on Chelsea then, are you? ;-)

    BTW congrats on winning two (2!!) prestigious Fork 'n Monkey awards!

  5. Nigel, I'm extremely jealous that everyone else has had a much swankier Chelsea than me. After booting out time at 3pm on Monday I simply retired to the pub with Matt Biggs, Toby Musgrave and Jerry Harpur for a few pints of London Pride. When, on when, will I ever be allowed to hob nob with royalty and get to stay behind for the Queen's visit?

  6. The thing about this blog is that almost every sentence could be taken as either straightly meant, or not. Plastic coral?

    It seems a pity in a way that someone who holds positions so many gardeners would covet should feel so ambivalent about them, but perhaps this is just that critical detachment that means you're the right person to be doing them.

  7. Martyn, I could have done with some London Pride and would have swapped almost everything to enjoy the company you had in that pub. The grass is always greener, I guess!

    EB - sorry if you find my words ambivalent. They aren't always meant to be, but one writes in sickening haste, because of time pressures, and sometimes it all comes out a bit wrong.

    My negative start, on this post, is partly to neutralise the excessively enthusiastic gush, from some of my dearest colleagues and friends, and is, of course, partly tongue in cheek. One of my biggest problems with Chelsea is that it drags me out of the garden when the garden needs me most.

    Plastic coral was good because real coral would have contravened conservation law and would also, I suggest, have been unacceptable.

    Oh, and one more thing: I didn't pay tribute to everyone, particularly exhibitors, who actually make Chelsea happen. Having built an exhibit there myself, I know exactly how exhausting the whole thing is. They have my undying admiration.

  8. Aargh, now I feel a complete cow. I tend to write, just as I speak, ie rather thoughtlessly at times. But I did mean it that not being dazzled or sycophantic makes a good judge, commentator and so on. (And thank you for the comment on my blog)

  9. This made me laugh and laugh, perhaps unlike EB? I love your captions, which have just the right degree of extreme naughtiness, particularly the Bloms Bulbs one which is still making me giggle.

    I love hearing about everyone's different Chelseas, but judging sounds like hard work indeed. And also showing round HRHs which I think I would find stressful just because I would almost automatically start swearing (my mind has a tourettes-like ability to mess things up for me when i most need it not to)

    I too thought James is looking particularly spiffy and I suspect it's because he has been having plastic [coral] surgery; he can try to hide it, but the truth will out, you know

  10. Another fine and spirited bit of Colborning. It was a great pleasure to view you and the PG on Royal Duty: both looking terribly smart. (A marked contrast to your picture of the esteemed PG whose High-Viz vest makes her look like a council inspector).
    I felt a bit like that gingery Royal Correspondent (whose name escapes me) about whom HRH was extremeley impolite. Her Majesty also admired the naturalistic swathes of Gerberas - but I doubt that she had much idea what they were.
    Congratulations of your double award triumph.

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