Country & Garden: Chelsea - a green-fingered guide

The trick to enjoying the best of the Chelsea Flower Show is knowing exactly what to aim for, then going for it. By Anna Pavord

If you have sharp elbows and are above average height, there is much to see at the Chelsea Flower Show, which opens next week. But if there is only limited time to take it all in, you end up gaping like a goldfish, uncertain whether you are looking at cinerarias or snapdragons.

You could easily bring the show back down to a manageable size by banning all the "ideal home" elements - the plastic chairs, umbrellas and so on - and focusing the spotlight firmly on plants. But since the sundriesmen pay for their stands and the plantsmen don't, this notion is unlikely to find favour with the RHS, who spend pounds 2m putting on the show in the splendid grounds of the Chelsea Hospital.

The show's great strength is its eclecticism. Outside, there are gardens designed for the most exquisitely tuned Sloane cheek by jowl with gardens from the outer reaches of Dunroaminland. Inside the Great Marquee, you lurch away from the magnificently weird display put up by Hampshire Carnivorous Plants - where every one looks as if it has been dreamt up by Walt Disney - and bump into Medwyn Williams exhibiting his range of beautifully grown vegetables (yellow and purple carrots, white aubergines, tomatoes that look like plums), all carefully transported from his Anglesey home to the Royal Hospital Road in London.

The display gardens are the biggest magnet, and busy Independent readers with only an afternoon to spare for the show should not miss the following:

Archadeck Deckscapes Garden, designed to show what timber decking can do to transform a town garden. On the upper level, a timber walkway leads to a bridge over a pond. A sundeck fills the lower level, with a summerhouse of classical design (but up-to-the-minute, electrically operated awnings for shade). Archadeck, Valley Road, Pontefract, West Yorkshire WF8 3BU (01798 343960). Chelsea stand RGB9.

The Cascades Garden, designed and built by Myles Challis, whose East End garden is already a place of pilgrimage for Londoners looking for a touch of the exotic. From a large head of Apollo (copied from a Greek original) water dribbles down into a giant clam shell and then on down into a grotto and cascade of pools. Italy incarnate. Myles Challis, 1 Lister Road, Leytonstone, London E11 3DS (0181-556 8962). Chelsea stand RGB3.

Sculpture in the Garden, masterminded by the designer George Carter, who has given a modern slant to the classical sculpture garden of Renaissance Rome. A trellis screen is backed with galvanised steel. The foreground planting of grey and silver foliage, studded with topiary, is viewed through a frame of four rustic piers. Sponsored by Christie's Fine Art Auctioneers, 8 King Street, London SW1Y 6QY (0171-727 0841). Chelsea stand MA10.

The Floating Garden, originally designed by Paul Cooper for a palace in Dubai. Basket-weave planters float in a rectangular pool, propelled in slow arabesques by jets of water. If you stand still long enough, all the planters, stuffed with fatsias, ligularias, phormiums and bamboos, should pass by without any effort on your part. Paul Cooper, Ty Bryn, Old Radnor, Presteigne, Powys LD8 2RN (01544 230374). Chelsea stand MA23.

The Daily Telegraph garden shows gardeners new possibilities for the 21st century. In this small urban plot, a photovoltaic canopy acts as a sunshade, collects rainwater to channel into the garden's focal canal and generates enough energy from an inset solar panel to light the garden at night. Chelsea stand MA11.

The Chef's Roof Garden is a Villandry in the sky, dreamt up by Sir Terence Conran. Paths of stone and pebbles meander between vegetables grown entirely in containers. Curtains, as if on a four-poster bed, can be drawn over and around the garden to protect it from frost and wind in winter and provide shade in summer. Sponsored by the Evening Standard and Laurent Perrier. Chelsea stand MA15.

21, Century Street is Carol Klein's leap into the future and exploits her unmatched talent for mixing herbaceous plants in the most mouthwatering combinations. Copper and purple foliage underpins plantings of silver, white, blue and gold. There is a dining-table with its own built-in herb garden and a revolutionary garden shed housing a compost heap that gives warmth (and carbon dioxide) to newly propagated seedlings. Carol Klein, Glebe Cottage Plants, Pixie Lane, Warkleigh, Umberleigh, Devon EX37 9DH (01769 540554). Chelsea stand MA22.

The Garden of the Book of Gold designed by Charles Funke for Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan. Shaikh Zayed's garden was the best of all the exhibits at last year's Chelsea Show: elegant, voluptuous, a superbly staged recreation of an Arab courtyard garden, with a cool, central pool. Arcs of water spouted from the beaks of hawks perched on poles around the pool and the whole thing was shaded and hidden by stands of palms and exotic foliage. This year, the Shaikh is sending 12 statuesque palms from his Abu Dhabi palace to set around a rectangular reflecting pool. It will be the first thing I go to see at Chelsea. Charles Funke Associates, 5 Mill Pool House, Mill Lane, Godalming, Surrey GU7 1EY (01483 426890). Chelsea stand MA12.

The Portmeirion Garden, designed by Peter Eustace and Bunny Guinness, will feed the happy fantasies of those raised on the cult Seventies TV series The Prisoner. Portmeirion's Observatory Tower, 40ft high, is being rebuilt at the show as the centre-piece of this fantasy garden, lushly planted with hostas, ferns, gunneras, astelias, agapanthus, cannas and broad-leaved, tender Geranium maderense. It is sponsored by Wyevale Garden Centres, Kings Acre Road, Hereford HR4 0SE (01432 276568). Chelsea stand RGB6.

Admission to the Chelsea Flower Show is by advance booking only. A credit- card hotline is open 24 hours a day, on 0171-344 4343.

Tuesday and Wednesday, 25 and 26 May, are reserved for members of the Royal Horticultural Society. An all-day (8am to 8pm) ticket on Thursday (the first public day) costs pounds 26, an afternoon ticket (3.30pm to 8pm) costs pounds 15 and an evening ticket (5.30pm to 8pm) costs pounds 10. An all-day ticket on Friday (8am to 5.30pm) costs pounds 24. Plants and sundries will be sold only after 4.30pm on Friday. Or you could stay at home and watch the whole thing on Channel 4 television.

Last year, they were stung for a quarter of a million pounds for exclusive coverage. Once again, they have stumped up for sole rights and are intent on getting their money's worth. The production company Two Four Productions (executive producer Charles Mills, ex-marketing manager of the RHS) has built a studio at Chelsea and will be broadcasting from the show daily on Channel 4.

The first sneak preview will be broadcast tomorrow on Channel 4 (from 8pm to 9pm). There'll be more on Monday (1.30pm to 3.30pm) and a regular half-hour Chelsea slot during the rest of the week, from 3.30pm to 4pm

Chelsea Style Guide

FOR STYLEMONGERS, Chelsea gardens provide important clues as to what is in in each season. One year it was duckweed; another, the colour purple. This year it seems to be metal, predominantly steel. Dr Claire Whitehouse's Sensory Garden includes "pleasingly smooth" stainless-steel handrails. George Carter has his galvanised steel wall (see above) and Paul Cooper's Floating Garden also calls for tall baskets of steel and synthetic rope. The Daily Telegraph's garden has an elliptical steel wall and vertical steel masts supporting booms with canvas canopies. Birch trees in the Marie Curie Cancer Care garden grow in polished aluminium containers. In The Express's Horti-couture Garden, the designer James Alexander-Sinclair plants zig-zagging yew hedges under a metal grid cage and uses rusting steel washers to surface his paths. "Plants such as geums, gaillardias, geraniums and anchusa pick up the blue of the cage and the orange of the rusting washers." Can he be serious? I fear so.

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