Gardening: Green is the colour, Chelsea is the name

Anna Pavord takes a peripheral view of the greatest show in earth

Beltane was the old way of celebrating May's rebirth, a Celtic feast of fire, sacrifice and general mayhem. Now we have the Chelsea Flower Show with the enigmatic figure of Sir Simon Hornby, president of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), as our modern day Green Man.

The show is an anachronistic triumph. No one sitting down today to plan a mammoth event of this kind would think it possible for it to take place in London SW3. The great marquee alone covers three-and-a-half acres and takes 20 men almost as many days to put up. Exhibitors spend about pounds 20m putting together their stands, and this year there are 20 show gardens. The majority of the exhibits are live, with highly specific needs as to food and drink. These are not as as easily available in Chelsea as Big Macs and halves of lager.

Part of the excitement of Chelsea is the excitement that surrounds all ephemeral, tented events: the sudden transformation of the setting, the atavistic lure of an itinerant life to those whose futures are firmly shackled to the 8.05 from Woking, the smell of crushed grass. You can get that at any county agricultural show, but Chelsea's strangeness lies in the fact that all this happens slap bang in the middle of the most densely populated city in Britain. All these pulsating, growing, flowering things suddenly arrive in the middle of a place marked out by Tarmac, concrete, tin and barrenness. The other, and most important, thing that marks Chelsea out from other horticultural shows is the standard of the plant and garden exhibits. You will rarely see anywhere a display of flowering bulbs as brilliant as that put together by Avon Bulbs (stand K5, great marquee) or violas in such profusion as those brought to Chelsea by Bouts Cottage Nurseries (stand H5, great marquee).

I'm so mesmerised by the plants at Chelsea that I rarely get near the artefacts: the conservatories clustered round the central marquee hissing "lifestyle, glamour" at those of us who are still strangers to the scatter cushion. This year, I'm making a determined effort to do "sundries", as the RHS quaintly calls them. I'll be making a beeline for:

l Errington Reay and Company's salt-glazed stoneware pots. This Tyneside pottery was founded in 1878 and is the last remaining commercial pottery making salt-glazed ware in England. The soft, muted colours sit well in a garden setting and the sheen of the glaze catches the light in an intriguing way. Errington Reay and Co, Tyneside Pottery Works, Bardon Mill, Hexham, Northumberland NE47 7HU (01434 344245). Chelsea stand NR3.

l Great Houses, Castles and Gardens of Ireland. There is still less awareness than there should be over here of the fabulously romantic cache of gardens only a ferry ride away in Ireland. We're sailing again along the south coast of Ireland for our holiday this summer. I'm allowed ashore only once or twice to look at worts, so have to make the most of the opportunities. Get the new booklet about Irish properties and gardens open to the public from Ms A de Buitlear, Hillsbrook, Dargle Valley, Bray, Co Wicklow, Ireland (0035 312 862777). Chelsea stand CW7.

l Ivelet Books, which stocks a wide range of antiquarian books related to gardening. They have luscious botanical prints too, including fern prints by Walter Hood Fitch, botanical artist at Kew Gardens in the mid- 19th century. Ivelet Books Ltd, 18 Fairlawn Drive, Redhill, Surrey RH1 6JP (01737 764520). Chelsea stand EA105.

l Raffles Thatched Garden Buildings: in my mind's eye I see one of these at the end of our lawn with a hammock strung, Guyanese style, from the central post over to one of the outer supports. Focal points - that's what I need in life. A pity they come so expensive. But the birds would love it. Free nest sites all round. Raffles, Laundry Cottage, Prestwold Hall, Prestwold, Loughborough, Leicestershire LE12 5AQ (01509 881426). Chelsea stand SR22.

l Starkie and Starkie's sharpening systems: whetstones, files, cones and steels, including the DMT Doubleside Diafold, a folding whetstone that offers two grits for a greater sharpening range. I like the idea of whetstones. Unfortunately whetstones don't like me, and I have never acquired the lazy ease, the flashing pas de deux, by which our butcher sharpens his cleavers. "It's a man thing," said one of our daughters. But there's no reason why it shouldn't be a woman thing too. Starkie and Starkie, Unit 39, The Heathers Industrial Park, Freeman's Common, Leicester LE2 7SQ (01162 854772). Chelsea stand EA36.

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 are reserved for members of the RHS. An all-day (8am-8pm) ticket on Thursday costs pounds 25, an afternoon ticket (3.30-8pm) costs pounds 14 and an evening ticket (5.30-8pm) costs pounds 8. An all-day ticket on Friday (8am-5pm) costs pounds 23. Plants and sundries will be sold after 5pm on Friday.

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