Water, water everywhere (but not a hose in sight)

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The Independent Online

The hosepipe ban in London and the South-east began to look like something of a bad joke at the Royal Horticultural Society's Chelsea Flower Show yesterday, where last-minute preparations for the world's most famous horticultural extravaganza were underway beneath black skies and torrential downpours.

Cleve West, The Independent's Urban Gardener columnist, who was putting the final touches to his design for the Saga Insurance Garden, smiled wryly as he pointed out the huge concrete vasques, or basins, commissioned from Toulouse-based sculptors Serge Bottagisio and Agnes Decoux. Three of these are ranged along the back of the garden to catch rainwaterrunning off the shed roof. "I don't think we'll have much trouble filling them," he said.

The Saga garden celebrates the migration of plants around the world, in particularly hardy and half-hardy herbs that can be grown in the UK. In the flesh, it is a subtle, painterly mix of foliage and flowers, the soft, fluffy textures of herbs such as artemisia or lavender contrasting with the vasques and a monumental concrete sculpture.

Many of the herbs, supplied by Jekka McVicar's award-winning nursery near Bristol, will be familiar as culinary ingredients, but some have medicinal or domestic uses too. Of greater interest to gardeners, however, is that many are low-maintenance, drought-tolerant plants. Cleve's design shows how they can be planted alongside flowering perennials in a way that looks contemporary, rather than restricting them to herb gardens.

Standing on the churned mud and sodden grass of the Chelsea showground, it was difficult to imagine the manicured perfection that will be shown by the BBC this evening. The television cameras won't dwell on the garden designers, wet hair plastered to their worried faces, trying to choose between these two lilies or those two alliums while precious minutes slip by. They may not show the polystyrene cups suspended from a precarious arrangement of wire and cane to shelter carefully nurtured tulips from the brisk southerly wind that threatens to lay them flat on their beautiful faces.

They won't show you the sheer chaos of the Great Pavilion, which yesterday morning looked like an explosion in a seed catalogue; so cluttered with pots and plants and people that you could hardly walk in a straight line for more than a metre.

Many nurserymen are already suffering financially, thanks to the long winter, which has held back growth or in some cases killed off plant stocks altogether. One nursery specialising in aquatics estimated it had lost at least one month's income.

Frank Hart, of Hart Canna, in Bisley, Surrey, and one of Britain's foremost specialists in these exotic flowers, says he has lost 20,000 plants this winter and knows of another nursery which has gone bankrupt.

The Horticultural Trades Association, which represents the garden industry, estimates the hosepipe ban will cost its members £300m this year in lost sales.

In the meantime, more blustery showers are forecast for today. So will Chelsea be a wash-out when it opens tomorrow? Highly unlikely. The show is a complete sell-out. Gardeners are a hardy breed. They have to be.

Cleve West's Urban Gardener column appears in The Independent Magazine every Saturday. Coverage of the Chelsea Flower Show starts tonight on BBC1 at 7pm.

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