Gardening: Classic turns in a variety show: Subtle designs have to compete with gimmicks at the Chelsea Flower Show, says Peter Parker

Click to follow
The Independent Online
It has often been said that there are two things that Britain does really well: public spectacle and gardening. Both these skills come together each year at the Chelsea Flower Show.

Brash new shows such as the Hampton Court Palace, Gardeners' World Live and Malvern Spring Gardening attract huge crowds, but Chelsea remains pre- eminent. There is undoubtedly an element of sheer snobbery about this: if you really want to see interesting plants and talk to those who grow them, you would do much better to go to the RHS's monthly shows at Vincent Square. Chelsea, with its popping corks and atmosphere of fete champetre, is principally (and enjoyably) a celebration of the garden.

It is also a show that combines innovation and tradition, where one launches a new rose or sponsors a 'classic' garden. In 1994, most of the exhibition gardens seemed to be looking back to an idyllic past (at Chelsea the past is never otherwise). One expects a retro view from the Daily Telegraph, of course, which this year went beyond self-parody with an Old Abbey Garden, designed to 'provide a nostalgic peek into the distant world of the clergyman- gardener'. Incorporating stonework borrowed from Salisbury Cathedral, and taking inspiration from the novels of Trollope (Anthony, not Joanna), this Victorian dream was undeniably attractive.

The best garden designs, however, are those that do not constantly draw attention to themselves, but nevertheless make one aware of a guiding spirit behind them. By far the most striking garden at last year's show was Daniel

Pearson's 'Contemporary London Garden' for the Evening Standard, made up of smokey blues, pinks and purples. This year, Pearson and his collaborator, Simon Shire, decided there should be no smoke without fire, and added to the dusky colour-scheme a range of dark orange plants such as tagetes, calendula, eschscholzia and nasturtium, incidentally demonstrating that even the most commonplace plants, when used with flair, have something to contribute.

Making the transition between the two colour ranges, and tying the whole design together, were plants of an intermediate maroon: Heuchera 'Palace Purple', bronze fennel and oak-leaf lettuce and the wonderfully dark filbert, Corylus maxima 'Purpurea'. Here was a garden that was bold, colourful and distinctive, but did not scream 'designer'. This may be why the RHS judges thought it deserved no more than a Silver Medal - the equivalent of a third prize.

In the neighbouring site was an 'Explorer's Roof Garden', awarded a Silver-Gilt Medal (a second prize). Using the technology of luxury yachts, this garden had already won a competition organised by Gardens Illustrated for a 'Roof Garden for the Nineties'. Designed by an architect, Christopher Bradley-Hole, it felt contemporary despite the brass telescope, armillary sphere, Wardian case (an ornate miniature greenhouse) and other accoutrements of the explorer's life around which it had been built.

The aluminium railing and the cedar decking suggested a ship and were at once modern-looking, durable and unobtrusive; and the high-tensile screen (also borrowed from the world of yachting) seemed excellent material for a protective background against which to grow climbers. The nicely muted colour scheme of blues, yellows and whites was apparently intended to symbolise the sky, sun and stars, while topiaried shrubs represented planets; but one could appreciate the garden without knowing any of this.

The sponsors say that if you are prepared to make a few sacrifices, a garden like this could be yours for under pounds 7,000.

One of the few displays to receive a Gold Medal that seemed worthy of this highest award was 'Mr Maidment's Garden', as re- imagined by Stephen Woodhams.

James Maidment was head gardener at Donhead Hall, Dorset, during the first half of this century, and Woodhams' recreation of this man's own modest plot was built around a decayed greenhouse, brought piece by numbered piece from Donhead and artfully reconstructed in the grounds of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea.

What was impressive about this kitchen garden was its restraint: creamy lupins; sulphurous epimediums; white primulas; geraniums and foxgloves; bronze and purple herbs; and the exquisite double Aquilegia vulgaris 'Paul Guinness', whose blackberry and white flowers echoed those of the broad beans. There are numerous varieties of bean, including a crimson-flowered variety that has blooms the colour of damson fool; but the common-or-garden broad bean with its glaucous foliage and sweetly scented mauve-and-white flowers would hold its own in any border.

IN THE marquee, meanwhile, nurseries mounted well-groomed displays of old and new plants. Undaunted by the general trend outside towards using old-fashioned and subtly graded colours, the propagators and cross-pollinators had been busy in their greenhouses raising specimens of gaudy novelty. It apparently took four years to 'develop' Oakleigh Nurseries' pelargonium 'Sunspot Bonanza', the flowers of which are an apple-blossom pink, splashed and splotched with a virulent peachy orange. Try finding a place for that in an Old Abbey Garden.

Occasionally an attempt is made to dignify such introductions by naming them after a celebrity or, if you are really grand, a member of the Royal Family. Peter J Smith's new alstroemeria, 'Princess Alice', is named for the Duchess of Gloucester, but not easily distinguishable from the (admittedly handsome) hoi polloi. S & N Brackley's sweet pea, 'Kiri Te Kanawa', turned out to be (appropriately, some might think) a bland pink froth of a flower. On the other hand, David Austin's 'Molineux', a compact English rose named after a football stadium, is a fine addition to his catalogue. Green in the bud, it unfurls into dense, delicately scented rosettes of the deepest butter yellow.

Roses are always tricky to display under canvas, behaving rather in the manner of heroines in a Victorian melodrama - wilting, fading and shedding their lustrous petals. Generally speaking, the stiff floribundas and hybrid teas stand up well, and Fryer's Nurseries' 'Belle Epoque' will certainly be welcomed by flower arrangers. It is red in the bud and on the reverse of the cafe-au-lait petals, which sounds nasty but is rather magnificent.

This was the week when scientists in America announced that they were close to producing a true blue rose - as opposed to the grubby mauve object some nurseries offer. They also promise a luminous rose, created by stirring bits of firefly into the genetic brew. No doubt this freak-show will soon roll into Chelsea; but, in the meantime, I am inclined to think we are better off paying attention to people like Carol Klein of Glebe Cottage Plants, who plays contemporary variations upon traditional themes.

Astrantia major 'Ruby Wedding', for example, has the dark red flowerheads one would expect from its name, and also the welcome addition of mulberry stains upon the leaves. The overall effect of Klein's stand was refreshingly cool, but splashes of intense colour were provided by the astrantia and a new chocolatey Californian hybrid iris, tentatively called 'Valerie Finnis'. Just the sort of plant for Daniel Pearson - or, indeed, anyone who values quality above novelty. Anna Pavord is on holiday.

(Photograph omitted)