Look no bugs, and no weather

The perfect garden does exist: you'll find it on a table top at a Royal Horticultural Society show, says Anna Pavord One Cornish nursery brought a mimosa tree in full bloom
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Imagine making a garden without any slugs or bugs, caterpillars, black spot or mould. Imagine making it in a place where the plants are never burnt by wind or battered by hail. They do exist, these miraculous gardens, and you can see them most months of the year at the Royal Horticultural Society's Shows held in central London.

They are a cheat, of course, instant gardens made on table tops, but they are so convincing you get the strange feeling that the plants really are growing there, pushing up through the tables scattered with dead leaves and pine needles, bringing messages from the underground. Don't be fooled by all this cityscape of concrete and tarmac, they murmur subversively. Give us a couple of years and we can take over this place.

The first shows of the year are the ones you wait for most anxiously. You have forgotten what even a snowdrop looks like in detail. You are longing for the soothing, immutable cycle of plants in their seasons to start up again. Thwarted by wind and wet and snow from getting sufficient fixes from your own garden, you garden here by proxy.

I went to the January show in a state of high excitement. I knew that many of my favourite plants would be there: snowdrops, hellebores, dwarf iris, camellias, miniature cyclamen. The hall purred with the low- pitched buzz of gardeners on a spree and the crowds were six deep round the hellebores. These gazed back at their admirers with the poised arrogance of true stars.

I went away to look at dwarf conifers until the hellebore crush subsided. I am working hard at dwarf conifers, though I can't pretend that I will ever be able to find a home for many of them. They fit most easily with the kind of plants (such as heathers) that I can't grow and probably wouldn't if I could. The best place for heather is on a hill, preferably in Scotland.

They do best in gardens where the planting is tightly contained and controlled. Many of them will not tolerate other plants peering over to see what they are up to. They are not chummy in that way. They are not used to it. Branches that are overlaid die off. Since most plants in my garden are inquisitive to a fault about what is going on in some patch other than their own, chaemaecyparis, cryptomeria and the like would not last a single season.

The conifers at Lincluden Nursery's stand that I felt I would like to know better all happened to be pines. At the back of the display, they had a very elegant Pinus patula with long weeping needles, like the mane of the most expensive sort of horse.

The foliage was not quite as long and elegant as you would find on Pinus montezumae, but P patula is said to be hardier. I have been trying to establish P montezumae in a sheltered bit of woodland, after it outgrew its container in the courtyard, but it is not happy. The needles brown easily and growth has shuddered to a rather worrying halt. I can only wait and hope.

In the foreground of the display was a group of small Pinus sylvestris. The trees were a good shape, dwarfs, yes, but squat, no. The needles, of the bottlebrush rather than the drooping variety, were just wayward enough to make the contours of the branches interesting. `Chantry Blue' had longer, slightly bluer needles than `Nana'.

Burncoose Nurseries from Redruth in Cornwall won a gold medal from the RHS judges for its stand which reinforced, as ever, the difference between that bit of the West Country and the rest of us. It brought a mimosa tree in full bloom - Acacia longifolia with thin willow-like leaves and masses of flower, tassels rather than powder puffs.

They also showed the superb camellia `Cornish Snow', small flowers but lots of them, white, well set off against neat small leaves. This is a much easier camellia to fit into a garden than, say, `Lady Clare', whose blooms are so theatrically big, you can't believe they are real. And the bigger the bloom, the worse it weathers.

There was one nightmare on this stand though, a hideously fasciated willow called Salix udensis `Sekka'. Its twigs were contorted, not in the happily mad fashion of the familiar twisty willow, but in a distinctly sinister way. The branches were flattened and sometimes joined at the hip. It looked like a bush deformed by atomic fallout.

The most irresistible stands at the January show were those such as Blackthorn's which showed hellebores superbly displayed among snowdrops and unusual shrubs such as the yellow-flowered (and impossibly named) Daphne kamtschatica jezoensis and Avon Bulbs which had gorgeous displays of miniature Cyclamen coum. It had hellebores, too, and had set up a good combination of `Boughton Beauty' with the greenery-yallery dogwood, Cornus alba `Flavissima'. The weird colour of the dogwood's stems was picked up on the insides of the hellebore's petals.

Another delight of the RHS shows is the series of displays mounted by the society's librarian, using the treasures of the incomparable Lindley Library next door. In January you could gaze at Japanese botanical books from the 18th and 19th centuries, many printed on rice paper. In our books, text and illustration work in separate spaces. In these extraordinary books, the characters seem an integral part of the illustration, weaving in and out of the sinuous leaves of an Iris japonica, curling around a poppy.

There was also a superb display of plates relating to Siebold's Florilegium of Japanese Plants originally produced between 1824-29. PF von Siebold was the medical officer on Deshima, the small man-made island in Nagasaki harbour where the Dutch were confined during the xenophobic years of the Edo period. This lasted for 200 years, until 1854.

The plates, many of which have not been seen before, were originally executed by a Nagasaki artist, Keiga Kawahara, and bought after Siebold's death by the Russian government for the Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg. A new book of Keiga's work has been expensively reprinted by a Japanese company. There are only three copies in the country.

At the show next week, the librarian will display things that have to do with the society's own history, including a Cruikshank cartoon of an early RHS meeting. Will Gerald Scarfe be on hand to record the scene next week at the AGM on the afternoon of the Tuesday show?

Most unfortunately, council's recommendation that the Lindley Library should move from London to Wisley was taken after the papers for the AGM had been printed, so no mention of it appears on the agenda. Members, who were invited to give their views, have duly given them and at the last count these were 10-1 against the move.

The RHS has indicated that it intends to "answer members' objections" at the AGM. That is not the same thing as listening to what its members are actually saying. And what the M25 in its very different way is also saying. Who wants to sit in a traffic jam when they could be looking at Siebold's books? The 191st AGM of the society will be held in the Hall at Vincent Square on Tuesday 21 February at 2pm.

All the nurserymen at the society's shows have plants for sale. If you can't be there, the addresses you need are below.

Lincluden Nursery, Bisley Green, Woking, Surrey GU24 9EN (0483 797005). Burncoose Nurseries, Gwennap, Redruth, Cornwall TR16 6BJ (0209 861112). Blackthorn Nursery, Kilmeston, Alresford, Hants SO24 0NL (0962 771796). Avon Bulbs, Burnt House Farm, Mid Lambrook, South Petherton, Somerset TA13 5HE (0460 242177).

Forthcoming RHS shows at Vincent Square, London SW1 (071-834 4333) include: 21,22 February, ornamental plants; 11, 12 March, orchids. Admission £5 the first day, £3 the second; free to RHS members.