The greatest show in earth

Radical roses beside beds of nettles? Yes, Chelsea's here again. By Anna McKane
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The Independent Online
Some growers will be laughing all the way to Chelsea this weekend, as the warm weather in April has brought on a bumper crop of large-flowered roses, poppies and alliums for the show which opens on Tuesday. But the quintessentially Chelsea contrast of February flowering daffodils on one stand, and July roses on the next, may not be quite so dramatic this year.

The sudden frost three weeks ago wrecked the best hopes of some exhibitors. Notcutts of Suffolk had planned a big display of laburnum on their stand of trees and shrubs but, for the first time for Chelsea, all the buds were damaged in the frost. Like all growers, Notcutts brings on two or three times more plants than will be needed for the display, so big climbing and rambling roses will be used instead.

And roses should be exceptionally good. Mark Mattock, of Mattock's Roses in Oxfordshire, said the warm weather had brought on some very fine modern hybrid teas but that the cold spells recently had caused huge headaches. Like other growers, he has been rushing round his glasshouses moving plants in and out as the weather suddenly changes.

Ken Harbutt, of Rougham Hall Nurseries, who always brings a display of Iceland poppies in bright oranges, peaches and yellows, said this year's would be the best yet. The early warmth had produced bigger flowers than usual, and there would be more variety of colour.

The bulb growers say the rose and herbaceous people have had it easy. Chris Ireland-Jones, of Avon Bulbs in Somerset, said this year had been diabolically difficult. Since most of his stand consists of bulbs which would normally flower in April or even earlier, the warm weather then was a nightmare. The bulbs are kept in cold stores to retard them, but they cannot be left there too long as the lack of light and air weakens them - so some daffodils will not be at their best. However, summer flowering bulbs, such as alliums and camassias, should be better than usual.

Meanwhile, the garden designers have been hard at work. There will, of course, be the usual array of cottage gardens, city gardens and country gardens with flower meadows and rustic gates. Provencal and Tuscan themes will be there again, but one garden, designed by Peter Styles, will be based on the work of Cesar Manrique, a painter from Lanzarote. There will be swathes of different coloured flowers to echo the lava flows on the island, and lava rock will be incorporated.

To mark 50 years of Indian independence the Maharajah of Jodhpur is displaying a traditional Indian Mughal garden, with a marble fountain and a traditional Rajasthani tent. Moving to a more Middle Eastern theme, Sharjah Botanical gardens will show an Arabian garden with palms, citrus and cycads as well as new plants from the Emirates not seen at Chelsea before. In another garden, semi-mature trees are being brought from Westonbirt Arboretum in Gloucestershire.

Competition for originality may be intense, but not all designers choose plants which are bigger, older or rarer to be different from the opposition. Paul Cooper has been bringing on nettles and other weeds to be displayed in his garden. Three years ago, his "Cool and Sexy Garden" ruffled many feathers. A fan which lifted the skirt of anyone nearby, a "bed" of herbs, and a back projection of a couple were all deemed acceptable, but at the last minute he adorned the trees with little homo-erotic pictures, to the displeasure of senior Royal Horticultural Society officials. The Queen was ushered speedily past, and for the past two years Mr Cooper has not applied for a space. His garden this year celebrates memories of childhood and includes nettles and dock leaves: prickly plants to suggest boyish fights, scented roses to symbolise first love, and Wembley turf and a giant cigarette card featuring a footballer, to symbolise a teenager's obsession with the game.

There is undeniably a market for Mr Cooper's ideas. He has twice designed gardens based on his last Chelsea one, with a rubber patio and a back project, although without the unusual tree decorations.