Urban gardener, Cleve West: Chelsea triumphant

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The Independent Online

Press Day at the Chelsea Flower Show this year was far more relaxing and enjoyable for me as a journalist than an exhibitor, that's for sure. For a start, you don't have to worry about whether your creation will get the medal it deserves; nor do you have to threaten physical harm to TV technicians looking for the shortest route (occasionally through a flower bed) for several thousand cables. And, of course, there aren't all the friends you haven't heard from in 10 years asking you for spare tickets. The only stress is having enough time to talk to all the people you bump into, and not succumb to the condition known as Chelsea Blindness - those excruciating moments when you can't remember someone's name and that someone happens to be your brother.

It rained (again), but wasn't as cold as last year when most of us were on the verge of hypothermia. Photographers, who had ticked their lists the previous sun-kissed day, looked more relieved than relaxed.

The consensus from those analysing current trends was that much of the planting had a Tom Stuart-Smith touch. This was not a criticism by any means: it just made it difficult to distinguish between some of the gardens because they blended almost seamlessly when viewed side by side. My private prediction of medals was even more generous than the barrow-load of top awards dished out the following morning - seven gold medals and five silver-gilts - confirming that the overall standard of show gardens was higher this year. There were, as ever, surprises and disappointments.

Sarah Eberle's Martian haven for Bradstone (entitled 600 days with Bradstone) won Best in Show, a spirited decision by the RHS and a surprise to those whose money had been on Ulf Nordfjell's exquisite homage to Carl Linnaeus for the National Linnaeus Tercentenary Committee, Stockholm, Sweden. Tucked almost apologetically in the shadows at the end of Main Avenue, Nordfjell's garden was quite simply a masterpiece, launching itself into the top five gardens ever seen at Chelsea. It won gold - there would have been riots on the streets from here to Stockholm if it hadn't. The garden's integrity came not just from attention to detail and a slick execution, but Nordfjell's ability to spread the energy from each element and create a stunning balance between precise hard landscaping and a refreshing mix of plants that picked up on 300 years of architecture and horticulture. A great carpet of Asarum europaeum with ferns, wild strawberries and the delicate Linnaea borealis provided a clever layering of interest by way of texture, form and shades of green that would hold the garden together long after the restrained white and blue palette faded. Its sophistication, in terms of layers, and the deft handling of space, light, shade and breathtaking intimacy gave the garden an incredible sensitivity to what, in less capable hands, could easily have become cold and soulless.

Poles apart was 77-year-old Anthony Samuelson's Patio Povera: A Roof Garden with Found Objects inside the Floral Pavilion. Inspired by the Italian movement Arte Povera (Poor Art), Samuelson's use of objets trouvés (ranging from mannequins to vacuum cleaners) as receptacles for plants was a hypnotic display of surrealism and eccentricity. It may have had judges scratching their heads, but it had me bashing mine against a brick wall when I heard they had only given it a silver-gilt. The knock-on effect to the neighbouring Rhus Garden designed by Freya Lawson (which was only awarded silver) also seemed harsh.

Chelsea, of course, wouldn't be Chelsea without some bone of contention (if you think that sounds like an attempt to keep on the right side of judges next time I exhibit, you'd be right), so those who didn't get what they wanted should console themselves that this was a vintage year. My prediction is that it's not going to get any easier. Nordfjell, Samuelson and many others have raised the bar of excellence, which will have interesting ramifications for future shows. And if you want to know what Samuelson has lined up for the Hampton Court Flower Show … watch this space.

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