Victoria Summerley: Town Life

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The Independent Online

The cream of British horticulture goes on show at the Chelsea Flower Show next week, exerting much the same effect on gardeners as Wimbledon fortnight does on tennis players. Just ascourts are suddenly full of wannabe Andy Roddicks and Roger Federers, the garden centres fill up with wannabe Monty Dons and Bunny Guinnesses, elbowing each other as they load up with busy Lizzies or bamboo.

London's gardeners tend to fall into three categories. (We won't bother with the non-gardeners, who specialise in grim, weed-strewn vistas, possibly including builders' rubble, an old bath, a shopping trolley and the odd dog turd.)

The first is the Rus in Urbe Gardener. Usually female, her heroine is Vita Sackville-West and each year the RUG makes the journey to Sissinghurst Castle Gardens to worship at the VSW shrine. She's a sucker for anything with blue or violet flowers, or anything that smells gorgeous (roses are a must) and she secretly aspires to a White Garden, though she has abandoned the attempt in her current plot because it looked as if someone with a nasty cold had left used tissues all over the place.

She knows the Latin names of all her plants and might even have them written on neat labels that she bought at Chelsea last year. Sartorially she favours smocks or linen shirts in fuchsia or French blue, beneath which herembonpoint is as magnificent as the blooms on her Souvenir de la Malmaison (from David Austin Roses, naturally). Her ambition is to be in The Yellow Book (the list of gardens open for charity under the National Gardens Scheme) and on the cover of The English Garden. Her husband can't understand why, after all that bending and stretching, her bottom is still the size of a water butt.

Next up is the Contemporary Gardener. His garden (it's usually a man) is full of jungly giants like Fatsia japonica and eight-foot phormiums. He's a bit worried about the phormiums because people like Cleve West, The Independent's urban gardening columnist and a cutting-edge designer, keep making rude remarks about them. The phormiums may have to be bulldozed.

Mr Contemporary, to misquote Oscar Wilde, knows the price of everything and the Latin names of nothing. His idea of gardening heaven is to wander round Architectural Plants, Angus White's nursery in Horsham, calculator in hand, working out how much the plants in his garden are worth now they're all three feet higher.

The humble terracotta flowerpot is an alien concept in his world - his planters are zinc or concrete. Instead of teak garden furniture, he has something that looks like a Henry Moore, cost £3,000 and is fiendishly uncomfortable. A cheerful Australian from one of the local landscape companies comes in twice a year with a machete to keep it all under control. There are no curves in Mr Contemporary's plot, only a series of interlocking rectangles that indicate he has employed an expensive garden designer with an A in GCSE maths. Meanwhile, Mrs Contemporary dreams of a cottage garden full of hollyhocks and lavender.

Last is the Fair Weather Gardener, who emerges with the May sunshine. The parental version of the FWG will clog up the garden centre with buggies, toddlers, nappy bags and comfort blankets and leave with only a pot of busy Lizzies that will sit like a vermilion pustule outside the front door for the rest of the summer.

While Mummy FWG is browsing amid the bedding plants, little Jake and Tamsin will wreak havoc, throwing pebbles in the fish pond, knocking over coloured glass wasp catchers and playing a precarious game of "It" around the terracotta pots, shrieking as they go. When they depart, at least two members of the garden centre staff will have to go and lie down in a darkened room.

The child-free FWG also has a weakness for neon-bright bedding plants, but will also spend a fortune on garden ornaments. Her backyard is bedecked with stone kittens, cute ducks, spouting frogs and garden lights shaped like dragonflies. Her partner wonders gloomily whether he - like the rabbit and the goldfish - will one day be buried amid the knick-knackery, his grave marked by a polyresin Flower Fairy.

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