The Weasel: Adventures in Wonderland

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You may be reeling after the wall-to-wall media coverage of Chelsea Flower Show in the past few weeks, but imagine how you would feel if you had schlepped round SW3's 11-acre flower pot for three days on the trot. Terminally wilted is the best description of your once-a-year garden correspondent. If I were a plant, I'd be on the compost heap. My prolonged embedding with the green-fingered is explained by my horticultural advisor's discovery that it was possible for the Press to attend on more than Press Day. "Yes, of course we can go for three days," said Mrs W, who showed unprecedented willingness to act as my assistant. "It'll make a terrific column." You can be the judge, but any benefits of in-depth research have been mitigated by backache, throbbing feet and the human equivalent of leaf curl in my fingers.

We began our reconnaissance on the final build-up day. No more than a dozen steps into the showground, my companion shed the role of cool professional advisor. "I tell you what I like," she burbled. "I like those green garden tables."

"They're inspired by Wimbledon," said the salesman. "That's why we've got Robinson's Lemon Barley Water."

Twenty minutes later, we saw our first bloom. "Those blue flowers are gorgeous," exclaimed my advisor. "I think they're salvias." But then her Gertrude Jekyll mask slipped again. "I love that greenhouse with a wheel to open the windows. I wonder how much?"

"Do you think alliums are this year's predominant motif?" I asked, trying to inject a measure of professionalism. The purple star-bursts were everywhere.

"No. There's always lots."

Exhibitors were engaged in furious titivation. Irises were urged into premature bloom by a woman wielding a hairdryer. Men in wellies used tiny nets to scoop detritus from show-garden ponds in order to restore unearthly perfection. A specialist in herbaceous plants was painting support canes black. "So the judges don't see 'em," he winked. It was irresistibly reminiscent of the frantic gardeners in Alice in Wonderland – and, yes, the Queen was arriving on the following day.

"How about tree ferns?" I asked when we encountered our 100th example of the primeval Antipodean shrub. "Is that this year's leitmotif?"

"No. They've been here for years."

As usual at Chelsea, my sightseeing was led by the nose. A maroon rose from 1865 called 'Souvenir de Docteur Jamain' was a symphony for the schnoz, while the display of lavenders from Downderry Nurseries of Kent produced both an olfactory shock-wave and an almost tangible vibration from the ultra-violet end of the spectrum. The names were good as well. Who could resist a 'Night of Passion'? "Why grow anything else?" said the BBC's Joe Swift after visiting the stand. Quite right – though it may limit the ambit of the BBC's gardening commentators. Mrs W dismissed my suggestion that lavender might be this year's dominant bloom. Pressed to name a persuasive trend, she noted the near ubiquity of infinity pools. One potential drawback to the proliferation of designer puddles could be found at the stand of the Royal College of Pathologists, which was devoted to the unexpected gardening topic of malaria: "Mosquito larvae live in a variety of habitats but most species prefer clean unpolluted water."


A major advantage of visiting Chelsea on the eve of Press Day was the lack of celebs. In fact, the only people I recognised were the entirely delightful contributors to the other end of this magazine. When we ran into Anna Pavord, I was finally able to congratulate her on her entrancing book about plant classification The Naming of Names (Bloomsbury, £16.99), though, unlike her previous best-seller, Tulips, it has not prompted any of my acquaintances to have a large tattoo based on the cover illustration. Soon after, we saw the remarkably unruffled Cleve West putting the finishing touches to his show garden for Bupa. Bravely, Cleve invited us to step inside and, in an inversion of the customary direction of the lens, took a photograph of his dazzled visitors.

On Press Day, we managed to avoid Ringo, the Wombles and Dr Brian May, but we had an eye-jarring encounter with Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen in a perfectly frightful purple floral shirt and matching tie. Patrick Moore turned his far-seeing monocle on the Sky at Night garden, equipped with such astronomical essentials as a telescope and a bottle of sauvignon. Unlikely plantswomen tramped the gardens in heels of a height that many sequoias would envy. A model wearing little but purple body paint shivered in the Quilted Velvet toilet-paper garden.

By the following day, when Chelsea was packed with knowledgeable RHS members spouting Latin, I was fit to drop, but Mrs W was in ecstasies about the Jo Malone stand, a green and white eruption of peonies, foxgloves, hydrangea, lily of the valley. Revived somewhat by Mrs W's suggestion that we should have some Pimm's, I withered again when I heard the price for two large glasses: "That'll be £18, sir." When I complained to The Independent's Urban Gardener about my aches, Cleve groaned that he had another four days of it. But the RHS Gold Medal card at his display garden told a different story. And the Wimbledon table that caught Mrs W's eye? Of course, it was inevitable. Do I really have to drink lemon barley water?