Victoria Summerley: Chelsea's hardy perennial argument

Gardening Studies
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The Independent Online

You don't need warm weather at the Chelsea Flower Show for gardeners to engage in a heated discussion, which is just as well as the show is forecast to end tomorrow on a rather damp and chilly note. Contrary to the popular view of gardeners as calm, bucolic types who spend their days ruminating in their sheds in between weeding the veg patch and tying in the sweet peas, we can get very passionate indeed about issues we think are important. One of these is the age-old argument about whether the attention given to the show gardens at Chelsea should be allowed to overshadow the efforts of the nurserymen and women whose work is displayed in the Great Pavilion.

Show gardens, and very often their designers, are the celebrities of the horticultural world. The media coverage zooms in on them to what many gardeners would argue is the detriment of the new varieties of rose and clematis, the painstaking perfection of the spring bulb displays, and the award-winning hardy perennials that are featured only yards away. Contrast the multimillion-pound budgets donated by generous sponsors (the average show garden, built to last a week, costs around £250,000) with the sort of incomes many nursery people earn and one is tempted to ask: is this right or fair? Should something be done to redress the balance? The BBC would argue that its coverage tries to be even-handed: a bit of flower action here, a bit of garden glamour there. For plantaholics, of course, you're never going to achieve the perfect compromise. They want to see plants, plants and more plants, because that – they say – is what gardening is all about.

Well, up to a point. In my experience, many people are more likely to appreciate a particular flower or leaf colour if they see it in a garden. At Chelsea this year, I have lost count of the number of people who say they are determined to get their hands on the rich, crimson Dianthus cruentus that features in Cleve West's Best In Show garden. Friends who normally shudder at the thought of any colour scheme other than traditional English pastels have sighed over the brilliant orange geums in Nigel Dunnett's New Wildlife Garden and Sarah Eberle's Monaco garden.

I'm sure they would have admired these plants if they'd seen them on a nursery display, but they might not have thought of incorporating them in their own gardens unless they had seen them as part of a planting combination. The show gardens provide a context, which one hopes will help convert mere admiration into hard cash for the growers.

The black beetle is a bloom's best friend

Those who hate the idea of spraying chemicals on a garden, but harbour the depressing suspicion that it is the only way to achieve professional results, will be cheered by news that one of Britain's leading rosarians, Michael Marriott of David Austin Roses, is an organic gardener. "Actually, I'm not strictly organic," he confessed to me at Chelsea this week, "but I don't use pesticides or herbicides."

So how does he cope with pests such as slugs and snails, the bane of every gardener's life, not to mention plants? Apparently, he's a great fan of black beetles, members of the carabid, or ground beetle, family, that you will see scurrying around in every British garden. When not eating slugs and their eggs, which they love, they attack other soft-bodied pests, such as caterpillars and aphids. Marriott has nothing but respect for them. "Every time I see one, I say good morning, just to be polite."

A gentle plea for the creative instinct

I have some sympathy for the plant lobby, but I think they're slightly missing the point. Surely one of the most enjoyable things about gardening is the creativity involved in putting together combinations of flowers and leaves and stems. No one I know – not even the most hard-line plantsperson – arranges their garden in neat rows of specimen plants, in alphabetical order or according to genus.

I think the psychological value of this chance to express oneself is often overlooked, which is why I was delighted to see Bloomsbury has just republished the gardening classic A Gentle Plea For Chaos, by Mirabel Osler. This is how she describes the instinct that leads to that creative process: "A cherished longing to have one area of your own, where no one can constrain you and where no conformity compromises your imagination." The re-release marks the simultaneous publication of Osler's memoir, The Rain Tree (Bloomsbury, £20), which tells the story of her astonishing upbringing – her mother, Phyllis, was a student of Ezra Pound, while her mother's best friend, the Australian artist Stella Bowen, was married to Ford Madox Ford.

Now in her eighties, Osler has travelled extensively throughout her life. She and her husband worked in Thailand for a while, and adopted a Thai baby, before moving to Greece. In the 1970s, however, they moved back to the UK and created a garden together in Shropshire.

A Gentle Plea For Chaos and Osler's A Breath From Elsewhere describe this process so lyrically, so passionately, that they really should be on every self-respecting gardener's bookshelf. These are not how-to books, telling you how far apart you should plant cabbages, or when to prune roses. They speak to the silent poet that lurks in every gardening soul.

v.summerley@independent.co.uk

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