I'd caught some of the BBC coverage during the week and read several reviews in the papers, but was still unsure if i'd get much out of the show - Would I really learn much there? Most reports were full of superlatives, with virtually no criticisms of any gardens there. Is it not the done thing in horticulture for reviewers to say what they think was great and what sucked?
Upon arrival the first thing I noticed was that, like any other creative industry, horticulture has fashions, and this year the trend was wild flower meadows, so the same look and plants kept cropping up in garden after garden ("oh look, Selinum Wallicianum, purple lupin, and irisis yet AGAIN!"). The second was that it's easy to become overwhelmed by the crowds and lose focus on looking for your own ideas. I was determined to avoid this and stick to my brief of finding year round colour plants with textural foliage for my garden, as well as any individual plants that stood out.
So what worked? For me there were two standout moments. The first was the Morgan Stanley Healthy Cities garden, which gave me my first Wowza moment. Up until then i'd found the gardens nice, in a rather distant and un-relateable way, but this one immediately inspired me to copy the planting scheme for my own patch! The same group of plants had been used through the entire space, but arranged differently in each area, bringing colour but harmony to the whole thing, and making me realise that planting a select few plant types was just as effective of buying masses of different types. This hadn't come across when I watched on TV, but standing there the real life impact made me immediately want to take the purpley bluey scheme interspersed with orange pops back to my own space.
The second was the plants in the grand pavilion itself. By the time i'd reached it garden fatigue was beginning to set in, and I was wondering if we should skip it and head home. I'm glad I didn't, as here I found plants which fitted my brief of searching for finding year round colour and textural foliage, and I was able to get a close up look and chat to the stallholders about the plants. Because of this a Heucera is definitely heading to my garden along with some others. I also found a plant called Streptocarpus ‘Polka-Dot Purple’ which was too cute for words, and also an Iris Bientot L'Ete, in gorgeous purple and yellow. Sadly we were due to leave before I had finished the pavilion, I wish i'd come here sooner.
So on to the controversial bit. What didn't work for me? The winner of the Great Chelsea Garden Challenge had not wowed me on TV, and wowed me even less in person. The overwhelming impression was of concrete and grass. In the drizzle and grey of Saturday afternoon the garden looked pretty dismal, and wasn't helped by its position next to more eye catching gardens nearby. Still, there was large enthusiastic crowd in front of it so what do I know? The second disappointment for was the Fresh Gardens, as it hard to distinguish these from the trade gardens interspersed between them. They also looked more suited to Mediterranean climates, and with some I was having trouble deciding whether the small brown plants were meant to look like that, or whether they were actually dead.
So what does a newbie make of the show in general? On the day I went the crowds were insane, and manners were often forgotten. I was also struck by how white the crowd was, and similar the exhibitors were- why no schools gardens? Small community efforts or regions displays? Would I recommend it. That's a toughie. One lady I got chatting to at the picnic tables told me she wished she hadn't bothered as she'd have had a better view of the gardens on TV and this is true, added to this the crowds and expense why would anyone bother? I'd say the show is best approached as an entertaining day out with friends & family, where everyone can find one or two ideas to take home to their own garden. At £59 it's about the same price as a cheaper london theatre ticket, but the atmosphere of excitement, the drama of such different gardens laid out so closely together, and the experience of seeing the spaces in real life was huge fun. Two days later my head is still full of planting ideas to follow up in the coming weeks. Will I go back next year? Definitely!
If you're keen to go next year, stay tuned for my next post on tips and advice for Chelsea newbies, along with what I will be doing differently next time round to make the experience even better!