I have decided that Chelsea Flower Show is a surrealist experience - one you have to swim through if you’re to survive its sensory explosion. As I enter the show waves of fuchsia pink plastic, with blooms bursting between them, confront me. The interpretation board tells me that the garden represents the Silk Road and the surrounding mountainous landscape. I’ve been along the Silk Road and it does posses some of the most wonderful wildflowers I’ve ever seen. You turn into valleys and see drifts of herbaceous plants, peonies, fox lilies, Thalictrums, Alliums, daisies, roses, the list goes on and on… While the Silk Road garden might not be quite so abundant in variety, it’s not a bad interpretation, in a postmodern sort of way.
One of the most remarked upon things this year is the lack of show gardens. Last year there were 16, this year there’s half that. This is loosely being blamed on Brexit, since a fancy main avenue show garden is in some ways a sign of confidence in London’s financial system and fewer of them is a statement of… who knows what? Global politics aside, it does make for a leisurely show. Rather than having to race along to view the next garden, everyone has notably slowed down. Perhaps the new Chelsea is a Slow Chelsea.
This year there is a lot of geometry, from James Basson’s cubes inspired by an abandoned Maltese quarry, to the Morgan Stanley Garden designed by Chris Beardshaw, exploring fractal geometry and patterns found in nature, music and art. Andrew Wilson and Gavin McWilliams, in their Breaking Ground garden, even have geometric climbing frames. I don’t think they are supposed to be climbing frames, but I did hear rumours that one judge clambered up to see how strong they were.
In terms of the planting palettes, they seemed to fall into two quite distinct camps: boisterous, bold, dare I say slightly garish planting, with an explosion of form and colour and style, and on the opposite side, quiet, restrained, wilder planting that has been popular in recent years. Clearly both styles can work, but my heart is with the wilder stuff.
After pondering trends and movements and all this symbolism I took myself off to the Great Pavilion to see the growers. I love the pavilion for its often more brash and bold flowers - all those over bred begonias and rows of perfect daffodils in the sweltering May heat. And, like the outdoors, there are quiet moments of contemplation, subtle displays where you can see beautifully grown spring plants, rare ephemeral and woodland flora amongst the exotic and the tropical.
Weaving in between heady scents and blousy blooms I came upon Kew Gardens’ display. It’s based around the ‘State of the World’s Plants’, a ground breaking report that looks at the entire global picture and assesses where we are at, what has been found, what is endangered, what is critical and what has already been lost in the plant world. It is both a sombre and fascinating read, but since it is mostly likely that it will only be scientists and policy makers who bother to wade through it, Kew Gardens have turned the display into a living interpretation of the report. The display showcases strange spiky plants from Madagascar (which is one of the richest places on earth for biodiversity), tiny water lilies from Rwanda (that are now extinct in the wild, but flourishing in greenhouses of botanic gardens), and weird and wonderful adaptations of plants (some can live on the edge of the mountains, others deep in the rainforest). It’s not the showiest display, tucked away in the discovery corner, but it is brilliant and its message is both sobering and positive. If you are going to Chelsea this year, seek it out.
Words by Alys Fowler. Portrait by Ming de Nasty.
Alice wears TOAST Provence Ikat Dress available here.
Gardens featured: Silk Road Garden, Royal Bank of Canada Garden, Breaking Ground and The Morgan Stanley Garden. Courtesy of RHS/ Neil Hepworth.