"What's the Chelsea Flower Show?" asked a friend from Texas who had never heard of it. The Royal Horticultural Society of England (RHS) wouldn't like to hear that. They think that everybody in the world is familiar with the show, which since 1913, except during wartime, has bloomed in May on the grounds of the Royal Hospital in London's Chelsea neighborhood. For a few hallucinatory days (this year, May 25-28) the home of the famous red-coated Chelsea pensioners, those army veterans well known for their archaic uniforms, is filled with roses and rhododendrons, tents and tea parties.
It may in fact be the last truly great horticultural extravaganza in the Western world. As an habituée of this show and others over the years, I have watched Chelsea grow ever larger. Still, my Texan friend was onto something. Though a triumph of showmanship, Chelsea is also an anachronism. No one today planning a mammoth event of this nature would think of putting it in London SW3, one of the most congested areas of the English capital. It's a logistical nightmare, what with putting up the vast floral pavilion, all extruded aluminum and bright white polyester (the old, much-loved canvas marquee was cut up in 1999 to make gardening aprons that were sold at an outrageous price by an enterprising whiz kid). Then there are nearly two dozen big show gardens and exhibit after exhibit of living, growing plants to coax into bloom. Four miles of water pipes have to be laid to keep the plants alive.
Part of the excitement of the show is similar to that which surrounds all such tented events. But Chelsea's uniqueness lies in the fact that all this happens not in a field but right in the middle of the most densely populated city in Britain. For four days, some 170,000 people pass through plots of Asian jungle, African veld, and Australian desert. At first, during the three-week build-up period, the site seems to grow nothing but dump trucks, portable lavatories, and acres of white plastic. Then suddenly, out of this chaos, gardens begin to grow. Or perhaps "grow" is not the right word. The gardens perch, like birds in transit. Even while they're there, most of the plants aren't allowed out of their pots; the trick is to fool us that they have been there forever.
Some plants behave better than others. Last year, for example, in the prizewinning Laurent-Perrier/Harpers & Queen garden, the stars were 10 superb specimens of Cornus kousa, Japanese beauties with bracts like white handkerchiefs. Each was at least 15 feet high and 15 feet wide, seeming to march through the beautiful underplanting designed by Tom Stuart-Smith, one of the best of the present crop of young English gardeners. The leaves of the Cornus were fresh and bright, their growth was luxurious, they looked comfortable and settled. They all had the easy confidence, the effortlessness that is supposed to come only from years of private education.
For the sponsors who underwrite the cost of installing the show gardens, Chelsea is about exposure—the more the better. Many will have spent close to $400,000 on their plots. And since the BBC has to squeeze two hours of television from the show every day, such national coverage makes it worth every penny. Merrill Lynch sponsored a garden based on the Golden Section, a formula supposed to produce perfect proportion. The Daily Telegraph, one of the UK's leading newspapers, sponsored a garden planted entirely in gray and purple, the colors of its logo. Weird, but then its designer, James Dyson, is better known for his vacuum cleaners than he is for his gardening skills. The American winemaker Bonterra sponsored a garden inspired by its vineyards in Mendocino County, California; it was a beautiful creation of wildflowers (California orange poppies, pink campion) growing between rows of ancient, gnarled Trebbiano vines.
The ruling body of the RHS has always been a bizarre combination of nobs and nurserymen. From the beginning, the nurserymen used Chelsea as a showcase for their plants. Prodded out of their country estates, the nobs came to London with their head gardeners, made a leisurely tour of the show, and placed orders with the nurserymen for delphiniums, lupines, and roses to decorate their herbaceous borders. But now, in the social upheaval that characterizes modern Britain, the nobs are the nurserymen and the herbaceous borders have been chased over the horizon by hordes of tropical cannas and bananas in a new enthusiasm for the exotic garden.
Still, some things stay disappointingly the same, notably the humorless pretension of the flower-arranging tents. Here, tortured creations draped in chiffon bear as much relation to the garden as a plastic ketchup bottle. Flower arrangers now refer to flowers as "material," no longer referring to this sumptuous peony or that scented rose. "Material" is then prodded and pushed in the bossiest possible way to produce arrangements that attract huge crowds. It would seem, for a large number of the 40,000 visitors allowed in each day, Chelsea is only about flower arranging.
The real reason to walk through the Chelsea Flower Show is its eclecticism. At the show you will find gardens targeted at the most exquisitely tuned Sloane Ranger cheek-by-jowl with gardens from the outer reaches of Dunroaminland. You can lurch away from the magnificent tropical splendor of Anmore Exotics, where every plant looks as though it had been dreamed up by Walt Disney, straight into the chaste embrace of the delicate ancient bonsai shown by Peter Chan. He's got a bonsai juniper that survived Nagasaki, one side seared naked by the blast.
At Chelsea, you can buy tractors as well as terra-cotta pots. You can sit in the sun (if there is any—May can be tricky in England) twirling an ice cream cone. You can eavesdrop on abstruse conversations about plant genealogy. Nobs, particularly, are as interested in a plant's antecedents as they are in their own, and the rhododendron fanciers with vast estates in the highlands of Scotland are always fun to listen in on.
There is a delicate balance to maintain at the show: Some exhibits are there solely because they bring in money. Others push forward into new horticultural or design territory. Some are there for spectacle; a few relate directly to the visitors' own experiences of gardening. Some are there to instruct. The RHS has always considered it an important part of its role to educate the public, an unfashionable thing to do these days. So, in a prime position in the Great Pavilion, you will find scientific and educational displays. There's one by the British Mycological Society, one from the Chelsea Physic Garden, and another by the Royal College of Pathologists.
There are certainly people who consider these stands a waste of space and who would gladly trade The Story of Rhubarb or Aspects of Earthworms for another lush conservatory. But were the Chelsea Flower Show staged for purely commercial reasons, conservatories would have ousted earthworms long ago. Fortunately, it is not.
On balance, plants win hands down over sundries. The Chelsea Flower Show is primarily about green, growing things, not hardware. And this is an important part of its success. Even so, Chelsea is not everyone's cup of Thea sinensis. Few disagree on the magnificence of the 110 fantastic stands in the Great Pavilion. Here you can worship Devine Nurseries' Eremurus; Avon Bulbs' fabulous stand of spring flowering bulbs; exotica brought from Kirstenbosch, the famous botanic garden in South Africa. However, it's the show gardens that arouse deeply divided emotions and attract most of the attention and publicity.
The Chelsea show has always been good at flowers: flawless sweet peas fanned out in vases set against black velvet, delphiniums as massive as Corinthian pillars. But it was slow to catch up with good design. These days it's different. Garden design at Chelsea has taken a giant step forward, leaving behind both the traditional herbaceous border and the lawn. The patch between the flowers where the grass used to be has melted away. Instead, there are dark reflecting pools, rills, and canals. The show gardens, which had been such solid affairs, with concrete paving slabs surrounded by banks of pink rhododendrons, now flicker and glitter, reflected in the water. Heaven knows what this has done to bathrooms in the gilded homes of Kensington and Chelsea. Can anybody there get a morning shower during the show?
Perhaps you've not been to Chelsea recently. If that's the case, think first of sheets of water. Add glass and Lucite structures glittering in the patches of sunshine. Introduce some iris, deep purple, or rich blue. Give them a few thistly things for company and plenty of beige grasses (anything from the Stipa genus will do). Abandon concrete and substitute cool, cut slate. This is what should surround your pool. Surrender the teak bench and replace it with an enigmatic hunk of burnt oak. Then plant some more iris. You should now have an image of the new supercool, supersophisticated Chelsea garden. Add to this a mental picture of the Queen, gazing in a bewildered way at these installations when she comes with other members of her family to see the show. The Queen's visit is important to the RHS; it marks the beginning of the English social season, a string of damp outdoor events that, after Chelsea, continues with racing at Ascot, tennis at Wimbledon, and rowing on the River Thames at Henley.
Chelsea is also, of course, a contest. And it is always exciting when an outsider, with no Chelsea form at all, suddenly bursts on the scene with a garden that takes your breath away. This happened a couple of years ago when His Highness Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi (who'd actually exhibited here twice before) showed a fabulous enclosed courtyard garden, like an oasis, with big palm trees set around a pool. Water spouted from the beaks of bronze hawks circling its rim. The sheik won a silver medal, and he got gold last year for his Garden from the Desert. The theme was desalination—not something to quicken the pulse you might think. But salt removal is what makes the desert bloom in Arabia, and this focus made Christopher Bradley-Hole's brilliant design that much stronger.
The show gardens (and all the other exhibits at Chelsea, even the trade stands) are judged by different panels drawn from the RHS hierarchy. On the Monday before the show opens, they stalk around in their immaculate pinstriped suits—some still wear the traditional black bowler hat—and give marks out of 100, like a school exam. When judging the show gardens, they consider the practicality of the design, balance, unity and scale, quality and finish of construction, the color and texture of the planting, and the overall impression of the garden.
The most hotly contested prize is the award for best garden. Two years ago, the betting was on Bradley-Hole, who did the sheik's garden, and Tom Stuart-Smith, who designed the Laurent Perrier/Harpers & Queen garden. Bradley-Hole, trained as an architect, was one of the first designers to introduce unusual materials into a Chelsea garden, using stainless-steel beams for fencing, together with ship's decking and sailcloth. Never has stainless steel looked so good. Last year he produced a supremely elegant design, though nobody but the sheik could afford to build it. That's the funny thing about style: The more of it you've got, the less there is to show for it.
But the sheik has never stinted on his Chelsea gardens. One year he used his own plane, a Russian transport a bit like a U.S. C-5 Galaxy, to fly in 14 date palms from Sweihan, near Abu Dhabi. Each one was 40 feet tall, and there was room enough in the hold for only seven trees at a time. The plane landed at Manston, in the southeast of England, and the palms continued their three-hour journey to Chelsea on a 45-foot trailer. But it could carry only two trees at a time. (At least they didn't have to make the tortuous journey back home. After the show they all went to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.)
Tom Stuart-Smith's garden also took up a sizable chunk of the $40 million that exhibitors spend to create the Chelsea Flower Show. But then, he is one of Harpers & Queen's pet designers, where in a recent issue of the magazine a gold necklace by jeweler Ilias Lalaounis carried a price tag of £15,700. I'd rather have a Cornus kousa, but they're not on offer.
Stuart-Smith's first Chelsea garden was for Karl Lagerfeld and Chanel. He'd previously won three gold medals, but last year he scooped the big one: best in show. By the Sunday before opening day, his garden already looked astonishingly settled. Pale-green Tellima (there'll be a rush for it at garden stores now), blue and white herbaceous geraniums, blue columbines, phlox, white foxgloves, the peony 'White Wings,' sweet rocket, meadow rue, all woven together in a harmonious carpet of flowers beneath the dogwoods. Plants in the show gardens often have the surprised, slightly anguished air of small children plucked from their beds at midnight. Not this one, but then Stuart-Smith, a Colin Firth lookalike, is so cool you could chill your Champagne on him.
Stuart-Smith prices up his plants the way the rest of us do living-room carpets. Twenty square meters equals 800 plants equals $7,000. There are at least 4,000 plants in this particular garden, though none of them are actually planted. They're all in pots, clustered so thickly that none of the pot rims show.
"It is so incredibly spoiling," he says. "All these plants in perfect condition, and I get to play with them all!" That, I realize, is what Chelsea is really about. Keeping all of us, including Tom, happy.
Now Blooming In Chelsea
So what's special at this year's show? Anna Pavord finds five gardens not to miss.
100% PURE NEW ZEALAND ORA: GARDEN OF WELL-BEING Designed by a team that includes Richard Taylor, an Oscar winner for visual effects in The Lord of the Rings, this is New Zealand's first Chelsea garden. New Zealand plants are weird because they have evolved in isolation. Now, to be weird is hot. Look out for spiky-leaved Phormiums and Maori "ponga," a tree fern with 10-foot fronds.
AUSTRALIAN INSPIRATION If New Zealand's coming to Chelsea, then Australia must too. Jim Fogarty leads an all-Aussie team to re-create the buffs, pinks, grays, and creams of Australia's native bush. Expect eucalyptus, red gum, and jarrah woods, with bluestone and rammed earth used to landscape the space.
LAURENT-PERRIER/HARPERS & QUEEN GARDEN Sir Terence Conran says he sees gardens as outdoor rooms—and this year, his third at the show, he's focused on the kitchen. Designed with Nicola Lesbirel, the garden's fully functional kitchen is set among simple, rectilinear (so Conran!) plantings of sedum and viola punctuated by tall irises and Chondropetalum.
DIARMUID GAVIN Gavin, renegade host of the BBC's "Home Front in the Garden," made his first Chelsea appearance in 1995, arriving from Ireland with a few jars of duckweed, no money, and bags of charm. He somehow convinced laborers from a local pub to build his garden for him. This year he'll dazzle again with a suburban-themed Eden, planted almost entirely in shades of green and inspired by, among other things, the Teletubbies.
THE MERRILL LYNCH GARDEN The man-made and the natural are the yin and yang of this garden, designed by Dan Pearson, with sculpted waves of grass cut by a flower-bordered brook. Willows and woodland planting provide screens along two boundaries, with a pool at the back reflecting the movement of the trees. Should be stunning.
Tickets for the Chelsea Flower Show, May 25-28, must be booked in advance by calling 44-870-906-3781 or visiting www.rhs.org.uk/chelsea.