Centaurea benoistii

Outbursts of Vanilla

I have, like many people, recently returned from the Chelsea Flower Show (i).

I was, briefly, on television although have not yet seen much of it: except a bit of Tuesday’s programme where Christine Walkden says (and I quote) “I just want to stroke it and stroke it and dream away about hot, passionate nights”. I don’t know why this came as a bit of a surprise, but it did. I like making television very much but do not like watching myself: it is a vanity thing, I suppose, I always think I look too old/beaky/grey etc

I have now slept enough to be relatively confident that I can string a few words together without dribbling so am reasonably confident that this post will make some sense.

My Chelsea was exciting and a bit different as it was my first year as a member of Council so as well as the usual schmoozing and kissing people on Press Day I got to be very grown -up and important guiding VIPs round the show early in the morning in order to keep the donations to the RHS flowing. This has disadvantages as, if you are wearing a badge, people assume you know where the loos are and take the opportunity to complain about the crowds.

I spent quite a long time looking at the show gardens and I think it is time we had a revolution.

When I first came to Chelsea the planting was mostly Rhododendrons and large rocks. I’m sure there were other things but that is the memory I hold, there were exciting things going on in the tent with Beth Chatto and Carol Klein doing interesting stuff but that had not yet spread outside to the show gardens. At the time we were on the cusp of the garden design revolution when everybody suddenly became garden designers rather than gardeners. I remember thinking about training courses for Garden Design in about 1984 and the only one I could find was a ten week stint at the Inchbald School of Design (I signed up but did not turn up as often as I should). There were only a few designers in those days (John Brookes being the grand fromage) and the whole idea was treated with a certain suspicion.

“And what do you do, young man” I was asked on one memorable occasion (I was quite young in those days hence the mildly patronising form of address: better than “Sonny”, I suppose)
“I’m a Garden Designer, Sir” (I was not only young but terribly polite having been taught that it was always a good idea to call older men Sir: especially if one had designs on their daughters)
“What a strange idea” he replied “does anybody actually want their gardens designed?”

A few years later this became a superfluous question as the explosion of television programmes meant that everybody had some idea of design and how it works in gardens.

Anyway, back the point (or as close to it as I am ever likely to come), the Revolution. Since the days when the Rhodendron reigned the style of planting in Chelsea gardens has changed from shrubby to a much lighter, prettier feel. Initially this was viewed with some suspicion (ii). This idea has now become more mainstream and there is a slight sense of sameness as you walk down Main Avenue. Part of this is because there are only so many plants that are available at this time of year and partly because that style makes gorgeous gardens that work well at Chelsea. Sponsors demand Gold Medals and that does not lead to designers taking risks. I have suggested before to the RHS (and will do so again) that it would be very exciting if, every so often, Chelsea was moved to September: new colours, different plants etc. I am unlikely to succeed in this endeavour.

Don’t get me wrong, I adore this sort of thing. I love the planting and can easily swoon over a cow parsley. But part of me would really like to see something radically different. I am not quite sure what or how but things cannot remain the same for ever and we need somebody clever and innovative to chuck a bomb in the works.

Anyway, we will see.

Amongst other happenings: I went to lecture at Wisley. Apart from the fact that I was appallingly late it was fun. The audience were mostly Wisley staff so therefore the audience age was about half my usual average.

I have also been on a bit of a garden trawl, making sure things are in order. This is one of my favourite gardens: a courtyard full of plants.

I am listening to Gabrielle singing Rise. One of those anthemic songs that made you sway and lifted the soul for a bit. Until you got bored of it when it seemed trite and overdone. Short shelf life, popular music.

The picture is of a very dramatic Centaurea at Cottesbrooke: where, incidentally, the Gardeners’ Fair will be happening on the 22-24th June.

(i) When I say recently I mean over a week ago but it was recent when I wrote the first sentence of this post. Blogs seem to be written in bursts at the moment.

(ii) I say this as an early adopter who scraped a Bronze Medal a decade or so ago by planting what I called a Tameflower Meadow – lots of herbaceous stuff amidst a matrix of Stipa arundinacea. Pretty but a bit light horticulturally – I was terribly cavalier with my plant positioning as I was more excited by colour and shape. I spent most of the show standing on a caged hedge haranguing the punters as if by explaining the point of the garden to each and every visitor the world might change. Either that or I just enjoyed showing off. My next door neighbours had rocks and rhododendendrons.