Carrying on since 1913, with brief pause for two world wars, the Chelsea show still manages to be fun and besotted, fuddy-duddy and cutting-edge. It marks the beginning of the English summer social season, with gents in straw hats, ladies in floral frocks. And it draws sold-out throngs of plant obsessives to stroll the transformed greensward of the Royal Hospital and smell the patent-pending roses.
The loss of empire and the looming Brexit be damned, nobody does puttering in the backyard quite like Britain, still the globe’s greatest gardening nation.
This year’s big display gardens featured an homage to the Yorkshire countryside, complete with a working canal lock; a sand-dune flavored lounge-thing from Dubai; several “urban gardens” for clients with penthouse spaces and big bucks (they were awesome, needed to green the cities); a “Resilience Garden,” a first here that focuses on Britain’s changing climate (think yucca in Wessex, prickly pear in Kent); and a quiet, cool, green one for the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), the show’s sponsor, called the “Back To Nature” garden.
This last doozy was co-designed by Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, wife to a most likely future king, Prince William, and mother to three heirs and spares.
Kate’s “woodland space” was “inspired by childhood memories . . . a place to retreat from the world, to play, learn and discover as well as create special family memories,” as described by the RHS.
The forests, the pamphlet informed, are good for a child’s mental health and development.
A treehouse perched on an ancient stump (cost unknown), clad in stag horn oak, was the centerpiece. There was a flowing pebbled brook to play in, a swing to swing on, and a hollow log to crawl through.
There was also a twee tepee made of sticks, a crude bow and arrow, and a wee fire pit — the perfect setting to learn to play responsibly with matches and DIY weapons.
Queen Elizabeth II, dressed in a green coat over a purple and green dress, gave it high royal marks. “It’s very tidy,” the queen said Tuesday morning, according to the royal pool report.
William and Kate’s kids visited over the weekend and were photographed, appropriately frolicking about in bare feet and perfect little outfits.
These showpieces and feature displays — the biggest gardens occupy 2,800 square feet, the floor plan of an ample home — can take weeks of feverish work to assemble, completely from scratch, with “planting teams” going at it almost 24/7, erecting mature (transplanted) elms, sequoias, cedars.
One of the gardens this year featured a temporary giant redwood, 42 feet tall. It will live here until Saturday and then be transferred elsewhere.
A veteran garden designer confessed they used to compost most of the plants, which were at their peak for the show — though many survivors now find new homes in charity gardens or posh new settings.
The sheer overabundance of blooms, the perfect shabby-chic of the cottage styles, is delirious. Each plant spooning the next, everything just right. As if they were hired like the wait staff, bees already covered the riot of flowers.
You may want this garden.
You will never have this garden.
The artistry of re-creation is eye-popping.
The still unfurling ferns, old woolly moss and peak wildflowers appear as you find them in the heritage Grade II cottage in Somerset.
But none of this was here in April.
This year marks designer Mark Gregory’s 99th Chelsea garden. His replica of a west Yorkshire canal and lock tender’s cottage required the efforts of 60 workers, with cranes and hydraulics.
People, there were dewy spider webs — already!
Gregory said the show highlights “something we’re still good at, which is growing plants.”
He said: “We were once a great industrial powerhouse. Not so much now, I would say. But at horticulture? We’re hard to beat.”
Gregory said plants for gardens and vases outpace edible crops in Britain in gross domestic product.
The secret? “Great climate, crap weather,” he said, meaning it rains a lot but not too much, and is cool but not freezing, and warm in the summer, but not Kuwait.
England has been nuts for plants since the Victorians made it an obsession. The Chelsea Flower Show is “a shop window for the world,” said Raymond Evison, who has been cultivating clematis on England’s balmy offshore tax haven island of Guernsey for decades. He sells 2 million plants a year, almost half to the United States.
The latest trend? “More leisure time but less time for gardening,” he said. Clients want plants that burst into summer-long bloom but don’t require a lot of pruning.
Another trend? “The Chinese,” he said. They love the Chelsea Flower Show.
This was the first Chelsea show since the death of David Austin, Britain’s most famous plant breeder, credited with restoring fragrance to the modern rose. But his family and company carried on, with two new roses and a “Secret Garden”-themed display.
Designer Sarah Eberle made the “Resilience Garden” for this year’s show. “I wanted to deliver a message: Come on, climate change is real, it’s here, it’s coming.”
What would she grow in her English cottage garden of the future?
“It’s not the future,” she corrected.
She’d plant cacti, aloe, yucca. She’d plant trees that are drought-resistant, pest-resistant, that could handle new extremes — too hot, too cold, at all the wrong times.
She’d manage her water better.
Eberle has been a garden designer for 40 years. She offered an observation. Early in her career, the wisdom went, a gardener here would cut her herbaceous perennials down to the ground in late October. They’d sleep through the winter, grow again in the spring.
But now? “They’re growing waist-high by Christmas,” she said. “This is just in my years. There’s no hard winter anymore. Many people might miss it. But a gardener? A gardener sees it with her own eyes.”