by Derek Burch


It has been a lot of years since I managed to get to the Chelsea Flower Show, that Mecca for so many serious gardeners. I was a Fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society at that time, which will tell all the other older readers just how long ago it was.

I can't even remember when that pleasant little conceit was dropped. I miss it a little, but the members of the RHS are just as nice and just as knowledgable as the Fellows were, so there are no real grounds for complaint.

My memories from those long ago visits mostly centre on fragrance. I remember getting there as the show opened, on the first day that regular non-royals were allowed in, and being made almost dizzy by the perfumes that had collected overnight in the huge marquee that housed the displays. I remember the lupines and the delphiniums going up forever on their stands, and the perfection of the vegetables marshalled in their unreal glory - parsnips too long to have been dug from the ground, and carrots each the same length and diameter to the exact millimeter (or hundredth of an inch as it was then).

  But now, a new millennium, a new perspective and a new display structure, glistening pearly-white and settling a gentle light evenly over everything with not a hint of a ripple to it, as that long-ago canvas might have had. The displays still magnificent, but hard to do justice to in words or photographs, as I realise now that I am putting this article together.

Taking photographs certainly not made any easier by the number of visitors - no let me say it, not made any easier by the crowds. It was crowded, full of interested and civilised people, but still crowded to the point where it was almost impossible to see some of the display gardens. As my daughter said, working our way to the front of the several-deep ranks of onlookers was harder than getting a pint in a pub on a busy Saturday night.

The exhibits in the main display area had something for everyone: roses to fill a thousand bouquets in every shade of meaning; vegetables grown to the same impossible perfection as ever, and arranged with the age-old precision of true craftsmen.

There were orchids, my well-remembered lupines and delphiniums, garden and native herbs, poppies and even out-of-season daffodils to recreate the spring.

And everywhere clematis - to this displaced temperate gardener, one of the most vivid memories of gardens from childhood.

Larger booths had walks through shrub gardens and woodlands alive with underplanted flowers, and the tropics were not forgotten with more orchids and gingers, herbs and spices and edible plants.

Outside, the gardens gave us their designer's visions of idyllic surroundings, their serene look defying us to remember that they had been put together from bare ground in the few frantic days before the show opened. The range, as you might expect, spanned the barely-out-of-reach dream garden to an Arabian nights' splendour that would work well in a Las Vegas casino hotel. Some gardens shared their secrets if it was possible to stay studying them quietly for long enough, others needed a storyboard to explain the designer's idea. Again, blame the crowds for taking the edge off the pleasure of the most soothing gardens, and making me, at least, walk past a few that did not grip me at first glance.

The crowds again. Learn from my experience: don't try to meet someone there for the first time; take sandwiches and eat sitting on the grass far away from the restaurants. Go with plenty of time, and, whatever the small irritations, treasure the spectacle of a beautiful site, filled with glorious exhibits and thronged with people who share your absorbtion with the plant kingdom.

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