As you make your sandwiches and get out your comfortable shoes ready for a day at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show next week (24-29 May), do spare a thought for the 600 exhibitors of show gardens, plants, floral arrangements, educational exhibits and sundries. Theirs is not an especially happy
This year’s cold and dry late-April and May with frosts at night have forced designers of show gardens to scrabble for substitute plants, while nurserymen, with exhibits in the Great Pavilion, have a more than usually worrying time getting the plants to the right stage for showing. Those who ‘force’ or hold back out-of-season plants always expect difficulties, but even the growers of Oriental poppies, bearded irises, peonies, lupins and other natural late-May flowers, will be experiencing problems.
These are challenges for this year’s show, but things have generally got harder for exhibitors in recent years. They feel they must have a presence at Chelsea since it is the most famous and prestigious flower show in the world, yet it is ever more expensive to book a pitch there, put up staff in central London and negotiate traffic and congestion charge costs. Plant exhibitors cannot sell their goods off the stand as they can at other shows, yet visitors don’t give them many orders any more. One nursery exhibitor told me, in a tone of justifiable exasperation, that people simply take digital photographs of the stand’s flowers and name labels and then order the plants from the cheapest nursery website on the internet. The exhibitors must obey the ever more rigorous demands of the RHS show rules. And, since 2005, the show has been longer by a day, which increases the costs of manning the stand and requires exhibitors somehow to get their flowers to last longer.
It has been an unhappy year for the Royal Horticultural Society, too, with the loss, during the pay review prompted by the recession, of some key staff. The president, Giles Coode-Adams, retires at the AGM in early July, surely with a sigh of relief. But the appointment of a new director-general is finally expected in the next month, and quite late in the day M&G Investments have come forward to sponsor Chelsea.
Certainly, the show is likely to look less sparse than last year’s. Then, there were only 14 rather than 22 large show gardens; this year, the number is 15, with the Eden Project’s garden by Paul Stone the largest ever seen at Chelsea. There are some welcome new names among the large show garden designers, including Jonathan Denby, Philippa Pearson, Scott Wynd and Darren Saines; and among the sponsors, too, in L’Occitane, Brewin Dolphin and South Lakes Hotels. Strong architectural elements, such as dry stone walls, are back in vogue, and planting schemes will be a bit brighter this year.
As for the plants, look out for Cenolophium denudatum , a classy cow-parsley relative, which you will see in Tom Stuart-Smith’s Laurent-Perrier garden, and probably elsewhere as well; and, everywhere, the recently introduced, hardy, summer-flowering Salvia nemerosa ‘Caradonna’, which has 75-cm tall deep-purple stems, violet-purple flowers and grey-green leaves. In the Great Pavilion, Hilliers is showing a new ‘mock orange’, with a particularly strong scent, called Philadelphus maculatus ‘Sweet Clare’, while David Austin Roses promises an impressively well-mannered new rose, ‘England’s Rose’, with deep-pink flowers continuously for five months, which behaves well in bad weather and has a strong, spicy fragrance. And there will be many more. So, despite the difficulties experienced by almost everyone putting on this show for our benefit, we will jolly well enjoy it, won’t we?