Question: How many kinds of sweet flowers grow in an English country garden?
Answer: Blooming loads (groan), if you tally up the different flower families on display at every Chelsea Flower Show ever.
Quite astonishingly, the quintessentially English Royal Horticultural Society has been ever so genteelly attracting crowds of smog-escaping Londoners for a century this May 21-25. To celebrate, here are Natalie R Harris’s picks of ‘best in show’ floral gardens and exhibits…
The Flowerless Garden (1929)
The first green-fingered fan to ignore the inclusion of flowers completely was Mrs Sherman Hoyt. The brave lady built a rocky, dusty cacti garden in front of a painted Western-style landscape of the Mojave Desert (of Death Valley fame). English it ain’t, but it continued to attract attention at Kew Gardens for a further 50 years.
The Royal Garden (1937)
These days, the Queen is as much a permanent a fixture at the CFS as an unsmiling evergreen fir. The tradition of pomp and circumstance all began with the Coronation Empire Exhibition in honour of King George VI, a bombastic display of plants representing the furthest colonial reaches of the Commonwealth.
The Lady Garden (1950)
Perhaps more exhibitionism than exhibit, a group of scantily-dressed females were evicted from a rock garden on the grounds that ‘livestock of any kind’ were not permitted at the Show.
The Garden of Tomorrow (1959)
The prediction for the upcoming decade wasn’t women serving homemade lemonade while their husbands mowed the lawn, à la Mad Men. Rather, the horticultural futurologists at The Times decided that the future was a lawn that mowed itself via radio-controlled technology. Sadly, this didn’t quite come to fruition, but it was a nice idea.
The Flower Garden (1960)
There’s such a thing as a ‘World Orchid Conference’, and the third one ever was held in the surrounds of Sir Christopher Wren’s hospital buildings. Commercial growers, amateurs and horticulturalists from around the world came in their droves to admire this notoriously hard-to-manage flower in expertly-timed, colour-perfect bloom. Cue widespread orchid availability in local florists.
The Non-Garden (1993)
Somewhat controversially, Julie Toll took gold ten years ago with her ‘Seaside Garden’ made of sand and weeds. Visitors complained that the lack of grass meant it wasn’t a garden, but her rope gangways, seaman’s chests and flowering weeds won her critical acclaim.
The Plasticine Paradise (2009)
The RHS Chelsea Flow Show isn’t just for plebs; it’s for celebs! James May did something really silly and really pretty and really quite skilled that made everyone go “oooh”: he made a garden – complete with vegetable patch, picnic blanket and plant pots – out of that popular child’s food Plasticine. He then publicised it on his tellyshow.
The Sky Garden (2011)
Suspended in the air like a modern hanging Babylon, this pink pod (looking suspiciously like the Big Brother eye) sheltered long, living grasses, wooden benches, and English roses trellising the steel construction. Although it might sound a little bit Teletubbies, Irish creator Diarmuid Gavin cited blue blockbuster Avatar as his inspiration. Sure. Natalie R Harris
Find out more about the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.