Thoughts from a Chelsea virgin

Or the misanthropic mumblings of a West Country boy

Words: Mark Diacono

I didn’t much like the idea of Chelsea Flower Show before I went. It is, after all, a toff monstrosity, an eco disaster, exhibiting gardens relevant to the few, gawped at by a public who were largely unable to recreate what they saw. Isn’t it?

Well yes, and no.

The first year I went, I confess, I didn’t really get the language of show gardens. It felt I was in a museum of modern art where I was likely to say ‘It doesn’t look much like him does it’, rather than ‘Yes, you can the influence of Goethe’s later writings in the shape of the eyebrows’.

Now that I’ve been going for a few years I know it’s mostly Mullet Gardening: big stuff at the back, short stuff at the front. Pop in a long phallic path leading to a big sculptural vagina, a couple of wavy grasses and a gently babbling water feature that makes those viewing fancy a wee – handily freeing up space for the next wave of onlookers – and you have many of the show gardens. Or at least many of the show gardens created by men.

Many are beautiful, of course – the gardens, not the men – and there are some glorious originals (often created by women) that do something completely different.  Last year’s Korean Garden comes to mind.

It is no great exercise in environmentally responsible gardening: setting up then demolishing all those gardens with their many tons of building materials. While forcing many of the plants into flower with heat and chemicals, and shipping many in from overseas, is no one’s idea of green gardening. And maybe we shouldn’t be asking it to be. Once in a while, even the health conscious need a big pot of ice cream and a basinful of wine. Chelsea is the gardening equivalent of that long weekend.

It is of course, not all about the show gardens. The smaller gardens and nursery stands get much more of my attention, and I suspect of the public’s too. It is, frankly, astonishing what many of these craftspeople create. The expertise is impressive, the beauty often breathtaking.

The world watches, visitors have a fabulous time, people are inspired, ideas are exchanged and everyone gets to see the best of what our finest nurseries do so well. It is a celebration of gardening that adds fizz to the gardening year and many come to gardening exactly because of it.

Added to that, the bacon rolls are excellent and I’ve had the pleasure of watching Emma Townshend (the Independent’s garden writer) eat one like she was trying to get the duvet out of its cover with her teeth. It was the highlight of my year. There are many famous folk wandering about, many of whom I’ve accidentally said hello to – my brain being quick enough to think ‘I know you’ and send the message to my mouth, before my brain gets round to adding ‘…from the telly’. It has led to some interesting conversations, with a few celebs thinking that we must’ve met at some point.

Barry Norman asked how the missus was. “Not so bad thanks. She said to say ‘hello’ if I ran into you.”