Gold at Chelsea Flower Show

By ABBIE JURY

Wow! Isn’t it great to be a winner? This is the gardening equivalent of the Olympics or the World Champs and on this country’s first attempt, we win a coveted gold medal.

Do not let the fact that this success was relegated to page five in the newspaper (albeit with a colour photo) detract from this wonderful success. Let us give credit to the designers, the backers, the workers and all who made this happen.

It is quite a big budget at $300,000 to stage a garden for a mere four days.

I notice that Tourism New Zealand’s boss, George Hickton, is at pains to point out the positive spin-offs for this country and that the budget was relatively small compared to some of the other main players. But also compare it to the costs of sending some of our sports teams overseas and the budget does not look over the top – and they don’t always win

(although when they do, they often make the front page of the paper!)

I did smile a little wryly at George Hickton’s false modesty when he claimed that the team was hoping only for a minor award or commendation, never even considering gold as a possibility. Don’t believe him. I am sure they set out to win gold, while acknowledging that it was a long shot.

Silver would have been a great achievement, but I bet they dreamed of gold. And why shouldn’t they?

This was New Zealand’s first display garden at Chelsea and the logistics of creating a garden using indigenous flora of this country would have been a nightmare. Bio-security fears mean that shipping plants around the world is an expensive, demanding and stressful activity.

The English prize much of our native flora, which often seems exotic to them. Cabbage trees are greatly valued. Tree ferns seem unbelievably tropical. Hebes and flaxes are the mainstay of many a planting. The Chelsea garden is reported to contain plants that have not been seen in Britain before, but I haven’t seen a planting plan yet, so I am not sure what these were.

I have not yet been to the Chelsea Flower Show, held annually in the grounds of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, London. It was the model for our own Ellerslie Flower Show (currently in slightly rocky territory) but we only have 10 years of experience at this type of event in New Zealand. The Brits, meanwhile, pioneered it last century and have taken it to levels somewhat beyond our efforts.

Coinciding with this year’s Chelsea show, the owner, the Royal Horticultural Society, has released a rather lovely book entitled Chelsea, The Greatest Flower Show on Earth.

I guess one would describe it as a coffee table book – an attractively presented hardback volume with many illustrations. But it deserves to be read, not just left on the coffee table. The text is delightfully written by Leslie Geddes-Brown, and it is very easy to pick up and read random chapters over a cup of coffee or tea.

Everything you may never have thought to ask about Chelsea is included, as well as the answers to those matters you might have pondered. From evolving styles of gardens and plants, to the role of the Royal Family to the process of preparing plants and exhibiting there – all receive considered attention.

With apologies to the author, I pick out some of the random, quirky gems. I did not know that gnomes were banned from Chelsea. The RHS maintains high standards of Good Taste, Ma’am, and despite a concerted protest by Lampy the Gnome in 1993, they have continued to maintain a ban on kitsch, of which garden gnomes are the premier example.

I loved the little historical note that, in 1935, the new Jubilee Trophy, to recognise the best exhibit by an amateur, was awarded to Lionel de Rothschild (only of Exbury Gardens origin) and his two gardeners were given E20 each. Amateurism at Chelsea seems to mean something slightly different from amateurism at home.

The chapter on clothing has some real gems. “Back in the 1920s, female gardeners had looked like Vita Sackville-West (of Sissinghurst fame), with their smart lace-up shoes, gaiters or knee socks and an adult gym slip. I feel I had a lucky escape to be born 50 years later so I could at least leave the gym frock behind when I left school. Although, (and this has nothing to do whatever with gardening), thinking of gym frocks, I was alarmed to see a modern version of this dreaded item of clothing in the front window of an up market clothing store this week.

Male gardeners did not escape, either. Those “who were not gentry wore three-piece suits in a heavy cloth, white shirts, and very large woollen caps placed flat on their heads. When at work, they removed their jackets, but not their waistcoats, and rolled up their shirt sleeves, but kept on their caps.” Now, the author assures us, the modern workforce are “often fit, bronzed and muscular. Their hair may be tied back in pony tails. the top half of their bodies may be bare. Eye candy is apparently fine in the preparatory stage of a show, even if gnomes are not.

This book is more than just a history of the Chelsea Flower Show. It is also a history of 20th Century English gardening (a tradition we have followed very closely until recent times), of gardening personalities, manners and social mores. The author is sufficiently opinionated to make it interesting without being overbearing. It is an enjoyable book to dip into, with many interesting illustrations. Worth a place on the gardening bookshelf, in my opinion at least.

And it makes one realise just how big is the achievement of those who staged the New Zealand garden to win gold this year. Let us all bask in the reflected glory of this achievement.

Chelsea, The Greatest Flower Show on Earth, by Leslie Geddes-Brown, is published by Dorling Kindersley, RRP $49.95.

*Abbie and Mark Jury have a garden and nursery at Otaraoa Rd, Tikorangi.