Gardening Christina Farrell
Last year was an exciting year for the Chelsea Flower Show. A mystical Celtic garden won best-in-show and a nation known for its devotion to the perfect lawn went away thinking "let the daisies grow". The bright cartoon flowers of childhood were abandoned for sweet william and cornflowers. We embraced willow fencing and curious twisty metal poles for French beans to climb — if the slugs haven't got to the seedlings first.
What a difference a year makes. Chelsea 12 months on was a slightly faded version of the vintage year, with some noteworthy exceptions. Show gardens still look more like snapshots of a forgotten England, mossy river banks where Toad and Ratty and Mole might wander. You pinch yourself to.remember that this is a showground and not the Dales or rugged peaks of Snowdonia.
Suspend belief and dream, for Chelsea is as much fantasy as inspiration. Many of the perfect blooms have been "forced" to create the ultimate artificial landscape — plants and trees that would never flower together.
This is painting with nature and the plants are the beauties here. Chelsea is part of "the season", but Jimmy Choo's come a poor second to the scent and sights of the Floral
Pavilions. An Englishman's home is not his castle, it's his shed; pottering is what we do best and the gardens were the stars.
Best-in-show this year, for there has to be a winner, went to the Laurent Perrier/Harpers and Queen Garden designed by Tom Stuart Smith. This was "a vista", a woodland setting with Cams kousa in flower forming a canopy over swathes of lime, blue and ivory planting — muted tones in the dappled light.
My particular favourite, and a worthy gold medal winner, was Garden from the Desert sponsored by the President of the United Arab Emirates, His Highness Sheikh Zayed Bin Al Nahyan. Sand and blocks of carved sandstone layered in amber and gold offset an area of lush planting — a garden in the wilderness. It was
simple: stipa gigantea (oatgrass) and stipa tenuissima interwoven with euphorbias, fennel and broom and then splashes of purple and crimson — iris, poppies and knautias.
A channel of moving water irrigated the landscape. This was not so much suspension of belief, as belief in what can be done, the taming of the elements and the natural. Sheikh Zayed's motto is "let's give it a try". It is, he says, "by God's will" and the power of modem engineering that the desert will bloom.
But mossy walls and columbine were still very much to the fore. One of the most popular gardens was Yorkshire Forward, a cottage garden from James Herriott country, complete with babbling brook and a packhorse bridge. Chelsea loved it and they clamoured for plant lists. It was achieveable cottage planting — aquilegias (good for withstanding the slug onslaught), delphiniums, dianthus and heuchera. It was comfort in the familiar; all they needed was a clock to strike and scones for tea. The sole weapons of mass destruction in this particular setting were the caterpillars ... You can understand why people love gardening.
The prisoners of HMP Leyhill won gold too with their depiction of WH Davies's classic poem "What is this life if full of care, We have no time to stand and stare."It looked like
some forgotten bank of the Thames past Pangbourne, a splintered rowing boat the only evidence of man in a landscape reclaimed by air and water fowl. The local ducks loved it.
So, another year when we were encouraged to let nature take its course. Mary Reynolds, the 2002 best in show winner, has planted a garden at Kew Gardens, building on the same themes of biodiversity and natural landscape. Reynolds's talent is that her craft looks like a garden not just a segment of meadow. Take the slow boat to Kew and be inspired.
The next RHS Show is at Hampton Court from July 8-13