I was expecting, I think, the equivalent of a couture fashion show, with the most beautiful, complex, ostentatious, impractical designs on show.
I had never, in truth, understood the appeal of the Chelsea Flower Show. I mean, I like flowers – the ones that don't want to kill me with their pollen. (Get back, daffs!) Gardens are good too – pleasant to walk around, perhaps with some nice grass to lie on, a dribbling fountain for auditory distraction. But thousands of people crowding around miniature gardens, like Honey I Shrank The Patio and Transported It To SW3? Nope.
My first visit to Chelsea on Tuesday evening didn't start reassuringly. The winning show garden, Brewin Dolphin's designed by Clever West, looked to me like plenty of other gardens I had seen in real life: some pyramidal topiary in square beds of flowers, a stone path through to a terrace, a hedge. I didn't get the fuss. Why was this the winner?
On my first loop round, many of the other show gardens failed to wow, although the Homebase Teenage Cancer Trust's one struck me for its modernity, with smooth cedar wood frames and warm-coloured plants. I was expecting, I think, the equivalent of a couture fashion show, with the most beautiful, complex, ostentatious, impractical designs on show. (The fashion in gardens these days, as I was later told at dinner by Ian Drummond, director of Indoor Garden Design, was restrained, perhaps in contrast to the excesses of the boom-era show.)
But then I asked a couple of knowledgeable ladies peering over the rope (most people aren't allowed into the gardens) to talk me through why Brewin Dolphin won. As they explained that while it seemed simple, it was actually subtle, I started to get it. The flowers were all out, which is by no means certain. The beds had contrasts of colours, patterns, sizes and shapes with their flowers. The eye was constantly absorbed following the varying lines. It was the sort of garden, they said, you would like to spend time in.
The Best in Show Brewin Dolphin garden designed by Cleve West
Speaking of which, there was one garden which achieved (for me) greatness by making it one you simultaneously did and did not want to spend time in. This was Quiet Time: Korean DMZ Forbidden Garden, designed by Jihae Hwang. The DeMilitarised Zone is the strip of no-man's-land between North and South Korea, their buffer which has been allowed to grow wild in the 60 years since the end of their war. The foliage there is unusual because it is completely uncultivated.
This garden, slightly tucked away in one corner of the show and loomed over by Diarmuid Gavin's gimmicky garden pyramid, a huge multi-storey structure, is a peaceful embodiment of some very painful times. There is a watchtower, surveying the greenery, a calm stream, a high fence overrun with climbers and creepers, a bench made of military dog-tags. All the time you try to reconcile these overt symbols of violence and repression with the garden's peace and beauty. I'm happy to say the peace and beauty won.
That garden would not have looked out of place as a project at the Frieze Art Fair – something on a large scale with a profound concept and careful execution. In fact, the Chelsea Flower Show is rather like Frieze for flowers: the errant upper-middle classes, the careful curation, the public being barred from going near most things.
Quiet Time: Korean DMZ Forbidden Garden
One of the most impressive aspects of the show was the emphasis on urban gardening. I don't have a garden but a windowsill, so I need space-saving plants more than most, and some corners of the show recognise this. The Writtle College stand, which promoted growing plants in bottletops and turning old Coke bottles (with a little support from a water pump) into hanging planters (see below, in the right of the picture), was thoroughly impressive. An urban school had participated too, though I'm not sure that the pupils of Knightsbridge School really had grown up around the graffiti and burnt-out cars which were central to their garden.
Indoor Garden Design, whose director I mentioned earlier, had a stand outside in the Fresh section where they promoted their living walls. Turns out you can have those indoor too. Dalston, watch out – I'm going to put the jungle in urban jungle.
One final note: Indoor Garden Design had this year decorated three black cabs with different themes: grow-your-own; Jubilee; and disco (obviously). Travelling from the show to the Jumeriah Carlton Tower for dinner in the disco cab, complete with mirror ball, was quite something. These cabs are on Hailo, which is an app you can use to summon the nearest taxi; as the son of a black cab driver, I can thoroughly recommend it, even if you don't get the disco cab.