West and East London don't mix, like chi-chi olive oil and Red Stripe drunk out of the can
I know I've harped on lately about how little I like South London (although Eric Lanlard's baking school and Amirah's Kitchen have gone some way to convince me) but this directional odium is nothing compared to how West and East London feel about each other. They just don't mix, like chi-chi olive oil and Red Stripe drunk out of the can.
That's why it was a pleasant surprise to see a slice of E20 in SW3. The East Village show garden (pictured below) at the Chelsea Flower Show is inspired by the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, part of which Delancey, the garden's sponsors, are developing into 2,800 homes.
Sitting on the stand, warning all guests about, let's say, overenthusiastic pigeons in the trees above, was Marie-Louise Agius, who designed the garden along with her partner Michael Balston. It was her first show garden at Chelsea – and her first gold-medal winner.
Even though I have only been to Chelsea twice now, it was clear that the East Village garden was unusual. For a start, while most gardens have a straight rail or fence keeping out the public, here was a zig-zag rail (pictured below), meant to suggest the balconies the East Village's new inhabitants will have. This idea of height, said Marie-Louise, influenced her design because you had to imagine it from above as well as along. There were the curves seen in the Olympic Park too.
Don't expect a complex description of the flora and fauna from a man whose few pot plants include an unkillable aloe vera that I've managed to kill. The marmalade-colour azalea smelled wonderful is about as much as I can venture.
However, what I can say (because Marie-Louise told me) is that the Fothergilla major is a key plant for the garden. This fragrant plant, with its glossy green leaves and white spiky flowers, is named after John Fothergill, a physician and botanist who lived in Upton Park (later West Ham Park), which is now part of the QE Olympic Park. Fothergilla major, as well as providing the link with Stratford, was the 'keystone idea for the shrubs and the trees', said Marie-Louise, because it loves an acidic soil, and thus all the other plants must too.
Marie-Louise offered a revealing, somewhat frightening insight into the process of putting a Chelsea show garden together (which tend to cost around £100,000, according to reports, and take two years of planning to secure the perfect plants). She had spent, for example, eighteen hours a day for the past nineteen days installing the garden, and had armed herself with industrial quantities of Haribo to keep her team going.
Pictured above: The Daily Telegraph's show garden at the Chelsea Flower Show
The process was 'nerve-rending', with 'a few wibbly-wobblies', including a tall cornus tree that had come in from Bedfordshire with no sign of leaf, so Marie-Louise had to wrap it in plastic and 'put a heater up its bottom'. As of Wednesday afternoon, it still hadn't burst into life, but Marie-Louise was in a state of high anticipation.
Once the Chelsea Flower Show is over, most gardens are ripped out and not much productive comes from them. Delancey have decided this won't happen with East Village: its plants, trees and fixtures (a curved wood-and-glass seating area, for example) are being given to Arc in the Park, an adventure playground in Newham, an Olympic borough.
One thing I learnt from Marie-Louise was that medals are not awarded in competition with other gardens but against your own plans, which seems only to pile on the pressure. (This if I ever submit a plan for a garden to Chelsea, it will be twenty metres by ten of plain lawn. Gold medal guaranteed!)
My favourite gardens included the Daily Telegraph's, where lots of low rectangular hedges and walkways made impassable with wild flowers occluded lines of sight and made looking at the garden feel like an investigation or a mystery you needed to unravel, and the Homebase garden, mainly because there were no surly under-informed sales assistants lurking nearby, waiting to not answer your question.
My least favourite garden was certainly Marc Quinn's massive orchid sculpture on a bank of flowers (pictured left). The entire effect was camp and cheap. Inside the pavilion, Waitrose's, largely made of fruit and vegetables (piles of strawberries like bright-red lilies, a row of white cabbages) was beyond kitsch.
And the greatest triumph of the afternoon? My nose didn't fall off because of hay fever.