May 242012


Unless you’ve been living in a cupboard under the stairs, you’ll know that the Chelsea Flower Show is taking place at the moment. I went on Monday, on press day. It’s a privilege to walk into the  showground early in the morning, the air heady with anticipation, and to glimpse the show gardens for the first time. I’ll admit that I’m more interested in the show gardens than I am in the displays in the Great Pavilion. Maybe that will change when I get my own garden, as I might actually be in the market for buying some plants.

This year, the must-have plant seemed to be cow parsley. A colleague quipped that he spends most of his life trying to keep it out of his garden. There was a very high box ball and topiary quota, too. Some of the big gardens on the Main Avenue looked a tad similar, with lots of naturalistic, romantic planting – a reaction to the double-dip recession maybe? Or a homage to the big Chelsea cheese and gold medal winner Tom Stuart-Smith? And oddly, there was very little grow-your-own in comparison to the last few years, so maybe that bubble is beginning to burst.

This year, I decided I’d ‘judge’ the gardens on whether I’d like to wake up looking at them every day. My favourites are below. I wouldn’t actually want Diarmuid Gavin’s creation (above) outside my back door, but it was most definitely fun. Due to vertigo issues I only got halfway up, but it was great being able to set foot in a show garden, especially one that involved ladders, waterfalls and slides.

And then, of course, there were the celebrities. I’ve come to the conclusion that spotting celebs on press day at Chelsea is a bit like going on safari. On safari you’re told what you might see – zebras, lions, elephants etc – and you really, really want to tick them off your list. At Chelsea, you’re given a list of the celebrities who may be present (Christopher Biggins, Floella Benjamin and Ringo Starr are usually guaranteed), and you really, really want to tick them off the list. You get jealous if someone has seen someone you haven’t, even if they’re a bit Z-list, and get over excited if you spot anyone at all (my colleague Jane, visiting Chelsea for the first time, cried: ‘Oh my god, it’s JENNIE BOND!!!!’. We haven’t let her live that one down).

If you get wind of a crowd gathering, see some flashbulbs going off, or hear a rumour that someone off the telly is nearby, you hotfoot it there indecently quickly, camera or smartphone held aloft and sharp elbows at the ready. This is what happened when I heard Gwyneth Paltrow was in the vicinity last year, and the same thing happened this year with Sir Cliff Richard. I’m not proud of it and I don’t know why I did it, but there’s a pic of him at the bottom of this post anyway.

The Homebase Teenage Cancer Trust garden by Joe Swift

There was a lot going on in Joe Swift’s garden compared to others on the Main Avenue, but it was ordered, welcoming, contemporary and considered. I’d seen some drawings beforehand and the garden didn’t look particularly inspiring, so the finished result was a surprise. All the years commenting on other people’s show gardens for the BBC have obviously paid off.

The Brewin Dolphin garden by Cleve West

I sat on Cleve’s bench for a few moments with a bunch of other hacks. I loved the planting  – naturalistic but with lots of pops of colour. Apparently there was some red, white and blue to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, but it was very subtle.

Celebration of Caravanning by Jo Thompson

Jo Thompson’s garden was an inspiration for anyone with a small space. She used mature birch trees, Betula albosinensis  ‘Fascination’, which were perfectly shaped and not remotely overpowering – perfect for a town garden. And who wouldn’t want Doris (the 1950s caravan) at the bottom of their garden?

The Bradstone Panache garden

More inspiration for small gardens. The clever layout included a path that was a continuous curve, leading to a seat. The sweep of alpine strawberries (on the right) was a nice touch.

Satoyama Life

This Japanese masterpiece invited you to just stand and gaze at it. Which I did, for a long time.

The World Vision Garden

Lots of hard landscaping and tree ferns isn’t really my thing, but the underplanting was really pretty in this garden, in shades of purple and orange. I couldn’t really do it justice in this pic.

A national treasure


May 272011

My mum always used to say that if the Queen went past the bottom of our road, she wouldn’t wouldn’t so much as leave the house to give her a wave. And then one day the Queen did go past the bottom of our road. And who was at the front of the crowd, angling for a better view and waving furiously? My mum.

Celebrity is a curious and powerful thing. At the Chelsea Flower Show the other day I noticed that a crowd of photographers had gathered around the B&Q garden. It turned out that Gwyneth Paltrow was expected there in about ten minutes.

Now up to that point, I had not been particularly interested in Gwyneth Paltrow. I knew she was married to Chris Martin. I knew she had children with strange names. I even knew that she had a cookbook out. But that’s as far as my interest went – until I realised that I might see her, in the flesh, very close to where I was standing. All of a sudden, I was very interested in Gwyneth Paltrow.

It took a while for Gwynnie to appear. First of all we got Lorraine Kelly. Then Kirstie Allsopp. All the while the scary lady in the orange jacket was desperately trying to keep photographers and rubberneckers away from the judges in Diarmuid Gavin’s garden next door. WILL YOU PLEASE RESPECT THE PRIVACY OF THE JUDGES!?! she cried, in vain.

Then the scary lady’s day got a whole lot worse, because just at the very moment when the hallowed judges moved over to begin their critique of the B&Q garden, along came Gwyneth. The crowds moved in, a few hundred flashbulbs went off and the judges were completely sidelined.

At this point I underwent a bizarre transformation, from starstruck bystander to full-blown paparazzo. As luck would have it, I found myself quite near Gwyneth as she listened politely to the B&Q man and got quite a good shot of her then. Not content with that, I then squeezed to the front of the crowd of paps and took some more pics. And then I edged my way along and took some more. All the while photographers were shouting GYWNETH! TURN AROUND GWYNETH! OVER HERE GWYNETH! from all angles as she paraded around, shamelessly clutching her new book. I took an ironic and knowing shot of Gwynnie and all the paps opposite.

And then as quickly as she came, Gwyneth was gone, and I reverted back to the serious gardening journalist that I really am.

The following day, a friend emailed me a pic that he’d spotted on the BBC News website. In the crowd you’ll see a serious gardening journalist looking ridiculously pleased with herself as she paps a celebrity. Oh dearie me.





May 232011

Take one freezing, scantily clad model…

Alan Titchmarsh looking dapper…

Rachel de Thame looking fetching…

Some judges looking serious…

A scary lady in a high-vis jacket keeping everyone away from the judges…

A lady in national dress playing an unrecognisable instrument…

Some lovely Chelsea pensioners…

A great star spot…

And Floella Benjamin

… And you have a typical press day at Chelsea. Oh, and there were some gardens too, but more about them soon.