The first time I “did Chelsea”, I think it was 2001 and I was very new to my job at Whichford. I spent a manic day with my colleagues in pouring rain and howling gales desperately stuffing plants into pots, balancing them on plinths and trying to arrange various props artfully in and around them. I shivered all the way home to the Cotswolds in the lorry.
I thought I’d show you some scenes from this year’s build-up, not from the garden I was working on (Rosy Hardy’s) but from all over the show ground. It’s the workers and volunteers who sleep on friends’ couches and trek into central London every day – these are the people who really make Chelsea Flower Show happen, the people who rarely get a name check but who work their whatsits off nevertheless.
Chelsea isn’t all wine and roses. Build-up can be hilariously good fun and for any keen horticulturist the sight of plants conjured from all over the world and the process of creating gardens from scratch in less than three weeks is fascinating. On the other hand it can be freezing cold, with a vicious wind sweeping off the Thames, or it can be boiling hot so that you spend all your time watering plants, and coughing up plane tree fluff and dust kicked up by the constant stream of delivery lorries.
If you want to work at Chelsea build-up, whether in a voluntary or a paid capacity, on a garden, a trade display or a marquee exhibit, you need various attributes, including the following:
A sense of humour. Smiles and laughter make light work.
Skills: carpentry, mosaics, plumbing, planting, driving HGVs, painting, erecting glasshouses, stonework, electrics, bodging. Proper craftspeople are a treasure, crafty bodgers are a boon.
The willingness to get dirty, but the sense not to leave muddy footprints on a pristine path.
Flexibility, and being unembarrassed about getting into some pretty strange positions.
Not minding unflattering/uncomfortable high viz gear and boots etc etc. Though it has to be said that some people rock the Chelsea build-up look better than others.
A liking for cake. Don’t be coy about calorie intake, you’ll need every one. Most exhibitors run on copious amounts of tea, fizzy drinks, cake and biscuits.
Willingness to do any menial jobs, from carrying stuff about to skip-diving, painting boards, sweeping and scrubbing. And more scrubbing.
Attention to detail. You may be asked to pick individual aphids off a tree without bruising its leaves. Every plant must have all dead heads and brown bits picked off or the judges may spontaneously combust. Titivation is key.
Thick skin – at some stage someone will, at the very least, say something tactless, and previously even-tempered people can become stressy and shouty. On no account snap back.
Plant knowledge – it really helps to know your Artemisia from your Elaeagnus so that the person who asked you to fetch a certain plant doesn’t have to stop what they are doing and come with you to show you which one they mean.
Being a tidy, trip hazard-aware worker, lost trowels are a flaming nuisance, broken ankles even more so.
The ability to hold back – fools rush in before they have checked with the boss – it’s not a “who can do most” competition. If you tidy up too manically, for example, because you haven’t anything to do right now, you can spoil somebody else’s system. Check that there is nothing obvious to do, then go for a little walk, come back and wait for instructions. On no account must you keep pestering the boss for tasks like a bored child might. Or sometimes if you stand and look for a while you can spot a problem and make a useful suggestion.
A sense of humour.