My legs still hurt a bit. On Monday I spent eight hours walking round Chelsea Flower Show and only sat down once for a cup of coffee.
I had to collect a press pass, so I started at the Embankment end of the showground instead of my usual route from the Sloane Square end and Diarmuid Gavin’s garden was one of the first I saw. Now I already knew that opinions were divided on that one. I like the very slightly bonkers planting in a formal framework but I know that some people dislike it. I’m not keen on the tall building at the end but I loved the giant topiary behind it, and as the whole garden is a tribute to Heath Robinson, whose eccentric invention drawings have long delighted me I was predisposed to like it.
This was the day I witnessed the promised twirling and bobbing topiary and the circulating flowerbed for the first time and it made me laugh out loud. It was hilarious. All around me people were smiling and laughing – and most of them were more or less jaded journalists and horti-people. We agreed among ourselves that it was pleasantly barmy. Funny that it takes an Irish garden designer (and, I think, a mostly Irish team) to bring English eccentricity and a sense of humour back to Chelsea. I wouldn’t want all the show gardens to be like this one but I think Chelsea Flower Show has been taking itself a little too seriously for a while and a few jokes are just what we needed. It set me off up Main Avenue with a smile on my face.
Later on I spoke to someone else who thought Diarmuid’s garden was ghastly, and was unmoved by the twirling and bobbing. I was slightly crestfallen. As usually happens in a conversation like that I began to doubt my own opinions – but then I shrugged and thought “Well, you can’t please everyone, especially at Chelsea!”
After a while I started thinking about what tickles some people and what irritates others.
As I walked along with a journalist friend we squawked at some of the garden statuary and bemoaned the fact that there seems to be very little good garden sculpture. By good of course we meant sculpture that WE like. I paused to take a photo of a bear and she declared that that sort of thing shouldn’t be allowed. Well you see, I beg to differ, because that bear will make someone somewhere smile. I thought it kitsch but others may find it cute. And why not?
I am a firm believer that people are allowed to do what they blooming well like in their own gardens and if they want a garden full of gorillas they can have it. As long as the gorillas aren’t peering right over next door’s fence. And there isn’t a home cinema in their garden. Or bright lights. Or wind chimes…
If silly statuary and amusing accessories are what we want we can jolly well have them. At any RHS show, including Chelsea you will find garden hardware that makes some people go “Yay!” and others go “Yuk!” and that is as it should be. As long as the items are well made and not a total rip-off then the RHS has no business being the garden taste police, neither do we, so I’m glad to see a wide variety of merchandise at the show. If we like it we may buy it. If we don’t like it we can amuse ourselves by criticising it. Whatever floats your boat.
One way a sense of humour – or at least the willingness to look a bit silly (often for a good cause) – is displayed at Chelsea is the outfits people wear on Press Day. If you are bold enough to wear a wild outfit you’ll make people smile.
Clothing needn’t be too outrageous but a bit of floral wit goes down very well. I think Matthew Pottage, the new curator of RHS Wisley, got it spot on.
As most people in London seem to dress entirely in black it is refreshing to see some bright clothing, but colour in plants and gardens is a more emotive issue – I met people who were agitated by the popping colours of the M&S display in the Pavilion, and others who loved it. There was plenty of prettiness in the Pavilion, but it was balanced with some good dollops of garishness. If it was all tasteful and beautifully blended we’d all be bored silly in no time, I bet you.
At first I wasn’t keen on Ann-Marie Powell’s planting (“Pink and orange – aaargh, my eyes!” I hear you cry) in her Greening Grey Britain garden for the RHS, but it is balanced by colourful structures and accessories and a general exuberance of styling – so it does what it is supposed to do, it banishes drabness and gets people out and active and CHEERED UP! Even if for some the preferred activity might be pulling out all the orange flowers. Or all the pink flowers. Anyway, I thought the finishing touches were great fun and it’s definitely the kind of space which would get people talking. Plus there was some container planting, which always attracts my eye.
Anyway there was lots more “tasteful” stuff but it was nice to see some bravado, brightness, wit and humour at Chelsea. I’m very, VERY tired now, so I’ll leave you with a few images from my visit which made me smile for various reasons: