I have had the pleasure of visiting Chelsea a couple of times over the years, sometimes as a visitor, sometimes in a working capacity. Like all shows I’ll admit I have a distinct preference for the actual build process. This to me is a time of magic, from the arrival on site of so many people determined to create structures that give the appearance of having stood forever, the laughing and sharing of biscuits, tea and sometimes plants. The camaraderie that seems to be something special and unique to building show gardens. After all this is an incredibly stressful time for all involved. Months, sometimes years of planning have gone into a single weeks worth of showmanship!
One of my first times building at Chelsea also involved growing the plants for a garden, I’d had experiences at other show builds which fully prepared me for the hiccups and tripfalls to expect but as each garden is different so too are the demands on contractors. I had been asked to help with growing plants for 3 gardens. Firstly for Garden Organics stand in the Floral marquee, secondly for Harrod Horticulture. Their stand was on the outside of the marquee and thirdly for Alitex Glasshouses.
This was to be my special project when it came to the build and I’d prepared thoroughly wrapping each parsley plant individually in newspaper (which I knew I would reuse, stuffed between pots in the actual build, waste not want not!). Transporting the plants is one of the most stressful points as damage done cannot be undone. The memory of a distraught gentleman handing me a Mimosa flower at Hampton court a few years previously, lamenting that this had been its only flower and now everything was ruined always sits at the forefront of my mind.
Myself and a wonderful lady called Helen, who’s tireless cheerfulness was incredibly welcome, set about putting the plants into a half built garden. Sand, dust and noise of machines, drills and builders catcalling each other on a blinding sunshiny day. This is what Chelsea to me is about!
Sadly most of my pictures of this day are lost, it was in the days of pre-digital cameras & limited to just 24 pictures anyway! Alitex were very kind to send me some of their own promotional pics from opening day, these I will always cherish but the serenity they exude doesn’t give you the blood, sweat & tears it takes to build a garden.
My favourite memory of this day was Helen’s panicked realisation that the sweet peas, grown in tubs, would have the pots visible. I had taken this into account and smugly, quietly packed a drill and jigsaw which I then proceeded to happily wield. Cutting through the hard plastic. As you can see from the pics it worked quite well! For this preparation I can only thank a wonderful man called John, whose second name I sadly can’t remember, who had taught me all I needed to know about Show gardens whilst at Photosynthesis. He was ace!
My second favourite memory was of the drive home, at about 2 o clock in the morning. Illuminated by the headlights of a car behind I could see what appeared to be the shadow of a ginormous spider! I nervously asked Helen if she could just check how close it was to me and how big, not realising her phobia was far, FAR worse than mine. She screamed, I screamed, we both sat screaming at 60MPH on the M40!
This went on for a while.
It turned out the spider was tiny
I guess its one way of waking yourself up after a long day!
Anyway, the next time I was to visit Chelsea was as a visitor, albeit a working visitor. I’d just started a job working in a private garden and had been invited by my new employers to accompany them to Chelsea’s opening day. Honestly, I was terrified. I felt totally out of my depth which doesn’t happen to me often! I remember this as being my most stressful Chelsea as I realised my every move would be seen by my new employers and we were going to be introduced to the great and good which if done on my own terms would’ve been fine but rightly or wrongly this felt awkward.
Nevertheless, I dressed up in my best “Head Gardener” togs which involved corduroy, of course, and hopped on a train. The rest of the day became something of a blur but a stand out moment, purely for its weirdness factor, was standing on the “Best in show” garden & being introduced to Ulf Nordfjell. He likely doesn’t remember this given how momentous a day it was for him but for me it was overwhelming.
I stood there in this amazingly glossy garden, its slick, clean lines & amazing construction. Trying to drink in all the details when I realised I felt a bit like a fish in a goldfish bowl! There were hundreds of people all around the edge of the garden, all with cameras and in my own head all going “who the hell is she?”
So I did the only thing which made me feel comfortable! I hid behind my camera and took pictures of them, perfect!
In reality probably no one even blinked an eye at me & its only years later that I realise this. My life experience at that point in time made this so far out of my comfort zone it wasn’t even on my radar. Its only nearly 10 years later I can look back on this experience and realise it for what it was. I was given an amazing opportunity which was a turning point in my life. Its odd though, often when you’re in these iconic moments you don’t realise it and focus on the parts you can understand and deal with… anyway I digress!
The rest of the show was a blur, I wish I’d felt in a position to enjoy more of it in a relaxed manner but then this is Chelsea. Relaxed isn’t really how I’d describe it at any point! After being ferried around and introduced to more people than I could ever hope to remember I was allowed to wander by myself. It was at this point I really started to enjoy myself!
These are a few of my best bits of 2009!
A few years passed, life happened, circumstances changed. I didn’t go to Chelsea, I had a break but continued to watch it on TV. It seemed busier, even more frantic than I remembered?
Then in 2015 I got the opportunity to go again, so of course I did. This time I think I finally got the hang of being a visitor! We arrived as the gates were opening and proceeded to methodically quarter every spare inch of the grounds. From the show gardens to the Marquee not a single millimetre was left unchecked!
So what had changed?
It was just as crowded as I ever remembered it but this time I was able to take some lovely pictures which feel very calm…
It wasnt just the fact I had a swanky new camera, although lets face it that does help! I think something about me and how I viewed Chelsea had changed. I still had a slightly awed, inspired love of the gardens but this time I was able to take a moment to draw back and observe the palettes the designers had used. Pick out the colours that spoke to me, think of how they could be transferred into a real situation.
…and more than that, I now had the confidence I had lacked previously. I was brash & cocky, I probably still am, but now I had the confidence to gently insert myself through the crowds and find the best spot for me to view the garden. Yes, I did get tutted at but that’s ok, I smiled said excuse me but would not be deterred. I saw this as part of my job, it was research.
To that end there were some gardens I had particularly wanted to see, these weren’t the massive show gardens but instead some of the courtyard and artisan gardens. Above all else I wanted to see the Japanese Garden: Edo no Niwa by Ishihara Kazuyuki. So different from anything normally seen in Chelsea.
Apparently so did everyone else!
One look at that heaving crowd and I very nearly turned tail to run but determined I slowly pushed gently through….
I was pleased I weathered the storm of bodies, crouching down I managed a few good shots despite receiving a Kath Kidson bag to the back of the head!
Then on to the floral marquee for a smorgasbord of delights!
One of which was of course is Primulas but when presented with so many gorgeous floral displays I realise I have no clear favourites in the botanical world. Each and every plant has something to commend it and the skill of the growers to bring each of them to the pinnacle of perfection is astounding. So I’ll finish up with a few of the best!
Last year I missed Chelsea entirely! Didnt even watch it on the telly *shocked intake of breath!* I know! How could I! Call myself a gardener!
In my defence I had a very good reason!
I was halfway up a mountain in Peru!
With these amazing ladies. Between us we raised around £50,000 for Marie Curie by climbing 3 mountains in 3 days, it was an incredible experience!
This year I’ve just received word I’ll be doing my bit for charity AT Chelsea which I’m hugely excited about! I’ve chosen this year to devote my time to help raising funds for Perennial these guys are awesome, check them out!
So far I’ve sold raffle tickets for them at their ball, I’ve raised a bit of cash for them on the Apple pruning course I ran a while back and now I’ll be part of the Chelsea sell off team! This is going to be SO intense!!
The garden they’re involved in is the Mindtrap Garden designed by Ian Price it has a moving story behind it, please do click on the link to find out more.
This wonderful concept also supports Inspire who support those with mental health challenges, based in Northern Ireland they do some amazing work.
There’s going to be lots of Horti faces there too so if you’re going to buy anything on sell off day at Chelsea make sure it’s from Perennial and help a Horti out!
Look forward to seeing you all there…