My first stop at the 2011 Chelsea Flower Show last Monday 23rd was the B&Q garden. Designed by Patrick Collins and architect Laurie Chetwood its brief was to be an urban edible garden, part apartment block and part allotment style strips. TV presenters Loraine Kelly and then Kirsty Allsop had turned the central walkway into a runway and press were jostling for a snap whilst Patrick nervously tended his plants before the judges appeared. Then Gwyneth Paltrow slowly sashayed down the centre, promoting her new book, and the long lenses of the photographers crowded the entire garden. It was a surreal beginning and she is very beautiful.
Once media frenzy had subsided I had a good look around. The tower is a perspex construction and a vast perspex rainwater harvesting system. It wasn't clear how the rest of the garden was watered though. Every floor of the tower is full of vegetables and the balconies are crammed with edibles. There is an insect habitat tower too, all made by children. Apparently, some took their brief rather literally and designed insect loos in their boxes!
Outside lollypop limes (you can eat the leaves) overshadow clipped striped beds of herbs, fruits and vegetables. It all seems over engineered with hard lines and loads of unsustainable steel. Fish swim in perspex square tanks by the tower. I wondered what medium the plants are growing in and what feeds them. There isn't a composting bin in sight. If this is the urban revolution it is soul less, a chic angular vision that defies natural forms. It didn't appeal to me but as the one of the Show's main gardens, it is promoting permaculture zoning and growing food in the city. It's a start.
After a good look at many of the marvellous fantasy gardens that are not really replicable for most but are beautiful art, I went to the RBC garden designed by Nigel Dunnett. The latest research out of Sheffield university shows that planting for biodiversity and wildlife habitat doesn't have to be strictly native. We can have our exotics as well. This garden, with its upcycled shipping container, insect habitat, a green roof, naturalistic plantings and circular ponds has its own charm and was buzzing with insects.
Another garden I enjoyed was Bulldog Tools' Forge Garden designed by Jon Wheatley and Mary Payne. Set in the 1940s, it is a mixture of traditional cottage garden, with neat rows of veg, a clinker garden of dryland species. It is beautiful but it is a pastiche. No blacksmith worth his salts would have neglected to connect his rainwater barrels. I don't think I am being churlish, I am just keen for garden designers to start thinking about what is happening in this world and encouraging the public to conserve resources, not pay lip service to the trends.
The Grand Pavillion is a feast of the senses. I wandered through it intoxicated by the vivid colours, sights and smells of the world's best in horticulture. There's far too much peat, perlite and Miracle Gro for me – why can't we teach kids to make compost not ply them with peat and fertilizers? – but still the skills and beauty of the flowers and plants are astounding. Astounding too was finding myself almost side by side with Ringo Star and countless other celebrities who obviously love their gardens. I never thought I'd breathe the same air as a Beatle, let alone take a quick snap to share with you.
My senses drunk and overwhelmed by the heady mixture of exquisite plants, pollen and vivid colours, my eyes were draw by a stand that was plain trees and grass. Here I found a man, originally a tree surgeon, who had discovered a naturally hybridized elm tree that has resisted Dutch Elm Disease. 20 years ago Paul King started propagating it from microcuttings. He has spent £75,000 of his own money and produced 2000 semi mature trees that have so far resisted the disease and have grown to 10 to 12 feet high. These smooth leaved elms may well be the beginning of a new generation.
As a child, growing up in Berkshire where every hedge had an elm, I remember the die-off well, their skeletal forms punctuated each field. We burnt the diseased timber in the fireplace for many years. So it was with some emotions that I rested in this quiet area and listened to their story.
Another pleasure at Chelsea was meeting Alys Fowler for the first time. We had been in touch via Facebook after Tim, myself, Hayley and Gail and our garden appeared in her TV series, The Edible Garden, but had never met. Alys is unassuming, warm and intelligent, a genuine advocate of permaculture, forest gardening, the conservation of resources and all things green. She even offered to hand out Permaculture magazines for us (pictured above)! Alys and I agreed that sustainable practices are still too left field for much of the horticultural world but at least in the week of the Chelsea Flower Show gardening is the rock and roll. As the naturalistic plantings, rainwater harvesting systems, insect habitats and upcycled materials proliferate, we are moving closer to an appreciation of resource conservation, homegrown food and the wild. It's slow but Chelsea has come a long way in 20 years and, let's face it, nowadays vegetables and wildlife are chic.
Would I go again? Hell yes. Despite some of the excesses, Chelsea is a celebration of gardening as art and the art of gardening. It is also only a matter of time before we have a permaculture garden at Chelsea and then the rainwater harvesting and renewable technologies will really work and it will demonstrate a cutting edge that is part of all of our futures.