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Experiencing the Chelsea Flower Show May 2023

My first ever visit to the Chelsea Flower Show! A tick on my bucket list! And what an interesting day it was! I have long enjoyed watching the Chelsea Flower Show programmes on the BBC, intrigued by the way the show gardens were designed and constructed, and fascinated by the wonderful planting schemes. I am also fortunate that the previous owner of our current house was an avid gardener, went regularly to Chelsea, and left us a legacy of great plants to enjoy.

On the day, my first big decision was what (if any) camera to take. Canon R or Panasonic Lumix? Or just use my phone camera? Many of you will have faced this dilemma. Canon gives me high quality images, the possibilities of intentional camera movement (ICM) and in-camera multiple exposure (ME) but it is heavy and I would need to carry a couple of lens to make the most of it. And, I recognized that there may not be the opportunities to wallow in my photography, given I was going with friends and it was likely to be quite crowded. So I opted for the compact and reassured myself that I was aiming for mostly record shots and its long zoom would be great for homing on on aspects of the gardens that particularly stood out. And it turned out to be the right choice.

My first impression on arrival was how busy it was! The whole site was smaller than I had envisaged, which was helpful as it was easy to revisit things I had particularly enjoyed.

There were two big debates about the CFS this year - one was the 'when is a garden not a garden?' discussion, and the other was 'when is a weed not a weed?'. Monty Don also caused some controversy with his comment that the Chelsea Flower Show is 'too white, too middle-aged and too middle class' (like me!). Looking around, that had a ring of truth, especially having travelled on the tube that day, where there was a wonderfully diverse mix of people and languages around me.

We made our way through the crowds along the show gardens. I was struck by how much smaller they seemed than I expected, and how much thought had gone into every detail of the designs (some of which I gleaned from the TV programmes rather than at the show itself so glad I had been watching in the lead-up to my visit.

The Centrepoint Garden was thought-provoking, designed by Clive West to celebrate the charity's work with young people facing homelessness. Nature is taking over the ruins of a house, with a hearth as the only remaining feature, as a symbol of the warmth of family life. A felled Silver Birch tree, stretched across the site, to reflect the young people's uprooting. In Celtic mythology, the Silver Birch represents new beginnings and protection. Overall the garden illustrates how a garden makes a house a home. But, is it really a 'garden'? Or is it a landscape? (but I didn't get a chance to ask the designer who was posing for another photographer!)

The installation 'A Letter from a Million Years Past' by renowned Korean garden designer Hwang Ji-hae adds further to this debate. An amazing construction that represented the Jiri Mounjtain in Korea, with 200 tons of rocks, a mountain stream and a 5m height wooden tower for drying medicinal herbs. It looked as though it had been there for thousands of years. But, for me, it was definitely a landscape rather than a garden! (Although I didn't say anything to the designer!)

We moved on to the Nurture Landscapes Garden designed by Sarah Price. Inspired by Benton End, the former home of the artist Sir Cedric Morris, which once had an impressive plant collection, but had been left to grow wild. Sarah captured the spirit of Benton End, featuring the Benton Irises, and it was a joy to see.

One of the most powerful gardens for me was the Choose Love Garden, inspired by refugee migration routes across Europe. We are currently hosting refugees from Ukraine and recognise that growing plants and tending a garden gives comfort and a sense of connection with home. I also liked the philosophy behind the London Square Community Garden, a place where people can meet up, share produce and escape into nature. We have one in my home town.

Another favourite was the Savills garden, designed by Mark Gregory, with the show's first ever working outdoor kitchen! I am not sure how relaxing it was for the Chelsea pensioners to eat lunch with so many people watching (and taking photos!)

The promotion of mental and physical health and well-being were key themes in the show. Both the Memoria Trascendence and the Samaritan's Listening Garden evoked an emotional response as they focussed in on the role of a garden as a healing space in times of difficulty and grief.

The Rare Space Garden (National Brain Appeal), A Life Worth Living Garden (MyelomaUK) and the Hampden Stargardt Garden (Vision Loss) all used clever design and planting to illustrate how a garden can support people with physical debilitation. The overall winner was Horatio's Garden by Charlotte Harris and Hugo Bugg, created to provide a nurturing, accessible gardens in an NHS spinal injuries centre. Beautifully thought-through with an impressive attention to detail.

One garden was promoting awareness of Cavernoma, which I had not known about, and is another example of the way that Chelsea Flower Show can be a catalyst for change:

Although one of the images that I captured of this garden does reflect Monty's earlier comment. White, middle-age, middle class very much reflected in the picnic basket, even down to the choice of newspaper!

I liked many of the smaller container and balcony gardens that were perhaps more relevant to my own space. The mix of nature and reading really resonated with me in the Doorstep Library and the Folio Society's Reading Room gardens, as I love to read in my garden.

I was so heartened to see that 'Sustainability' was everywhere, such as in the use of demolition, recyclable and repurposed materials, and the promotion of wildflowers. The issue of 'so-called' weeds in a third of the gardens had raised eyebrows though. One of the RHS experts, Charles Quest-Ritson, author of The RHS Gardener’s Year Book, said this is ‘disgraceful’. He said: ‘Something is going seriously wrong when the RHS gives a gold medal to a garden full of weeds.....The excuse for this disgraceful jumble of unwelcome plants is that “native plants are not just beautiful but essential to wildlife”. Yes, we know that. But the proper place for weeds is outside the garden.’

On the other hand, The Guardian reported "Sheila Das, a garden manager at Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Wisley in Surrey, said gardeners should stop using the term “weeds” in a derogatory way and instead refer to “weed heroes” or “superweeds”, while Tom Massey at the Royal Entomological Society (RES) said he regarded weeds as “resilient plants”."

I am firmly on the side of the ecowarriers and advocates for rewilding. We are in the process of creating more wildflower spaces in our garden, including 'no-mow-may' for the grass, and have been struck by how many more bees and insects are around because of it. The dandelions have provided a vital early source of nectar for the bees this spring. It is interesting that the RHS no longer publishes a list of pests, and has replaced it with a list of the top beneficial wildlife for gardens. Attitudes and beliefs are changing amongst gardeners, and many more will be creating more bio-diverse gardens and healthy ecosytems having engaged with the messages at this year's Chelsea Flower Show.

There is a key 'but' though for me. The show itself, while promoting eco-credentials, was also promoting consumerism, with its wide range of shops selling a multitude of things that we may want but do not actually need to sustain us.

There were lots of temptations.... (which I resisted and bought a Big Issue on the way home instead!)

Despite the best efforts of the staff, by the middle of the afternoon, the litter from food and drink packaging was piling up. A lot of plastic! Not everyone yet has the respect for the environment or willingness to change their behaviour.

Despite the busyness, some did manage to find a quiet space to rest:

while others were working hard:

I did manage a few creative shots, despite the crowds:

And even managed to place myself there with a couple of reflections:

Overall an amazing day, full of great memories, time with old friends and new, and lots of ideas to take into my own garden - even if it is just putting a bookshelf in for lazy reading in the sun!

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