Best in Show

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In the ‘posh tent’ ambience of the lunchroom, we settled into our starters of fresh asparagus and smoked salmon, with a crisp glass of pink fizz. Outside, we could see a giant boat-shaped pod in a gaudy shade of candyfloss pink, suspended high up in the air and overflowing with ferny plants and frondy leaves. As we watched, it was raised and lowered by the overarching arm of a huge metal crane. Across from the floating pod, and just out of sight, was a tall glass tower sectioned into cubby holes packed with shredded books, straw, peat plant pots and other enticing paraphernalia, each ‘room’ in the ‘insect hotel’ a perfect mecca for small birds and insects. We smiled contentedly across our heavily linened table, now loaded with a light fish main, perfectly cooked and served with a creamy primrose yellow sauce. Where else could we be but Chelsea Flower Show, the annual festival of flowers and creative gardening? The pink pod was part of Dermott Gavin’s Irish Sky Garden, described as ‘a flying machine, hanging Eden and reflective launch pad’. This bright, daring, frankly astonishing concept was inspired by the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland and by the visual effects in the film Avatar. It won the RHS People’s Choice Award for large gardens. The glass tower was part of B&Q’s show garden, a geometric joy of landscape architecture, combining flowers, herbs, vegetables and trees in pleasing straight lines and smooth curves. My green-fingered hostess was particularly impressed by the neatly plenched mulberries.

It was my first ever visit to Chelsea, and it was stunning. My marvellous coaching author, Anne Scoular, had invited me, and I’d accepted eagerly, not yet realising the riot of colour, rainbow of greenery and botanical prowess that awaited me. It was the Rio Carnival of the gardening world. We prowled around the show gardens, marvelling at the miraculous blue of the pool in the Monaco garden and the smorgasbord of greens in the Tourism Malaysia jungle. We found fault with the overly graphic blood vessel tubes in the British Heart Foundation display and criticised the drab concrete pillars in the Daily Telegraph’s entry. It could not have been a more idyllic summer day with a blissful blue sky and a sun that shone especially beguilingly, just for Chelsea. It was a floral fairground, with wildly artistic plantings everywhere you looked.

The highlight for me was the Great Pavilion, a vast, tented hall of horticultural delights. Banks of heavy-scented lilies made me swoon, I was captivated by the sleek, colour-themed arches that Interflora had created and enchanted by endless groves of spring flowers, verdant foliage and soft foxgloves. There were dewy roses of every imaginable hue, cheek-by-jowl with spiky carnivorous plants. There were bright peonies, dusky lavender bushes, Spanish torero jackets woven from leaves and flowers. But the biggest gasps were drawn by the audacious Thai temple, a full-size reconstruction made of 150,000 multicoloured everlasting flower heads in vibrant colours and countless plaited banana leaves. It had taken 60 people three months to make it in Thailand and a further eight people two days, working a solid 24 hours a day, to assemble it in Chelsea. A truly magnificent spectacle.

The Great Pavilion is the dazzling heart of the Show and is like a fantasy greenhouse for keen gardeners and an overwhelming sensory spectacle for those like me who are less blessed in the green-fingers department. The array of visitors is almost as interesting as the exhibition of plants. Uniformed Chelsea pensioners, resplendent in poppy red, mill around with well-deserved pride, floaty ladies of a certain age and smart-jacketed men in Panama hats mingle with young enthusiasts in muddy boots who look as if they’ve just stepped out of their own garden. Waves of frisson surging through the crowds signal the presence of a celebrity here and there. But mostly, and I found this warmly reassuring, the Chelsea Flower Show attendees are just like the customers you’d typically see in the aisles of your local garden centre on a Sunday afternoon. A day of beauty: my first visit to Chelsea, and I hope not my last.

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