A show to remember
It’s hard to think that maybe we will never get to travel overseas again. Flicking through my photo books of garden visits around the world in the last three decades, satisfaction that I visited so many beautiful gardens at least allows me to recapture those moments. I was lucky enough to visit the last Chelsea Flower Show held before the pandemic in 2019. There was no in-person show in 2020 (an online virtual show was held that year in May) and because of Covid, this year’s was delayed until September (Chelsea is usually a spring show, held at the height of the English spring in May). Held for more than a century by the Royal Horticultural Society in the Royal Chelsea Hospital grounds, this show has the best of the best in gardening. You find everything you love and plenty you’ve never seen before on display. And oh, the displays! Whether a humble vegetable or exotic flower, the art of display creates a vision of splendour. But it wasn’t the garden designs that caught my eye, as the commendable addition of sustainability and indigenous planting had, in my eyes, moved the visual appeal to second place. Don’t get me wrong, I love grasses and wildflowers but they were definitely overdone and a tad tedious. For me, the big tent full of botanical wonders from growers who must have been doing this for years, was the star attraction. Planning for these displays must start a year ahead, for to get the flowers to be at their best at exactly the right time, whether roses, delphiniums, tulips or paeonies, to name a few, seemed a tough call. But then of course an English spring is far more gentle and enduring than a Canterbury spring which only really lasts until the first nor’wester. The care and attention the growers spend ensures the arrival of buckets, by the truckload, of beautiful blooming flowers, carted in some cases hundreds of miles and displayed for the week. The masses of towering yet delicate foxgloves had all been cut from their nursery and successfully arranged in massive buckets as if by magic. The vege display was mind-boggling – the long elegant parsnips, towers of cherry tomatoes, baskets of artfully displayed turnips looking far too good to eat. But the flowers! Tall pastel shades of delphiniums in a row above the shockingly garish colours of begonias, lupins lined in rows like rainbow-coloured towers, pink paeonies with their delicate petals in every shed of red, buckets of chrysanthemums looking like multicoloured cabbages. And oh the tulips! More oversized buckets jammed with tulips of every hue. But it was the alliums that I fell for – those purple globes of gorgeousness on towering stems were everywhere. That year, they were as ubiquitous as the agapanthus here. The borders at Wisley (another RHS garden in Surrey) were ablaze with them, but so too were they in home gardens and civic gardens, and Great Dixter in Sussex even had white ones. But for something that is so prolific in the UK, finding them in Aotearoa has not been easy. Looking online when I got home, I found a nursery in Bannockburn had them for sale, but here rot decimated the bulbs which like hot dry summers, and I failed to find any last summer. A friend, who always enjoys a horticultural hunt, tracked them down to Owairaka Seeds this year and I have purchased two varieties, Allium rosenbachianum and Allium aflatunens. Both produce 10cm rose violet flowers atop stems up to a metre high. It takes at least two years to grow from seed so I’m not hopeful, but at least I already have the much smaller Allium sphaerocephalon which spreads readily in the border. The bees love them and watching a bumblebee atop the tiny globe as its weight sends it swaying is one of those magic garden moments. It is a redder colour than the English purple monsters and certainly no substitute, but I am pleased to see it again. Maybe those memories of plants and gardens will have to stay just that for the foreseeable future, but at least we can work in our own gardens and hopefully, visit other gardens here during the annual tours such as the Hurunui Garden Festival and Garden Marlborough. Then we can fill our hearts and minds with the wonders of gardening… just as inspirational as any you’d find overseas.