The thing I love the absolute most about the UK is the country’s deep cultural fondness for gardening. I see it everywhere I go — in the vines twining up the front stoops of Georgian row houses in the city, the charming villages in the country, the Facebook feeds of my English friends, and the fact that one of the hottest tickets in spring-time London is to a garden show of all things.
I’ve wanted to go to the Chelsea Flower Show since I first learned of it a few years ago, and I figured it would be a smallish, geeky trade show for those of us weird enough to care about the difference between an oxalis and a shamrock. But no, it’s huge and sold out way in advance, and literally every English person I know (with the exception of those living abroad) posted about it on their Facebook feed.
For my American readers, think of it like a County Fair, only extremely stylish and focused on ornamental gardening. There were (what felt like) miles of shops full of art and pruning shears and ice cream and trellises and people passing out pamphlets for design schools.
But the real draw is the show gardens. Small plots of earth transformed by the leading and/or up-and-coming garden designers, showcasing the latest looks and methods and gardening theory. They were gorgeous and inspiring and came complete with knowledgeable volunteers (or in some cases the designers themselves) who could answer questions about the design and plants.
The two that resonated most with me were this pretty little garden by a French designer . . .
. . . and this wooded garden complete with murky water and startling moving underwater sculptures.
But I felt that every garden I saw had something to teach. I took photos the way I might have taken notes in class: The lush layering of color, shape and texture . . .
. . . the planting of stone steps with adorable little flowers that I’m obsessed with and want to try out for myself . . .
. . . the combinations of color that had never occurred to me (I mean, the purple, white, yellow and bronze combo here was stunning).
And then there was the plant house, where all the prize flowers were shown with labels and information about their cultivation. I finally learned the name of a little flower that I’ve been seeing everywhere and which I 100% intend to try growing in my own garden when I go back to Seattle.
I loved seeing the prize winning collections of certain flower species massed together. The lupines . . .
. . . the alliums (which I vaguely recall my mother calling old lady pom-poms but which I’ve learned to appreciate since living here) . . .
. . . and of course the frothy waves of clematis, which here were grown trailing as ground cover rather than as climbers (or rather, they were grown as trailers but with short dowels that weren’t visible but which added depth by helping the vines climb up off the ground — another idea to try in future) . . .
Like a County Fair, there were also displays of the exotic and unusual. These lacy-slash-jagged tulips were among my favourites. The variety and loveliness of the tulips collection helped me see why they would have prompted such a frenzy during the lead-up to the great Tulip Bubble of the 17th Century.
I was there for about four hours before it closed, and it wasn’t even near enough time to see everything. I can’t wait for next year’s show!