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Gardening news: on the long road to Chelsea

Majlis Garden, Show Garden, Designed by Thomas Hoblyn
Majlis Show Garden, designed by Thomas Hoblyn Credit: © Thomas Hoblyn

Things are hotting up for Chelsea Flower Show designers. Will the flowers bloom in time? Or have they bloomed too early? Or, maybe they are blooming dead already?

Tom Hoblyn (Dubai Majlis Garden) reports that his pomegranate and arbutus trees, imported from warmer climes, are not even in leaf yet. “I was taken by surprise by the three-month plant quarantine rule, which wasn’t in place the last time I did Chelsea,” he says. “It means I can’t buy in any new ones from abroad.”

In an effort to bring them on, he has moved the plants from his Cambridgeshire base to Kelways Nursery in Somerset. But that is not the end of his worries. “I have a clay-­render wall going in,” he explains. “I was told by Andy Sturgeon, Charlotte Harris and Hugo Bugg that whatever I do, I shouldn’t try a clay-render wall. But I am. The enemy is the wet. I’m ­really regretting my decision already. If it rains, it’s not ­going to dry out!”

Arbutus Credit: Getty Images

Hoblyn’s is an artistic temperament and he tends to dwell on the problems. He once revealed to me that every time he makes a garden for Chelsea, he finds himself walking along the Embankment on press day humming the Elvis ­Costello song, (I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea. It sounds like this year will be no different…

Tom Stuart-Smith has stepped in to create a non-competitive garden on the large (and notoriously difficult) triangle site vacated by Ann-Marie Powell, who pulled out of the show after issues with her Chinese sponsors.

There have been a lot of so-called “recyclable” gardens at Chelsea over the years, but it seems needs must with this one. “We are making this garden entirely from material which will go into [the new RHS garden at] Bridgwater,” he explains. “It was the only way we could afford to do it.”

Tom is using two of the three huge “space frames” which will define the space at the RHS’s new Manchester outpost. He is also promising 10 varieties of Iris sibirica (“they’d better be in flower”) and is borrowing a number of Cornus kousa from nursery Hortus Loci.

Sarah Eberle (The Resilience Garden) is typically gung-ho about her design, which features a large industrial grain silo as a centrepiece. When I expressed reservations about this item, she explained that the pre-Chelsea blurb had not mentioned that it is actually going to be a converted grain silo which functions as an office, complete with a woven willow interior.

The Resilience Show Garden, by Sarah Eberle Credit: Sarah Eberle

“It’s utterly bonkers – in a good way,” she says. “When you go in, you don’t want to come out again. If you’re ­wondering where I am at Chelsea, I’ll probably be in there.” Perhaps we all need a converted grain silo?

Jo Thompson (The Wedgwood Garden) took time out from her Chelsea preparations to support Bankside Open Spaces Trust as guest speaker at its “spring celebration” – only to find that the other guest speaker, the Lady Mayoress of Southwark, had arrived wearing the same dress. Both ladies took to the stage in succession and dealt with the situation with aplomb.

One unusual innovation at Chelsea this year is the staging of a Department for Culture, Media and Sport “evidence session” at the show. This follows the revelation from Visit­Britain that, “a third of overseas tourists to the UK spent part of their trip at a park or garden, more than those who spent time at a museum, castle, historic house or art gallery”. MPs will hear evidence from garden experts as to why this is and how the potential can be developed.

In other news

The RHS has announced an innovation for its Hampton Court Palace Flower Show (July 2-7): The Wild Garden Banquet, presided over by Michelin-starred chef Merlin Labron-Johnson, will require diners to “forage” in an adjacent garden. Of course, no meal is complete without a little pre-foraging.

Meanwhile, the Chelsea Fringe Festival (May 18-26), the main show’s funkier cousin, is attempting to make “the world’s longest daisy chain”, as part of an event at Dovehouse Green on the King’s Road on May 18.

The National Trust is looking for a new Head of Gardens (advertised benefits include a salary of £61,000 and “free parking at most locations”), while Chelsea Physic Garden has been awarded £172,500 by the National Lottery Fund towards the restoration of its Victorian glasshouses.

Glasshouses at Chelsea Physic Garden Credit: Haarkon

Stand-out National Gardens Scheme dates for the diary include June 15, to see designer Angela Collins’s planting at Manor Farm in Cheshire (“booking essential”) and July 14, when designers James Hitchmough, ­Nigel Dunnett and Andy Clayden open their own gardens in Sheffield.

Finally, look out for Five ­Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf, a documentary film about the designer’s work in selected cinemas from June 14. The commentary is not particularly revealing, but the visuals are gorgeous.