Sunday, May 31, 2015

Three Days in England

Imagine looking at a rectangular suburban backyard garden of about 2,400 square feet that looks like it has been growing for at least a decade. Then imagine you can walk 15 feet and see another one, equally as perfect, but with a totally different aesthetic and its own extraordinarily complicated, interwoven plant palette looking for all the world like it too been there forever. And then another. 
Now add in, as you wander from garden to garden, a crowd filled with people muttering the correct Latin names for all the plants you see in front of you -- quietly debating whether using heuchera was a wiser choice then the more challenging heuchera americana. 
Next throw in an enormous pavilion with individual nurseries displaying rare, new unusual and just plain glorious plants ranging from a wall of perfect potatoes, to auricula primroses presented as if staged for portraiture, to four different companies each showing a Himalayan Poppy with a rosy pink hue instead of the elusive blue (something most of use gardening fools didn’t even know existed, much less had time to long for.)
Welcome to England’s Royal Horticultural Chelsea Flower Show. Or Valhalla, for those of us who are horticulturally inclined.
If you, like me, are a plantaholic, and we both won the lottery and had unlimited funds and the time to visit and experience all things garden related, we would both put a yearly visit to the Chelsea Flower Show on our unfettered gardening calendars. 
Working in the gardening industry is, in my opinion, a creative undertaking, and like a painter or a dancer or a musician, I find it incredibly valuable to be exposed to new ideas, new shapes, new colors and new melodies. Chelsea (as it’s called by most) satiates all parts of one’s inspirational hunger. I had limited time (Chelsea coincides with our Memorial Day week – the Hamptons’ busiest gardening time) and having visited previously, knew that I needed at least one whole day to truly savor the Pavilion where the plant displays are staged and another to take in all three categories of the many gardens that are built on the grounds of the Chelsea Royal Hospital where the show is staged each year. Everything went according to plan and, as it was sprinkling on and off, I was able to view the gardens without being overwhelmed by crowds. My immediate first impressions of the show gardens? Easy. Weeds and rocks.
Wait, wait, wait, I hear you thinking, what is she talking about? I thought she said those gardens were meticulous?
They are, but you see the plants that all the Chelsea designers are using are not the Hamptons classic ingredients of hydrangeas, roses, boxwood and privet. They were using astrantias, camassias, verbascums and anthriscus ‘Ravenswing’ – a purple foliaged pink flowered umbel I can’t even find in this country other than in seed form. And yes there was boxwood, and other sheared evergreens as well as extraordinary walls of hornbeams (which we currently have for sale at the nursery – being very of the moment) but the majority of the plantings were extraordinary weavings of thready, wildflower-looking, perennials that I have no idea how they installed. 
Now I’ve created a large number of gardens, and I work at a company where we install entire properties within 3 weeks and when we leave it looks like the trees and shrubs have been there since the days before they built the extension of the L.I.E, but no matter how tightly I’ve planted perennial and annual beds, I’ve never been able to make it so that there was absolutely no soil exposed.  I have no idea how to layer geums, yarrows, artemisia and orlaya grandiflora 'White Finch' (a plant that looks like a slightly shorter, heavier petaled Queen Anne’s Lace) so that there’s no dirt visible. It appeared as if they had installed the main perennials three months earlier, tweezered in baby seedlings into every exposed soil pocket at the same time, and then let the whole thing grow into place.  
Instead I knew each garden had been started from bare dirt only 19 days earlier. 
Perhaps they had grown the plants in swathes like sod, I thought, or in building block, but even that would be an extraordinary feat of planning and planting. These gardens looked like plantings that had been installed ages ago and then let go to weed, except that the weeds were some of horticultures most elegant and wispy perennial choices. 
The rocks, well almost every garden showcased them in some form, but there were two that were extraordinary.  The first, created by Darren Hawkes in the Brewer Dolphin garden used over 40,000 pieces of hand cut slate stacked like playing cards and assembled into giant elevated ‘stepping stones’ which traversed a flowing stream planted with a wild cacophony of ferns, bleeding hearts, columbines and erigeron karvinskianus, a plant I’m desperate for in my own garden. It was a fascinatingly unusual (albeit labor intensive) way to work with stone. A material it would have never occurred to me to mold in this way. The second, which won gold for best Show Garden as well as the Best in Show award, was created by Dan Pearson and was sponsored by Laurent-Perrier and Chatsworth Garden. (All the gardens have sponsors – gardens and their design, construction and installation can cost over half million dollars each – plus it’s an interesting reflection of a country’s persona when advertising your brand by constructing a garden works.) 
Mr. Pearson disassembled and gathered up 300 tons of rock outcroppings from one of the less visited areas of the 105 acre Chatsworth Estate and reconstructed them on a triangular plot that in Chelsea Garden history is know for being the most difficult site -- it is seen from all sides as opposed to most others that are viewed at most from only two directions. Dan’s garden was magnificent; you really felt that you were sitting back in that unexplored corner of Chatsworth. There was a dying, or perhaps even completely dead oak tree he brought to the space as well as a deciduous azalea (Rhododendron luteum) that in England is almost noxious in its invasiveness and the rest of the plant choices were also unexpected. Marsh marigolds, herb Robert, candelabra primroses and martagon lilies were strewn through the garden as if tossed from a passing car’s windows. And yes, as I learned at a dinner with an “in-the-know” Chelsea Show alumnus, it turns out Dan HAD grown his wildflower and weed laced carpet as a turf that was unrolled and installed the week prior to the opening ceremony.  This garden was revelatory in its inspiration. 
The entire day was incredible.
The second day was also magnificent, especially for a plant junkie like me. Inside the pavilion (which covers an area of approximately 2.5 acres) there are individual displays from nurseries, both family owned and mainstream, showcasing their wares. 
David Austin debuted his three newest roses at the show -- Desdemona, Ancient Mariner and Sir Walter Scott -- all gorgeous, but most likely all just as susceptible to black spot on Long Island as his other roses.  Blackmore & Langdon displayed begonias with flowers the size of soup bowls beneath their traditional color wave of perfect delphiniums stalks running the spectrum from solid refrigerator white to the deepest purple with sooty black “bees” – the name given to the individual florets’ centers. Dibley’s from Northern Wales had a display of streptocarpus that was so incredible I lusted for all of them, especially since I only knew of two or three before stumbling across their stand. 
 The list of nurseries with plants I desired could fill this whole magazine. I even gathered seeds in the hopes that I could start some of these incredible plants (anyone got a greenhouse they can spare??) 
And finally there was The Botanic Nursery from Wiltshire. They happen to hold the country’s the national collection of foxgloves and they had a display featuring 37 different varieties. Now I adore foxgloves, and consider it one of my signature plants, but I only knew of perhaps 15-20 before I got to their stand. Needless to say I coveted all of which them and standing in front of their display thought seriously about how I could bribe my husband to move with me across the ocean.  
Luckily Paige Patterson knows a Land Rover Defender is all the bait she needs to lure her husband to England permanently. So all she needs is a job there any ideas?

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