What on earth is this? Pumpkins? Here at the Chelsea Flower Show? It’s like finding reindeer on the race card at Royal Ascot.
Just around the corner, I stumble across an apple tree. It contains what can only be described as apples.
Yet I have to look high and low for anything resembling a rose. As for a splash of blossom, forget it.
Andie McDowell pictured with Chelsea Pensioner Peter Henry and her stunning display of Dahlia’s on her stand ‘Dahlia Beach’ at Chelsea Flower Show, London today
Chelsea is, traditionally, the great harbinger of our summer. It is the first fixture in that glorious and timeless succession of famous British summer traditions which we like to call ‘the Season’ – Wimbledon, Henley, Glorious Goodwood, Cowes and a Highland Games to finish
No one can remember the last time that the jewel in the Royal Horticultural Society’s calendar featured a Halloween theme. That is because it hasn’t happened before in the 108-year history of this event.
According to the organisers, it will not happen again, either.
However, having wreaked havoc with pretty much everything else in life, the coronavirus has succeeded in shunting the 2021 Chelsea Flower Show from its time-honoured slot in verdant, luscious May to mellow, fruitful September.
So let us make the most of this magnificent autumnal one-off.
Because while this may be a very different sort of show from the usual, it has lost none of its magic.
It’s just that this year’s event is not so much blooming marvellous as drop dead gorgeous. Indeed, one or two of these trees may have dropped the lot by the end of the week.
Chelsea is, traditionally, the great harbinger of our summer. It is the first fixture in that glorious and timeless succession of famous British summer traditions which we like to call ‘the Season’ – Wimbledon, Henley, Glorious Goodwood, Cowes and a Highland Games to finish.
Except, this year, the organisers took a bold decision. Having lost the 2020 event entirely to the pandemic, they were preparing for May 2021 when there was a surge in Covid cases over the winter.
So they cancelled again. Rather than lose yet another year, an emergency meeting of the RHS council decided to hold the event in September. Third time lucky and all that.
‘For about a week afterwards, everyone was saying ‘it will never work, it will look terrible, utterly impossible’,’ says Helena Pettit, the RHS director of gardens and shows. ‘Then, after giving it some thought, they were all saying: ‘what a wonderful one-off opportunity’.’
An artist performs Sanddorn Balance at the ‘A Garden Between Continents’ show garden at the RHS
Talking to those exhibiting here, I sense that many are thoroughly enjoying this change of scene.
‘I probably shouldn’t say this but I prefer September,’ says Tom Massey, creator of the Yeo Valley Organic Garden, one of the main show gardens in competition this year. ‘Spring is always hyped up and full of expectation. This is about fruit and berries and autumn tones.’ He points to the seedheads on the various grasses around his plot, the hawthorn berries and the bright yellow rudbeckia. None of them would be on the menu if he was building this garden in May but they lend a hazy, relaxed feel to a garden which also features a giant glass-bottomed, egg-shaped hide in autumn colours. Hanging from a tree, it is designed for observing woodland wildlife as the nights grow longer.
Nearby, I meet Naomi Ferrett-Cohen who has created an NHS Tribute garden. It was the idea of Oxford University’s John Frater, professor of infectious diseases, as he drove back from a Covid shift at the city’s John Radcliffe Hospital in mid-pandemic.
‘We were losing staff at the time and yet everyone kept on turning up for work. It seemed that we just had to mark this moment,’ he explains. So he contacted Naomi and they applied for a place at this year’s show. The result is a charming sunken garden with soothing rills and pools and some exuberant late-flowering plants like the red and yellow kniphofias, otherwise known as ‘red-hot pokers’.
Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex and Sophie, Countess of Wessex during a visit to the Autumn RHS Chelsea Flower Show
‘I just remember when the call came through to do this and we all had that feeling of everything falling off a precipice. This is a response to that,’ says Naomi. However, her original May plan for avenues of roses had to go straight in the compost bin when the date was switched.
Another medical garden, Robert Myers’s celebration of Florence Nightingale’s bicentenary, includes medicinal shrubs like Chinese rhubarb and echinacea alongside walls lined with facsimiles of her gardening notes.
Nearby, I find the Finnish Soul Garden, full of autumnal scenes from the Baltic. Taina Suonio’s homage to her motherland not only includes something which looks remarkably like a Christmas tree but there is a thickly-berried rowan, a fruit-filled apple tree and a fully-functioning sauna. She shows me into the glass-fronted hot room – above the mandatory icy pool for cooling off – and chucks some water on to the coals.
They instantly sizzle and fume. Authentic, certainly, but it doesn’t feel very summery.
The change of date has meant that some well-known growers are not here at all.
The main marquee, the Grand Pavilion, is usually overflowing with tulips, roses and fresh veg of every hue. A lot of regulars simply have nothing worth showing at this time of year.
This has allowed plenty of others to make their debut, though. Much of it looks like a very elegant Harvest Festival.
I meet Stanley Jackson of the New Forest whose Agrumi topiary stand has some magnificent hedge sculptures of animals – including a horse in mid-jump.
He has never been able to get a stand here before. Nor have Foster’s Exotic and Unusual Plants from North Lincolnshire, with their rich display of cacti and ‘succulents’. It’s the same for Driftwood Bonsai of Doncaster. ‘I feel I’ve got a stomach full of kittens,’ says owner Mark Whitworth.
‘My wife and I have been building up this business for 22 years and just to be at Chelsea feels like a dream.’
Another knock-on from the pandemic are whole new sections of the Chelsea showground saluting the lockdown passion for small-scale gardening after millions of cooped-up townies turned to horticulture by way of therapy. There is a display of ‘container gardens’ – small, urban plots where the planting has to take place above ground level.
Even smaller are the ‘balcony gardens’, crammed with colour and life.
Whackiest of the lot are the house plant studios, packed with potted specimens to see us through the winter. Paul Holt of the N1 Garden Centre has not just filled a woodland hut with autumnal plants and pumpkins but is actually dressed head to toe in pumpkin yellow.
Daisy the Drag Queen from Ru Paul’s Drag Show had a fun day out at the Chelsea Flower Show
Robert Hardman in the Yeo Valley Organic garden at the press day for the 2021 Chelsea Flower show
There has been no sign of the Queen here this year. Much as she loves Chelsea she also loves her Balmoral break.
Other members of the family were here yesterday, however, to see the Queen’s Green Canopy Garden, celebrating her upcoming Platinum Jubilee. Theatrical royalty also turned up in the form of Dame Judi Dench.
I even met a Hollywood name manning a trade stand. Film director Guy Ritchie so loves outdoor cooking that he has now designed a new heated table/stove/barbecue/grill all-year-round alfresco dining unit.
Model Lydia Butler representing The Mistress of Ural Mountains pictured in ‘The Bodmin Jail 60 degree East – A Garden Between Continets’
He has also put his money where his mouth is by manufacturing it. Models range from the £3,300 portable four-seat ‘Wildtable’ up to a £51,000 tented dining room the size (and price) of a small house.
‘The caveman in me just loves cooking outdoors but you always have the issue of heat – too much or not enough – and smoke,’ he explains. ‘This deals with both.’
There is one other rather pleasing aspect of this year’s show for those who do have a ticket.
Thanks to Covid, the crowds have been reduced by 40per cent (with an extra day bolted on to make up for it). Overall, it all feels quieter, slower and less corporate. Next year, it should be back to normal, we are told. Some may not necessarily regard that as a good thing.