One of the many things I love about this time of year is the Chelsea Flower Show. Not only does it overflow with enthusiasm for the gardening year ahead, but for the last 7 years I have been fortunate enough to attend the Royal Horticultural Society’s iconic show on the Press and VIP Day – the Monday before the show opens to the public.
And after 7 years of my ‘interviewing apprenticeship’, I have to admit that now it feels totally natural and effortless talking to the celebrities and discussing the merits of their own gardens and what inspires them.
Stephen Fry was in the middle of totally revamping his garden when he visited Chelsea for ideas a few years ago. He shared that if he came back in another life, he would quite like to be a gardener. I was so surprised that I forgot to warn him about aching knees, fingernails that are never quite clean and an obsession with the weather. Although I am guessing he would be more of a Capability Brown than a capable hands-on-er.
Most of the famous faces admit to not being terribly green-fingered but they all appreciate a nice garden and waft amongst the ostentacious Show Gardens quite amicably chatting to an enthusiastic Welsh lass with dirt under her fingernails, boldly embroidered floral boots and a nagging doubt that she has pressed the right button on her microphone to record!
The past few years I have been remembered by Piers Morgan, Bill Bailey, Anneka Rice, Joanna Lumley and Rob Brydon, to name (drop) a few – and yes, of course the boots help. But every year there are a few new names that provide a challenge. Cliff Richard was charming, Ringo Star an absolute delight and Sir John Hurt and absolute gent. Sir Trevor McDonald was chatty, Alan Titchmarsh complimentary and Rod Stewart charismatic. Dame Judy Dench was incredibly humble, Ricky Gervais incredibly flirty and David Walliams incredibly rude. And I have only been given the brush off twice … once by Mary Berry (less Great British Bake off and more great British F off!) and Janet Street Porter, who quite literally told me to ‘eff off’.
This year was an absolute delight, as partner and cameraman Steve Thomas was my sidekick which freed me up from the awfully clumsy process of having to ask for a photo whilst trying to persuade a waiting reporter to take the pic with my iPhone. Not cool.
So this year as well as feeling more at home in the ‘horticultural haven’ than ever, I also had a professional photographer to take the photos – as you will notice by the quality of the accompanying pics.
First on my list of VIP’s was not so much a Very Important Person but a Very Impressive Person – Adrian Gray the Stone Balancer. I had met him before and am totally smitten with his work. I rather feebly explained that I try to do a little stone balancing myself and find it incredibly meditative – he smiled kindly and told me that I was in fact a ‘stone stacker’ not balancer. I took it well – it’s a good start. I still aspire to progress from stacker to balancer.
Radio 2’s Chris Evans was the first ‘celebrity’ to be accosted – and he put up no fight at all. He was charming, chatty, witty and wonderfully enthusiastic about the show, exhibitors and all the hard work that had gone into it all. He was also planning on bagging a bargain at the end of the show – as was Sophie Raworth. She’s quite formidable … in a nice way. Very polite, very knowledgable about plants, and very, well, ‘news-reader-ish’. I liked her.
Jo Whiley was quite the opposite; softly spoken, slight and girl-next-doorish. I liked her too but if Sophie was a buddleia then Jo would be more of a buttercup. She also knew her horticultural stuff.
At the other end of the scale entirely was Joan Collins. Openly admitting to having very little interest in gardening but enjoying the day out and the lovely floral displays. And you know what? I have to say (or write), what she lacked in bloomin’ knowledge, she made up for with grooming knowledge. Boy, was she immaculate. No dirt dare venture under those nails, I know.
Nick Frost was in a bit of a hurry, keen to keep his wife happy but also keen on gardens, so it turned out – especially ferns.
Deborah Meaden was incredibly sociable and not what I expected – although to be fair, I only asked her for an interview and not to invest in a business. She was also impressed by the New Product Award winner; a frameless glasshouse. I have to admit, I loathed it as I could only envisage birds flying into it. It’s not for me – I’m out!
And as well as new products, every year Chelsea Flower Show launches new plants. This year’s winner was a dwarf mulberry bush and I think it is not only going to launch a resurgence of the fruit but also the nursery rhyme, ‘Here we go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush’ to a whole new generation.
The planting theme this year was a continuation on last year, with lots of wildflowers and/or weeds (depending on your definition) taking centre stage. Good news for those ‘normal’ gardeners wanting to take inspiration from Chelsea!
The Artisan Gardens were as stunning as always – I love them as they tend to be provide more attainable ideas for your average garden, or at least sections of it. The World Horse Welfare Garden was my absolute favourite this year, especially as it highlighted the plight of the ‘invisible’ horses that are abandoned or neglected each year.
Another garden or ‘installation’ that caught my eye this year was the Miracle Grow’s – ‘The Senses’. It was an incredibly poignant depiction of how gardening and being outdoors can help teenagers who feel pressured by social media and the consequences that can bring. It was a fabulous opportunity to show the benefits of spending time in nature – for all of us, not just angst-ridden teenagers.
Radio 2’s Feel Good Gardens provided a lot of interest, appealing to all the senses, as well as most of the visitors. The planting was inspiring too – again, schemes that could be replicated at home, with lots of easy to grow perennials and herbaceous plants.
The Chelsea Chop is a method of pruning herbaceous plants hard back to encourage a second flush of blooms but his year it wasn’t the Chelsea Chop that was making the headlines but the Chelsea Crunch. The main avenue usually hosts around 20 lavish gardens but this year only 8 sponsors had applied for the prestigious places. Apparently forms had to be submitted in the same week as Brexit and it is assumed that larger companies were hedging their bets a bit (pun intended) or at least keeping their pounds in their pockets.
And coincidentally, the sponsors of the show itself, M&G Investments, will not be renewing their contract when it ends this year. So next year, I am told, there will be new concepts and developments – including a brand new Grand Pavilion. The ‘old’ pavilion is pretty damn grand, so what the new one is going to be like, I can’t imagine. But I am already looking forward to finding out.
And thank you as always to all at the fabulous Pestana Chelsea Bridge Hotel and Spa for their hospitality and for adding even more charm to my Chelsea chapters.
You can listen to Lynne on BBC Radio Wales, talking about this year’s Chelsea Flower Show here:
Full Celebrity Interviews: