Visiting Chelsea is a double-edged sword: some of the gardens take my breath away, but I can't shake that sneaking sense of shame at the state of my own garden. That's when I have to remind myself of these five simple reasons why one shouldn't compare real gardens with show gardens...
1. Chelsea is potty
Delve around in the soil at Chelsea and before long you'll find yourself hitting cold hard plastic.
Many show gardens include plants that are stuck in the ground still inside the pots they grew in at the nursery. Some designers such as Jo Thompson prefer to remove plants from pots, to acquire a more 'relaxed' look to planting, but many don't - it saves time during the build and allows for plants to be easily removed at the end of the show.
You can't compare a real garden with what's effectively a grid of buried pots, which will most likely be positioned at a much higher density than is sensible in a real garden. This approach offers the 'full' look and works fine for the limited time period of a show, but spells disaster for permanent planting schemes.
2. Time travel is real!
Ever seen those images of people wearing hi-vis vests at Chelsea taking a hairdryer to an iris or peony to coax them into opening? That's really just the tip of the iceberg. The show is stuffed full of plants that have, thanks to the skills of clever horticulturists, been either held back or pushed forward in terms of leaf and/or bloom production. It's wonderful to see hellebores in the Great Pavilion in mid-May, and I salute the nurseries that go all out to make it happen but it's not something you can (or necessarily should) emulate at home.
3. Money makes the soil go round
The budgets for a Main Avenue show garden are usually a closely-guarded secret, but we're talking hundreds of thousands. One mature tree or stretch of hedge imported from a European nursery can set a project back a few thou, and then there's the hard landscaping, the construction team, the growing media, the rest of the plants...
Whereas the budget for your garden is probably more likely to be in the hundreds - per year - if you're lucky.
There is something to be said for the more thrifty method of buying bareroot plants and young whips for trees and watching them grow and develop, but this doesn't work if you have three weeks to build a garden that looks as if it's been there for decades. Shortcuts are necessary, and shortcuts cost money.
4. Take a side
The standard features of the Chelsea garden - from the 'shack at the back' structure to the obligatory lump of sculpture or water feature - are designed with completely different set of eyelines to a regular garden. That's because unlike a normal garden, which may have any combination of fences, walls, a house, or a garage on each side, most Chelsea gardens have at least two sides where the public can stand and peer in, so planting can be appreciated from a standing position. If you've ever been to Chelsea, you'll know that the Main Avenue show gardens are not accessible to the public, one can only sharpen elbows and get to the front of the scrum to view them from the front or the side*. (The exception being the garden/s on the triangle which is visible on all sides).
*One of the amazing perks of my job is being occasionally granted permission to go inside Chelsea gardens. It does give you a totally different perspective. If you are going this year, you'll be able to go inside Tom Stuart-Smith's Weston garden in the Great Pavilion.
5. The business of show
And finally, remember this: show gardens are designed with a completely different brief to any domestic garden. Some may pay lip service to the idea that they have an imaginary client who will live alongside, work in and treasure the space, but they are really all about performing a specific task for a sponsor, be that showing off to a finance firm's big clients, communicating a message from a charity, or publicising a luxury drinks brand. I don't have a problem with that, but it does mean that you can't compare it with your own space, tended for consecutive months, weeks, years and serving many purposes as a place of relaxation, sport, barbecues, sunbathing and pottering.
That said... there are things you can learn from Chelsea and apply to your own garden. In fact I wrote a piece about just that for the Guardian, which you can read here. It may be an individual plant that catches your eye, a planting combination that would work in your garden, or a new piece of garden furniture that suits your space. (I for one would now love to have a slab of York stone in my garden as a seat, inspired by Jo Thompson's garden for Wedgwood.) I'll write another post later in the week about some of the plants and planting combinations that inspired me at Chelsea.
Would love to know your thoughts below. Perhaps I am the only one that suffers Chelsea envy? Do add a comment!