You think beforehand that when you build a stand at Chelsea you will have lots of opportunity to view and photograph the other gardens. And in theory the opportunity is there, but the time is dearly lacking. If I compare my photographs from last year’s Chelsea with those from this year, the contrast couldn’t be greater. A very quick, rushed walk around the grounds here gave me overblown, middle of the day images of Dan Pearson’s garden and the Singaporean water fall. A moment there, grabbed later, reaped other builders working hard on details of their gardens. I have an astounding number of butt shots as well.
But being on the grounds also give you insight into the event and the culture surrounding it that you otherwise would never have. You see the carefully wrapped Iris flowers tenderly prepared for a stand in the Grand Pavilion and the hundreds, thousands, of flowers being prepared for the Thai stand. You feel the enormous amount of work, joy and focus that goes into each and every display.
We for our part had too many plants. Not just a few extra, but like 80% more plants than we could technically use. This brought logistical problems, a lot of shuffling and the constant knowledge that at any moment we could be asked to move plants out of someone else’s space. More than 2 days worth of manpower were spent just shuffling. But all these extra plants not only gave us gave us the freedom to choose the best in our own garden but it also allowed us to give plants away and have contact with those building other gardens. Our Geum ‘Tangerine’ could be seen popping up in various other gardens throughout the event like little orange flags waving at us.
Chelsea is a highly competitive event. Everyone is striving to be the best of the best, but what you realize when you are there is that this competition is very inwardly directed. Everyone’s aim is to do their own personal best, to build their own display to perfection. The competition between displays isn’t really part of things. People are just as happy for their neighbor to do extremely well as themselves (well, nearly then). I think in part this has to do with the fact that each garden is judged on its own merit and not necessarily compared with others. This creates a culture of cooperation and sharing. Everyone is exceptionally friendly during the build, even as the deadline looms and the stress mounts. You are competing with time and your own limitations and not with each other.
That said, there is the need to do something new. The danger of Chelsea is that in this striving for perfection (and the limitations of the season) many of the gardens start to look like each other. They are “Chelsea pretty” — soft wispy grass, perfect irises and foxgloves. A sort of safe generic style arises. How do you balance wanting to break from this mold with not taking so many risks that you ruin your chances at gold? You see designers searching for the answer to this dilemma. More plants not in flower. More subtlety. Of course, everyone is reacting to the same thing and so the trend, to some extent, moves together. What was innovative and new last year – wild flower turf, Melica, flowering Luzula – might be a success this year but risk being a cliché by next. Dan Pearson’s garden where he used wildflower turf as a matrix in his Chatsworth landscape succeeded in finding that sweet spot and expresses innovative thought in garden design at the moment. But anyone who uses shrubs, rocks or wild flower turf in a similar way in the next couple of years needs to be very careful that they are reinventing rather than mimicking what he has done. A tough challenge.