Sunday, May 22, 2016

Book Review: "RHS Chelsea Flower Show: The First 100 Years: 1913-2013"

I read this wonderful book last May, but I didn't finish writing my review until after the 2015 Chelsea Flower Show had finished, and I felt that it was no longer topical to include in my blog at that point. But I found my review in my draft posts recently, now that the excitement of the 2016 Chelsea Flower Show is beginning -- my husband and I just finished watching the first of the many episodes that will cover this grand event during this week for those of us who aren't lucky enough to attend in person.

Being American, until last year I had little idea what the Chelsea Flower Show even was, other than a presumably desirable event included in garden tour packages advertised in magazines like "The English Garden" and "Gardens Illustrated."

But my total ignorance has ended, due to two educational sources: 1. the BBC coverage of last year's show that I watched on YouTube last May, and 2. this book that was published right before the 2014 Show, "RHS Chelsea Flower Show: The First 100 Years: 1913-2013" by Brent Elliott (a review copy of which I requested and received from publisher Frances Lincoln because of my interest in garden history).

For those American readers who still exist in my former state of complete ignorance, the Chelsea Flower Show is a really big deal in England. Chelsea is an affluent district in central London, and every May the Royal Horticultural Society holds a five-day-long Flower Show in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, a retirement and nursing home.

The Show in its modern format comprises three main areas:
  1. the huge tent known as the Floral Marquee under which plant growers and breeders exhibit amazingly impressive displays of their plants
  2. outside the tent are large and small Show Gardens designed by garden designers
  3. and a Sundries area has display greenhouses, garden tools and books, and specialist plant societies' displays
The garden designers and plant exhibitors hope to win a gold or silver-gilt award from the RHS judges, and there is great media attention for the winners, particularly for garden design winners. Also receiving much coverage is the visit of members of the royal family on the first day of the show. After the first day, the show is open to the public and over 150,000 people purchase limited-availability tickets each year, and the BBC runs morning and evening television coverage of the Show on all five days. The Chelsea Flower Show is probably most likened to an upscale, national-level version of our American state fairs (in my home state of Iowa, the Iowa State Fair is a pretty big deal, with over a million attending and nightly television coverage of fair activities).

But again, I knew none of this until I read this book, which covers the history of the world's most prestigious flower show. Brent Elliot's book is filled with historic photos that I found fascinating -- I love old garden photos, and those chosen by the author and editors do a great job of showing the gardening and societal trends of each decade. (I have poorly scanned a few representative images from the book in an attempt to show how interesting the illustrations are.)

The first chapter covers the 19th century origins of the show: The Horticultural Society of London held its first flower show in 1827 in Chiswick, which proved to be too far away from London before railroads reached it and the show was eventually a financial disaster which took years to recover from. In 1861, the renamed and re-organized Royal Horticultural Society moved their flower show to a closer site in Kensington. This was successful for a few years, but London's pollution resulted in yet another move in 1888 to the garden areas of the Inner Temple (where English barristers are traditionally housed). This site lasted until 1912, when the RHS finally ended up at the current, much larger Chelsea site.

A painting showing the 1866 International Horticultural Exhibition in
Kensington, a fore-runner of the Chelsea Flower Show.

After staging a successful international horticultural exhibition on the Chelsea grounds in 1912, the first RHS flower show (called the Great Spring Show) was held there in 1913, and after the First World War, the Great Spring Show was revived in 1919. During the 1920s and 1930s, the show grew in size and the gardens and exhibits became more elaborate (rock gardens enjoyed a peak of popularity during this period and drew huge crowds, while a campaign against topiary and traditional formal gardens was waged).

A rock garden under construction for the 1935 Chelsea Flower Show. Looking on are three of the "Pensioners," residents of the retirement home at Royal Hospital Chelsea. 

And probably the most famous indoor exhibit the show has ever enjoyed was shown in 1929, when Mrs. Sherman Hoyt of California staged a tableau of Californian desert plants, which wowed the British audience with its elaborate detail and exotic plant species (Interestingly to Iowans, Mrs. Sherman Hoyt had an Iowa connection; her mother was a niece of Hoyt Sherman, a prominent 19th-century Des Moines banker, and his brother, Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman.)

Mrs. Sherman Hoyt's famous 1929 California desert display with painted backdrops ushered in a new level of plant displays. After the show, the whole display was purchased by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

The Chelsea Flower Show was discontinued after Britain declared war in 1939, when the RHS put its efforts into its Dig for Victory campaign. The Flower Show was not able to resume until 1947, and even then with a reduced number of exhibitors, but by the early 1950s, the RHS was able to afford a larger tent as interest and attendance increased. In the 1950s and '60s, the once-popular rock gardens began their decline and many of the new gardens featured historic garden styles inspired by Spanish courtyards and French potagers.

A Spanish-style garden by the Sociedad de Amigos del Paisaje y Jardines for the 1952 show.

The 1950s also saw the beginning of modernistic garden styles epitomized by the 1959 The Times' Garden of To-morrow, which featured labor-saving shrubs, groundcovers and paving, as well as a futuristic radio-controlled lawnmower. Also demonstrated were developments in the use of plastic containers and stainless steel garden tools, which were indeed truly revolutionary developments that modern gardeners take for granted.

A labor-saving tree and shrub garden designed by Paul Temple for the 1964 show.

By the 1960s and 1970s, earlier amateur exhibitors were being replaced by professional growers and large garden centers, as gardeners were becoming accustomed to buying container-grown plants (made possible by plastic pots), rather than growing from specialists' seeds. Bonsai was on the ascendance in popularity, and garden designers, who had previously not been listed with garden sponsors in entries, were becoming celebrities in their own right.

Professionals preparing the impressive floral displays for a 1960s-era show inside the Great Marquee (tent). 

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Show was forced to deal with overcrowding as attendance rose to new heights. And the 1990s were marked by controversy over garden styles: in earlier years, it had been the garden modernists who complained that traditional styles were boring and irrelevant, but by the turn of the century it was the general public who lamented that many awards were being given to designs that hardly appeared to be real "gardens" (designed arrangements of live plants), but more like natural, uncultivated settings or areas of mostly paved hardscaping.

By the turn of the 21st century, many of the garden designs for the show were centered on demonstrations of sustainability, social conscience or trendy causes. Many are based on "extravagant metaphors which only become intelligible after reading the programme note," according to the author of the book, such as gardens that have attempted to represent the blood circulatory system or shock waves. Gardens now mostly seem to be fairly modernistic in design, although cottage gardens and other revivalism of historic garden styles are also represented.

The Wasteland Garden by Kate Gould for the 2013 show includes such objects as a storm drain, mattress springs, lumps of concrete and pieces of machinery, in her evocation of a "derelict pumping station." Not my idea of a desirable garden, which to me should be a place of beauty, but I suppose it does have some plants in it, and it did receive a Gold Medal....

This 1996 Paradise Garden by Bunny Guinness is more my style, and some of the prettier modern styles filled with lush plantings are beautiful to see.

At any rate, "RHS Chelsea Flower Show, The First 100 Years: 1913-2013" takes readers on a fascinating tour through history -- not just through the history of the Chelsea Flower Show, but also through changes in popular garden styles as well as through the greater cultural history of England in the twentieth century.

Anyone interested in garden history, English gardens or modern British history should be familiar with this cultural icon of the English garden world, and Brent Elliott's book is just the introduction needed by American gardeners. The photos alone are endlessly enjoyable, and Elliot's narration of the story of the Chelsea Flower Show provides just enough background for the photos, but not so much as to prove dull to general readers. Highly recommended for readers who want to know more about the biggest flower show on earth.

And even if you're not interested in the book, many gardeners will enjoy watching a few episodes of the coverage of the Chelsea Flower Show 2016, which can likely be found on Youtube or on BBCi (although the BBC blocks foreign viewers, so an inexpensive DNS proxy service such as UnoTelly, which prevents streaming services from knowing where your computer is located, is necessary for viewers outside the UK).

Here's to the Greatest Flower Show on Earth -- and thanks for reading! -Beth

Friday, May 20, 2016


Lupines and Weigela 'Pink Poppet' on the east side of the tractor shed.

Hello, all! I've been working hard in my gardens for the past week and things are starting to look more under control, after my feelings of panic several weeks ago. I have been completely renovating several of my major garden areas due to issues with thuggish invasive plants and changes I have wanted to make, so there aren't as many things blooming at this time of year as usual, but there are still a few bright spots in the gardens that I'd like to share with you.

This is not one of the bright spots, but it is an area that looks a lot better for being cleared out and raked smooth. I will not be able to plant anything in this main section of my Front Border for the rest of this year due to a nasty problem with Obedient Plant 'Vivid,' but at least it looks like a cultivated area now, not just sprayed, dying plants and large holes from where I dug out plants I was able to save. I'll move the Alliums after they dry up, and leave only the roses until next spring. 

Another part of my Front Border, with a few gaps, but still containing a few blooming plants to cheer me up.

This week I painted and installed these trellises on the east side of our decaying old Tractor Shed, on which I hope the sweet pea starts planted at their base will grow up. Next year I'll get an earlier start planting the sweet peas out with trellises already being in place. Something about these wood trellises reminded me of the "barn quilts" that are painted on the sides of barns here in the Midwest, perhaps the diamond-shaped insert in the center of each.

The tree peony 'Renkaku' that I planted last year had a big,
beautiful bloom on it.

Another tree peony, called 'Hoki', near 'Renkaku'.

Purple bearded irises, verbena 'Shauna Ann' and allium 'Purple Sensation' in the Purple Section of what used to be called my Rainbow Border. (I'm not certain what I will call it now that I am mixing up the colors -- perhaps the "Big Easy Color Border" might work? I'll think on it....)

I was also able to get my cutting garden in order this week and have been working on moving things around in the ex-Rainbow Border. Next week I hope to show some more irises that are just now coming into bloom, but that's it for now.

Hope your own garden work is starting to reach a manageable point as we near the end of May, the busiest month for gardeners. Thanks for reading! -Beth

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

My New Winter Border

Hello, a few more rainy days this week, which gives me a chance to catch up on everyone's blog posts, as well as another of my own.

I finally got everything cleared out of the original section of my North Border, so that on Friday and Saturday I could plant the growing collection of potted evergreen trees and shrubs accumulating at the side of my house. I have just about finished planting all the major trees and shrubs, and I only have to mulch it and plant a few areas of evergreen perennials and pockets of bulbs.

The photo above shows what the border now looks like from my kitchen window. As readers may remember, the North Border used to be a rectangular strip planted with perennial and annual flowers:

The North Border last May.

I was dissatisfied with it, however, because it gave me nothing to look at in wintertime and it was hard to keep such a large border weeded in summertime. So last fall, I removed the grass from a curvy smaller section in front of the original border and this spring I have been moving many of the plants from the back section into the new section, which I might end up calling my Summer Border.

Here is the border now from a similar angle, with the new curvy section in front, and the newly planted original section filled with evergreen trees and shrubs. The three upside-down pots are standing in for the large stones that I am considering placing in the border.

I have used only relatively common trees and shrubs that I was able to purchase locally in reasonable sizes, as most conifers are fairly slow-growing and I am fairly impatient. I tried to find a variety of colors, textures and sizes, although I mostly tried to avoid very dark green conifers, as I was afraid they would not be visible against the backdrop of the large Western Red Cedars of our windbreak.

Also, I tried to avoid the look of a random collection by grouping the trees and shrubs in small groups by color, trying to repeat the motif of groups of three.

I'll show closeups of each part of the border, starting on the right end, listing the cultivars and showing how I tried to form groups and vignettes that I hope will look nice as the trees and shrubs mature.

This picture does not show the shrub on the very end that can be seen in the last photo, a 'Gold Mops' Sawara Falsecypress that was planted behind my house in my Yellow Garden (I think it will be happier -- and gold-er -- in this sunnier spot). At the far right is the twisty form of a large Bruns Weeping Serbian Spruce that I stumbled across at Costco a few weeks ago and improbably was able to just fit into my Toyota Corolla to get home. To the left of that is a group of three 'Skyrocket' Junipers in front of a 'Saybrook Gold' Juniper that I hope will make the 'Skyrocket' group more visible by contrast, and in front of them is a group of five 'Angelina' Sedums. There is an 'Emerald & Green' Euonymous behind and just to the right of the Dwarf Alberta Spruce in the center of the photo, and the Dwarf Alberta Spruce is part of a group of three green-colored plants including a Bird's Nest Spruce and Mugo Pine at front. Behind these is a '4Ever Gold' Arborvitae, at left is an 'Emerald Gaity' Euonymous, with a 'Moonglow' Juniper at far left.

Continuing on, the 'Moonglow' Juniper can been seen toward the right of this photo, next to the similar blue foliage of a large clump of Dianthus that I moved from the edge of the border. A Juniper procumbens 'Nana' in front looks similar in color to the Weeping Alaska Cedar at center. A group of three boxwoods that I already had is just in front of another 'Saybrook Gold' Juniper and an  'Emerald Green' Arborvitae.

The 'Emerald Green' Arborvitae forms a group of three with two other green plants, a Bird's Nest Spruce and a 'Manhattan' Euonymous that I may trim the lower leaves from as it gets bigger, to expose the branched lower trunk in a Japanese style. To the left is a 'Fat Albert' Spruce and a 'Blue Star' Juniper at bottom (I will probably plant some more blue-foliaged Dianthus near this group too, to make another group of three). There is still a space behind 'Fat Albert' in which I could plant one or two other shrubs.

Just to the left of the space near 'Fat Albert' is another group of three boxwoods, and another 'Emerald & Gold' Euonymous, '4Ever Gold' Arborvitae, as well as a 'Manger's Sunshine' Falsecypress, for a group of three gold-foliage plants. A Chionoides Rhododendron, 'Boule de Neige' Rhododendron and 'Red Head' Pieris are planted in front of  two holly shrubs, 'Castle Spire' and Castle Wall' in this west end of the border that receives afternoon shade. (There is a small patch of weeds that still needs to be removed in the front of this end of the border, after which I might plant a couple more shrubs or evergreen perennials.)

This is the same photo as at the beginning, to show the Winter Border in its entirety to conclude.

I think I've made a good start on designing and planting my Winter Border. I didn't actually plan it out before planting, I just bought a selection of contrasting shrubs and trees and then laid them out and moved things around until it looked right, before beginning to plant from right to left.

There's still a bit more to be done: mulching, and I'll still add a few more groups of perennials that remain evergreen here in Iowa (a pretty short list, to be truthful). I'll also put in a few pockets of early bulbs such as daffodils, crocus, winter aconite and maybe some early tulips. And I also want to add a group of three rocks, and perhaps a statue, if I find a suitable one.

It feels good to have finished the major part of this project that I've been thinking about for the past half a year, and I'm looking forward to putting the last finishing touches on it and then seeing how the trees and shrubs grow over the next five to ten years.

Hope your own projects are progressing well this spring. Thanks for reading! -Beth