The gardens are nearly over so here are photos of some of the people involved with the construction. The papers tend to focus on the designers but in reality none of it could happen without the entire team.
In the spirit of friendly competitiveness, I went along to Jinny Blom’s garden this morning. Jinny has been on the front page of most glossy magazines because of Prince Harry’s support for her Sentebale garden. When I told her that she should spend more time planting and less time talking to her media friends, she decided to show her warm regard for my opinion. Luckily Charlotte Harris thought it was funny!
They may have lost their empire in the early 18th Century and they may have stopped making rather ugly cars (sorry Volvo owners) but I have to admit that the Swedes are workers. They get stuck in. Even Ulf was on the wheelbarrows today. Leif nevers stops and is constantly working, carrying, cleaning, levelling etc – all very impressive. I was quietly rather pleased when I heard that Tobias was approached ina restaurant, wearing a Crocus high-viz, and asked if he was Mark Fane – very flattering given that Tobias is at least 15 years younger and several stone lighter!
Many many years ago, when I first started at Chelsea, there was a very intimidating President of the RHS called Lord Aberconway. He presided over an institution that was ran in exactly the way he wanted it – which is fine, I suppose. However, he would not be amused by the RHS’s decision to allow in gnomes this year. Mark Whyman’s wife, Michelle, who is a skilled cook, decided to get in the spirit of the event and baked us all gnome cakes. Very impressive and very tasty.
They say that the sun can start playing tricks on your brain but clearly Chelsea can have the same effect. Not content with spending the last year growing the plants for Ulf’s and Christopher’s gardens, Peter Clay came to Chelsea today and decided he wanted to be a tree. Not a bad impersonation of a 4 metre Corylus.
The photograph was taken by Charlotte Harris who is going to be working on Jinny Blom’s garden.
Slowly, the Laurent-Perrier garden is taking shape. The copper wall and oak timber structure is now in place. Leif and Tobias, over from Sweden, have been placing the travetine stone. It’s not easy because some of the stones weigh up to a tonne. Luckily we have a very cool mini-crane which makes life a lot easier. The strong winds didn’t help us today but overall, we are making good progress.
This article appeared in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday 4th May
The world’s top designers depend on the staff of Crocus nursery to work miracles down in SW3, coaxing plants into early growth and magnificent flower. Val Bourne finds out how they do it
Following a sunny weekend and a favourable Countryfile weather forecast that inspired lots of Sunday night business, Crocus, the gardening website, is bustling with nearly 1,000 orders. Staff on eco-friendly electric buggies drive slowly through the rows of plants (nearly half of which are grown on site), before delivering them to the packing shed ready for the off.It looks so slick and easy now, with the sound of ripping sticky tape and the gentle thud of cardboard accompanying a hum of plant names being matched to each customer. However, when the company was founded by Peter Clay and Mark Fane, it was all very different.“We went live at 6.13am on April 2 2000, and sold just 15 plants on the first day. Back then most of our early orders were from wives, girlfriends, friends and mothers,” Peter recalls.The Crocus concept was born of frustration after Peter Clay inherited his grandfather’s Herefordshire home and large garden in 1996. He watched as his wife Ravida, an interior designer, collected swatches, paint samples and design ideas for the home via the internet. He found it impossible to do the same with the garden, despite much online trawling.“I had no horticultural training whatsoever and this made me realise how difficult it was to start from scratch. No one even sold plants by colour, for instance. There certainly wasn’t a book entitled ‘A Windy Hill in Herefordshire’ and all that it entailed.”
Crocus answered that need. However, Peter credits Crocus co-director Mark Fane for spotting the potential of the internet when it came to gardening. Mark was a landscape contractor for Waterers, a famous and long-established horticultural business started by his late father. Crocus today occupies part of the old Waterers site, in the heart of the rhododendron-rich nursery belt near Windlesham in Surrey.
Peter and Karen plan out a Chelsea garden at the Crocus showground
The Chelsea connection
Mark had constructed several Chelsea show gardens and knew many top designers, so Crocus always intended to have a Chelsea presence. Today they proudly list a total of 17 gold medals and six best in show medals, three of which were for Telegraph gardens.Working with high-profile designers, such as Christopher Bradley-Hole, Tom Stuart-Smith, Cleve West, Arne Maynard, Sarah Price, Jinny Blom, Andy Sturgeon and Ulf Nordfjell, has allowed them to identify the latest trends and go on to provide those fashionable plants to keen gardeners, either as a package or as specimens, after the show.It has also led them to forge strong links with top nurserymen at the forefront of modern planting. They include Marina Christopher of Phoenix Perennial Plants, Chris Marchant of Orchard Dene and David Root of Kelways. “We are really keen to support good English growers where we can,” Peter says, “and to find the best plants.”This year a white form of Carthusian pink, Dianthus carthusianorum ‘Miss Farrow’, has been supplied by Marina Christopher who gave us the jewel-like Dianthus cruentus a couple of years ago. The willowy ‘Miss Farrow’ is already in bud, so it looks certain to appear.After Peter’s frustrating early experiences on the net, educating the uninitiated gardener remains a Crocus priority. Helen Derrin, the plant doctor, dispenses advice to customers and suggests helpful combinations. John Hiorns, another long-standing Crocus team member, travels widely, hunting out new plants and photographing everything.The hardest role of all falls to Karen Sowden, the nursery manager in charge of producing the plants for this year’s two Chelsea gardens. Christopher Bradley-Hole’s Telegraph garden is an abstract design inspired by the English landscape, with Japanese overtones. Rectangular wooden boxes are being constructed and planted up with box hedging, so that these highly manicured green blocks can be lifted straight into place without spoiling a leaf. The garden’s layout has been etched into the nursery lawn so that plant combinations can be assembled in advance, to help the designer before the real work begins at Chelsea.
“It’s a symphony of green mostly, quite dense and bosky using box and yew to create textures, with a canopy of multi-stemmed hazel. The orange accents will include (hopefully) a geum called ‘Champagne Fizz’, that’s not too orange and certainly not yellow,” Peter tells me. Worryingly, the first lily-of-the-valley to flower has turned out pink.Ulf Nordfjell’s garden for Laurent-Perrier is an evocation of a vineyard involving lots of Mediterranean plants that will evoke the French landscape. Billowing shrubby euphorbias, and spires of bright blue Echium candicans will dominate softer pastel perennials in pinks, blues, creamy oranges, yellows and whites. This softer garden may have to do without slate-grey starry amsonias, which have been very reluctant to grow at all this year.
One of the enormous greenhouses at Crocus where the plants for Chelsea are grown
All the Chelsea plants (for both designers) have had to be coddled following this year’s exceptionally cold winter and spring, although the care regime changes with the weather.One polytunnel provides sodium lighting to extend day length, often the best way to stimulate a plant into early growth. Another is heated to a minimum temperature of 3C (37F) to prevent frost damage at night, but also shaded to prevent extremes of leaf-scorching heat in the day. Every plant responds differently and there are often several batches of the same thing in different areas. The plants are checked daily and moved to another site by Karen’s team, if she deems it necessary. They are constantly preened like catwalk models.The 700 Heuchera sanguinea ‘White Cloud’, sourced from France, are for Christopher Bradley-Hole. This dainty perennial will almost certainly provoke a return to growing heucheras for their airy flowers rather than foliage alone, in this case silver-washed and marbled.A hundred are snuggled up in the warm tunnel looking very jaunty, their long wands trembling as the electric fan whirrs. However, many more are outside, flagging in a stiff south-easterly – and the compost is dry too. The sight of a hosepipe coming our way reassures a nervous Karen that all will be well.Trademark Chelsea plants from Crocus include the all-green Hakon grass (Hakonechloa macra) beloved of Tom Stuart-Smith, and Asarum europaeum, a diminutive woodlander with shiny round leaves, which is grown in square 9cm (3½in) pots because the team has discovered it sulks in too much compost. The leaves of the hart’s tongue ferns (Asplenium scolopendrium) are almost surreal, with upright pale green foliage held on tall stems.
With less than three weeks until the show opens, the Crocus team seem almost sanguine. Perhaps it’s the lull before the storm because the weather is the wild card. “Every year there is a different panic. It’s too hot, or too cold, or too late, so we grow a huge palette of plants because we know some won’t make it,” says Peter.They begin to reminisce about glories past. Karen describes Luciano Giubbilei’s Laurent-Perrier garden of 2009: he combined bronze fennel with satin-red peony ‘Buckeye Belle’, the blue-black salvia ‘Caradonna’ and the frothy grass Deschampsia cespitosa, which resulted in a rich Venetian glass swirl with air bubbles.Peter harks back to the rusted Cor-ten steel troughs in Tom Stuart-Smith’s Telegraph garden of 2006. The snuff-brown metal was framed by multi-stemmed Viburnum rhytidophyllum showing lots of leggy bark in the same tones. “It was such an unusual choice. It hadn’t been in fashion since the Victorian era. It was a fantastic explosion of colour, with the airy, light Stipa gigantea picking up the same theme,” he says.Although it’s the garden designers who turn plants into stars, the people who make it all happen are here at the sharp end, defying the weather. This year’s challenge is Tulipa sprengeri, the latest tulip of all to flower. An elegant vision of red and gold to be used by Christopher Bradley-Hole among his green tapestry – but will it make it? Will it win plaudits? If anyone can make that happen, it’s the team at Crocus.
For more on Chelsea, visit telegraph.co.uk/gardening/chelseaflowershow
We have been asked by the RHS to build a garden for something, but I have been sworn to secrecy. All I can say is that it’s going to be very special. I’m not allowed to say what it is or what it’s about so here is a photograph of a hole in the ground! I will post some photos of the garden over the next few days but I will only be allowed to show snippets. All will be revealed at the Show.