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Gregory Long Headshot

In the Garden Again: At Chelsea With the Roses

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We are certainly the lucky ones. A few weeks ago I took my Trustees and horticultural colleagues from NYBG to the opening night of the famous, over-the-top Chelsea Flower Show in London. This is the annual floral and garden design extravaganza presented by the venerable Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) and dating back to 1862. It is the absolute queen of flower shows internationally -- setting standards for all other such expositions, and it's a marvelous experience. Envision a great white tented pavilion surrounded by nearly ten acres of garden design installations and temporary restaurants and stands displaying every manner of garden tool, lawn mower, rabbit fence, and chaise lounge. Its permanent home is a premiere London location on the Chelsea Embankment of the Thames in the grounds of the magnificent Royal Hospital designed 300 years ago by the baroque architect Sir Christopher Wren. It's a high-end address.

The fun lasts five days, and garden lovers line-up and struggle through the throngs -- if they are fortunate enough to come by a ticket. This year's show was sold out way in advance.

The Royal Horticultural Society, chartered in 1803, is a quintessentially British organization, like no other such outfit in the world, with 392,228 members; a distinguished string of specialist flower shows throughout the year in their central London exhibition hall a few blocks from the Chelsea site; and four fine public gardens, one of which, RHS Garden Wisley, attracts a million visitors a year. The power and energy behind this organization is the envy of all other similar enterprises, including our NYBG and many other major botanical gardens here and abroad.

The Chelsea Show and its parent RHS are old and great because the English are the world's most passionate gardeners and have been for hundreds of years. Although it is a bit messed up at the moment because of the global warming affecting all of us, their maritime climate, along with mild winters and summers, their love of their beautiful land and their passion and special talent for domestic arrangements (not only gardens, but farms, villages, houses and interiors) have conspired since at least the time of Elizabeth I to create the ideal conditions for really great horticulture. The English know how to garden, they have designed important gardens since the Renaissance, and they have the world's greatest set of gardens open to the public -- thousands of them. They have also influenced international garden design theory and style for centuries -- cottage gardens, flower gardens, and the jardin ang lais are all their creations. Nothing is better than the Englischer Garten in Munich.

In a revered annual ritual, the Chelsea Flower Show is where the flowery set gathers -- where the aristocracy and their gardeners, garden writers and designers, and the garden press corps (because they really have one, unlike the situation in the U.S.) and growers and plantsmen all reconnoiter. The Chelsea show supports the industry, and the industry supports Chelsea.

Once, a long time ago, when Mrs. Thatcher was PM, she was the featured speaker at an official luncheon given on the opening day of the show for the horticultural establishment and their friends from all over the world (including me). She was in her glory, and although the Queen came to the ceremony later in the day as she usually does, it was Mrs. Thatcher who starred at lunch. She spoke about her own garden of rhododendrons at Chequers, and then turned to the "trade deficit." She excoriated this rather stuffy, elderly audience of mostly gentlemen-growers of dahlias, etc. (who seemed to this American observer, aghast) to stop importing their tulips and daffodils from the Netherlands and start growing their own at home. I thought to myself, horticulture is at the heart of British life and economic policy.

After that lunch, we were ushered into the mammoth pavilion, and I was transported, as I have been every year since, by the beauty of the spectacle. The fabulous displays by Britain's top growers and plant dealers are stunning. It's horticultural theatre. This year there were two entire rose gardens with hundreds of luxuriant plants all forced into flower ahead of nature's schedule. All in full flower you understand. And perfectly arranged ranks ten feet high of delphiniums, dozens of them, all of them of equal height and matching form, forced to flower in unison. And perfect tulips, thousands, not forced to flower, but held back from their normal schedule. And immaculate primroses standing up with erect posture, all matching one another except for their rainbow colors. Perfect peonies, lupins, begonias, agapanthus, narcissus, all in carefully arranged, matched sets. There were early spring bulbs "retarded" to flower at Chelsea time. There were the best hostas, heucheras, alliums, tropicals, carnivorous plants, ferns, irises, alpine plants you've ever seen. Never was there such an embarrassment of riches.

Outside the big pavilion are many temporary, custom-designed display gardens, sponsored by major banks and corporations and media empires, all created by the celebrity designers of the moment. They are lovely, although this year they were a bit too much alike perhaps, but why be churlish -- they were all gorgeous.

The whole marvelous presentation, from roses to lawn mowers to fountains you too can snap up for your patio, is magical. It is a powerful reminder of the economic and spiritual value of our gardens, our plants, and our landscapes, because all of nature is a garden. The English know how to take care of theirs. We should wake up and learn how to take care of ours.