The year has been tough on the exhibitors, with record lows, a dry spring, summer at Easter and then gales that couldn't have been harder on the plants that made it to the showground. Everyone had tales to tell and compromises to make.
Claire Austin's experience was typical – she grew 1,800 pots of iris and only 200 threw up flower spikes. But the show went on and there were spectacles of horticultural ingenuity in the tent. A tunnel of clematis from Raymond Evison enticed the onlooker into the stand to sample the plants up close. I loved the aptly named Clematis "Pistachio" and plan to save somewhere warm and sheltered for it one day.
It was impossible not to wonder at the carnival displays of orchids on the stand representing Nong Nooch Tropical Garden – the ranks of alliums, the spires of foxgloves and the opulence of the peonies – but digging deep there was plenty to fill the notebook with ideas that you could take away and try for real.
Expert advice is the next best thing to personal experience and Roger Muir regaled me with strawberry talk. My mouth watered as we stood in the perfumed orbit of his stand. I was looking for a good-flavoured perpetual fruiting variety to take over from "Sonata", which is one of the best for ripening early (at Chelsea time) and evenly.
I placed an order for "Monterey", a new variety from California that is available as runners in the autumn, but the best "everbearer" in his book was "Mara des Bois", an old variety that has the shelf-life of a day and used to be only available from Harrods. Crossed with an Alpine strawberry, but with fruit the size of an English strawberry, it crops from high summer and continues to the frost.
With my senses charged I was drawn to Downderry Lavender by simply following my nose. The stand was a confection and the bees had found their way there, too. I chose several lavandin for my windy hillside, where they have all the sun they need to ripen the wood and promote the essential oils for which they are famed. The early flowering L x intermedia "Sussex" sports the longest of all the flowers, whilst L x intermedia "Gros Bleu" is perhaps the darkest, but I liked the way the L x intermedia "Edelweiss" faded from white, occasional flowers, staining the spike with palest violet.
I was at the show on Sunday and was given a guided tour of the mints grown by Hooksgreen Herbs. I tried grapefruit mint – true to its name – and banana mint (only to be vexed by the perfume of an artificial banana milk shake), but my favourite by far was Swiss mint, with nose-clearing menthol. It made me want to set up a pot garden of mints that you could wander through, sampling, and I listed silver mint, ginger mint and lime mint to play with the thought.
Chelsea should be about the exchange of ideas and information and seeing something you had either forgotten or never encountered before. On this front, it was Crûg Farm Plants that was surely the star of the tent this year. Most of the plants I had never seen before, which is always refreshing, and though modest in size with a lack of obvious colour, the exhibit of curiosities turned heads. The distinct palette is there with good reason, for Sue and Bleddyn Wynn-Jones are nursery people in the great tradition of plant hunters, having collected all the plants themselves on their numerous adventures in Asia.
Though many were perfectly hardy, several of those on the stand were borderline tender. They would nevertheless make good London plants in a sheltered courtyard. Acer heptaphlebium from Vietnam, with curious brown undersides to the leaf, and Curculigo crassifolia, with its long pleated foliage that's as dramatic as any palm and happy in dry shade. Of the hardies, a Chinese selection of Pachysandra axillaris named "Crûg's Cover" sounds like it should be a staple for shady corners with flowers scented like Sarcococca, red berries and richly evergreen foliage.
If there was a zeitgeist this year, it was surely the ascendance of living walls, the clothing of roofs and the often-combined presence of growing-your-own produce. The B&Q Garden by Laurie Chetwood and Patrick Collins was represented by a 9m living wall of thymes, camomile and oregano and made the point that you don't have to have a conventional garden to produce food in a city. Giant trays of salad and herbs, fruit and vegetables made use of a difficult plot and, though it wasn't a garden of great beauty, you had to admire commitment to the theme.
More and more, I am wanting there to be a reason for the show gardens and find myself veering away from those that, as Diarmuid Gavin so aptly put it, were "afraid of having fun and driven by the search for gold". His Irish Sky Garden was the one for me that best represented what has happened to the show gardens in their dual quest for the media spotlight. He was brazen about the "show" in the show garden and made no apologies for bringing out the fairground in the event – and on that note, I think this garden was one of the most successful. It was bold and it will last in the memory. It was a clear idea, with an element of fantasy, and it was planted in muscular fashion with a wonderfully vivid palette of greens and a playful use of space and water.
Though I initially shied away from the visceral imagery of the British Heart Foundation garden by Ann-Marie Powell (above), her garden also refused to play by the rules and didn't pander to expectations. I was drawn in to a thoughtfully planted space. An undercurrent of green around dark water wrapped every surface with fern walls and woodland planting. Medicinal Salix and Digitalis and the contrast of wineberry and odd flash of peony were carefully integrated, and it was here that I saw Anemopsis californica (from Waterside Nursery) for the first time. A creamy flowered aquatic, perfumed with honey; it went straight into my notebook.
I could see why the Laurent-Perrier garden by Luciano Giubbilei (above) created a buzz of excitement. It was beautifully executed, with an exquisite kinetic pavilion by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. The powerful sculptures by Peter Randall-Page were well judged and I liked the water, too, with a water table issuing into a shimmering architectural stream. The planting was carefully thought through, with panels of Iris "Dutch Chocolate", Astrantia "Roma" and Anthriscus, but though I liked it, I couldn't help but feel that it was all a little too perfect. It didn't take risks or sweep you away somewhere, and isn't this what a good show garden should do?
The Daily Telegraph Garden by Cleve West (top) was the most "roomy" of the show gardens, and restful as West is not afraid of leaving space. Chelsea has a tendency for everything to be singing and dancing, and you often feel that there is simply too much of everything. But here there was ground left free, nice detailing in the stonework and boldness in the architecture. There was intimacy in the planting. Flowering parsnip dug from his allotment, white Camassia running up their stems, imperfect and going over, and bloody red Dianthus cruentus jumping out into the open and not afraid to stand on its own in the glare of the spotlight.
Read the article on The Observer website