For the armchair gardener, it’s been one of the big weeks of the year – the Chelsea Flower Show. I don’t usually count myself an armchair gardener as I do have an actual, real garden, but being trapped underneath a baby for much of the day is rather limiting my gardening time, so I have to take my pleasures where I can get them.
I have only been watching the Chelsea TV coverage for the last couple of years – I was barely aware that it existed at all before I owned a garden – but now the annual jollification with Titchmarsh, de Thame, celebrity guests et al has become a fixture of my summer, and yet I regard it with both fascination and horror.
I am not sure I could ever face going there in person; the thought of negotiating the crowds, the heat, the bustling Chelsea ladies with their Harrods shoppers, and of course the fact you can only admire the plants and buy nothing (apart from on the last day) is enough to deter me.
As I begin to understand more about the art of bringing a garden to fruition, and knowing there will be periods when certain spaces lie empty and bare (and some patches that never seem to grow anything, no matter what I try!), Chelsea’s show gardens where everything is perfectly in bloom at exactly the right time look ever more artificial.
The watchword at Chelsea this year seems to be wildlife-friendly planting – the more pollinating plants, the better, as supporting insect life sustains our declining songbird population, and planting for bee pollination in particular could be an essential tool to reverse the collapse in bee numbers.
Many gardens at Chelsea have adopted this ethos to beautiful effect, but transferring this to small city gardens is always going to be a challenge, especially if you only have one pair of hands for watering, weeding and thinning, rather than an army of gardeners.
When I first started gardening, I wanted to plant insect-friendly flowers, but many of the wild flowers I loved as a child turned out to be highly unsuitable for an urban garden. I have a field scabious and a red campion which have turned into triffids, flop over and completely swamp my flower bed every summer – whereas in a meadow they would presumably grow straight upright, supported by grasses.
Foxgloves also grow to monstrous sizes and only flower every other year, so I don’t get the pleasure of the flowers on their fallow years – and neither do the bees. I suppose I ought to dig up the scabious and campion, and plant something more suitable – but I love them too much to throw them away.
Foxgloves at least spread nicely and can be thinned out (and have even self-seeded themselves into the garden wall, to charming effect), so I can keep a few in selected places, but when it comes to insect-friendly planting, I will have to learn a little restraint in future, and pick out flowers which I know will fit into my beds without overwhelming them.
Now to settle down and watch the last hour of Chelsea coverage, and dream of a garden with enough space for a whole army of alliums, a gazebo, or some box-based topiary…and maybe one year I’ll be there, beating a path through the grannies with their Harrods totes. Maybe.