Friday 24 May 2013

Farewell to Planet Chelsea 2013

A cold, wet Friday, my last day at Chelsea 2013. Last year sunshine, warmth and Pimms; this year I travel in a woolly scarf and crave soup.  The visitors flock in as always. Raincoat sales rocket and Panama hat sales limp. The Pavilion is more crowded and the showground difficult to negotiate. The rain does not dampen the spirits of the visitors and it is certainly not a wet blanket on the Hillier Team. Several of the staging team turn their hand to manning and it becomes a bit of a reunion. We are happy to be together again, as Owen says “It’s nice to enjoy the garden we’ve made”.

Jamie turns up with a bottle of Pimms, buys Sprite, scrounges fruit and ice and sets about organising the lunchtime drinks party in the Sydney garden room. We savour the moment and vow to return to Planet Chelsea as a team next year; we will fill the void between somehow.
Some of the team adjourn to the exhibitors’ restaurant for something warm to eat and drink. We hurry through the freezing rain past Mehrdad in his sentry box warmed by a hair dryer on a high stool; innovative. The party resumes, but with tea instead of Pimms.
I take Jamie to the Australian garden; we explore and chat to Philip the designer. Then, the first of the farewells. We say goodbye to Philip and then Leanne; her last year at Chelsea; it can never be quite the same. Back on the Hillier exhibit a few last pictures with Jamie and Gillian. As ever I can’t bear to leave, but it’s definitely time to go.

A last look back: the brightly striped cushion, the soaring birches, the rain capes and above it all, the Monument.  I’ve had such a bond with this piece of granite for the last ten years; will we be on this spot next year, will that be for the last time, who knows? We never did have that conversation about next year’s layout, but now it’s too late.
I plunge into the crowds, the rain and the umbrellas, bid farewell to Mark and the Panama hats. I would love another, but I don’t need another, not this year anyway. The gravity of Planet Chelsea is still strong but it must get weaker, I have other worlds to explore; at least for now.

Chelsea 2013 has been extraordinary, one of our best exhibits, and one of our best Chelsea teams. I feel I’ve achieved my objective. No, not just our 68th consecutive Gold Medal; I know those involved feel that this is the best thing they've ever done. Also I think those that have visited feel that this is the best we have ever done. Mission accomplished. Farewell to Planet Chelsea 2013.

My thanks to everyone involved in ‘Risk’: Hillier at Chelsea 2013: you made the ordinary quite extraordinary!   

Wednesday 22 May 2013

On with the show.....Taking a risk at Chelsea 2013 paid off.

After the emotional wrench of Sunday when the staging team depart amidst hugs, tears and promises to do it all again exhaustion takes over for a few hours on Sunday evening. The exhibit looks fantastic. I always say it’s our best ever and this time I have no doubt. Pools, plants sculptures, buildings, seating, and of course plants all truly superb.

Monday dawns cool and grey. I get into the show with John around 8.30.Rick and the girls have been there since 7, preening, cleaning and finishing.  Press launch happens all too quickly: kisses, compliments and pictures. This is followed by the usual uncomfortable feast of fish and chips in the cool and breezy uncomfortable seating area outside the Pavilion: just another face of Chelsea.

A change of outfit in the shed and then is time for the Royals. I’m not going to list them because I nearly always get correct titles wrong. It is enough to say we were honoured with most including Her Majesty the Queen.  Amazing experience once again.

Then its Gala Evening. Our Beazley guests arrive promptly and I deliver an introduction to the exhibit. Lovely group keen to see Chelsea. We manage to escape briefly for a visit to the Australian Garden . In the amazing elevated tree house based on the flower of the Warratah I believe, Chelsea show feels a distance away. It feels like an out of body experience.


Back in the Pavilion the daylight has faded and the power of our lighting takes over. Paul has done an amazing job: the front glass and copper fountains are magical. This is an experience for a moment in time: my camera has run out of battery, I have to leave for dinner at The Ivy, but I won’t forget this picture.
Tuesday dawns and the phone starts to make noises. We’ve won our 68th Consecutive Gold Medal. Relief. Visitors flock on to the exhibit. Lots of compliments. The shirts are a sensation! Some serious enquiries and as ever some questions from the past. Recommended oak species for the foothills of the Himalayas? Why don’t we know the answer to that one? Interview with Alan Titchmarsh for the ending of our BBC piece which goes out that evening. I like the results when I see it later.

Then it’s back to Astons to load up our luggage. Rick comments that the British Army on the move in Afghanistan have less kit: by a long way  think. Back home unload luggage, put on washing, charge netbook, open post, cook pasta, pour a glass of wine: then I look out through the conservatory. I haven’t seen the garden for a week. It’s so vibrantly green. My tulips are at their tallest and fullest and have awaited my return: thank you.  The first alliums are sparkling above the border. This is a real garden; its different, quieter, less frantic. My other garden in London does it all in a week; this one paces itself and delivers throughout the year. I need to hold this vision in my mind when I finally tear myself away from Chelsea on Friday. This is the pain relief at the end of the show.

But then I still have three days to go of my Chelsea 2013. It’s like being half way through a holiday. You can’t bear it to end so you savour every day, telling yourself there is still time to indulge. Wednesday Beazley guests at The Royal Hospital and into the show. I hope the rain stays away from Planet Chelsea. 

Saturday 18 May 2013

Saturday @The_RHS Chelsea - More planting and finishing touches

Saturday always evapoates. I always think that we have loads of time to finish but Saturday somehow goes too quickly.  The last big day's staging involves filling in all those gaps that no-one wanted to do.  The plant selection gets thinner and it needs resource from the staging team to make it happen. They do a really brilliant job.
Here's my video blog for today for starters:
At teatime we get a visit from a photographer from The Sunday Express. He's after pictures of real live gnomes at Chelsea. At Hillier we like to make peoples dreams come true so we deliver real live gnomes for a photo call. He can't believe his luck. Neither can the camera crew filming for the Chelsea DVD so my gnomes skip through the exhibit followed by Papa Smurf Dorlay.
Graham Ross turns up from Beautiful Homes and Gardens, Australia TV and we do a piece for their show.  Must make sure my brother-in-law in Melbourne gets the heads up when its going out.

As the day draws into evening we seem well up together but there are still bits to finish off.
Tim has been taking pics all day: looks like some great ones.
Mark, Steve and Lucy have been labelling frantically. By 6p.m. we are up to 600 labels: I reckon there are probably another 200 to go.


Sunday already tomorrow. As ever I feel a twinge of regret. The best bit of Chelsea is nearly over for another year. But there's still tonight and its Eurovision night. All we need now is for Bonnie to take the title. Unlikely I fear but we can all dream.

Friday 17 May 2013

Friday:Handbags at Dawn

Well its been an amazing day. The wonderful glass and copper sculptures by Mehrdad Tafreshi are in place. They are superb; what more can I say?

Gary has been in getting in touch with his female side; I asked him to share his Chelsea experience.


I wish I could start this by telling you what day it is and how long i’ve been here but to be truthful the days began to merge a long time ago. All I can say is today is the day it all comes together. Lorry after lorry of plant material has been arriving, so finally we can begin to fill the voids between the epic trees we placed some days ago.

 Today is the day everyone begins to have their own little vision of what they want to create and will stop at nothing to pilfer the plant they so desire. Fragments  of the team begin to break away as you witness new  developing  parties  branching off into their own little sects. Once they have come together they reveal a look behind their eyes , a look of sheer determination.  They really will stop at nothing to get the prize plant they so desire. The whole episode of today takes plant hunting to another level, as we all rush to stock pile the best plants for our little Edens.

I must admit i have not lowered myself to theft at this stage although Sue does have a nice Uncinia that I have my eye on. I may have to send my compatriot Ben, into smuggle it away from her base later on once  the sun goes down.

Ben and myself have kept things small and detailed today focusing on the everglade type planting around our two gators. Word has it they are a bit too friendly looking to be scary monsters of the murky waters they were meant to be,  but this is Chelsea after all and how fitting that at the world’s biggest flower show, we have two gators who are so camp they look like they were born to be Gucci handbags!

Anyways  I am off to continue doing the masculine activity of titivating flowers, wish me luck.


Here’s my video blog for today:

Thursday 16 May 2013

@The_RHS Vandalism and Theft and Ben's Blog

Its Thursday afternoon and things are going well apart from the fact that we are running short of plants. Lots more tomorrow but there is a cetain amount of theft going on. As soon as you find the plant you are looking for someone comes and snatches it from under your nose. I suppose that's a risk you have tp ake at RHS Chelsea. 
There has been some vanmdalism though. I had just picked some lovely orange azalea 'Fireball' when Ricky came along and cut off all those long stems with just a few flowers on top. TThese were the eason I'd chosen them because I fancied seeing them sparking out of my ceanothus. Unforgiveable!
He's also stolen my solanums. Revenge.....
Anyway here's today's video blogs.

I've also asked Ben to share his thoughts with you. Knew you would like some sensible content!
Ben says:

It’s the Second day on the Chelsea site and things are really starting to take shape. The element of risk is beginning to manifest itself within the exhibition and I am starting to understand Andy’s vision. The Hillier team really know what they are doing so I’m trying to learn as much as possible from them. It’s amazing how fast time seem to be going, I must be having fun.

The plants look brilliant and considering how bad the season has been it must have required a lot of work selecting them and making sure that they are at the rite stage for the show. I must admit it is a little nerve racking when moving or squeezing past them.  I would hate to damage any of them considering how much work has gone into getting them to the stage they are at.   

We have had three lorry loads of plants delivered to us today from various Hillier sites. Unlike yesterdays deliveries of large trees and shrubs today’s plants generally have more colour and aren’t quite as big. I have found that their positioning seems to require more thought and tweaking, as I come from a Fine Art background I am finding this very enjoyable and satisfying.

Today I have mainly been working on one particular area of the exhibit with a more experienced member of the team. I have found this really beneficial as they have been very good at explaining what we are doing and why, I think the biggest challenge for me will be to remember all of these tricks and tips.          
               Anyway back to work as there’s plenty more to do and I am staring to feel a bit guilty sat down blogging while everyone else is working hard around me. So far this has been an excellent experience and I can’t wait to see how the exhibit develops over the next few days.   

Wednesday 15 May 2013

@The_RHS Chelsea - Wednesday Plants a plenty

Wednesday - First day for staging team on site. Polar conditions. I had to go over the the Lloyds Building in the heart of the city for a photo shoot with two lovely young ladies.
Chauffer driven over there by Mark in the Beazley S Class Mercedes - time to thaw out.  The girls were frozen but we warmed up with a few star jumps an managed to loo cheerful.
Great progress on site - ace team.
I asked Gillian to write a few words about the experience:

It is my very first day as part of the Hillier staging team reporting for duty at 8am bright-eyed and bushy tailed.  The rest of the team are slightly delayed in traffic so I have the chance to take in all the prep work that has gone beforehand.  I am in awe of the size of the trees – the tallest gracing the top of the pavilion:  wonderful structure and height, already softening the monument and the hard landscaping.  I also have the chance to talk to the build team about the Breeze blocks and rendering for the wall and put into action the theory learnt on my design course at The English Gardening School.  Hopefully, I am doing my lecturer proud.

The team arrives and I am immediately welcomed although I know that I will forget names or, worse still, rename some!  It is a sea of high-vis vests and the first of three lorries arrive.  The lorries are packed with trees and shrubs (more lorries to come tomorrow!).  It’s a high spirited atmosphere with wonderful camaraderie, friendly banter, gloves and secateurs at the ready.  All systems go as we unload the plants and try our best to site them where they may be needed later.  The word of the day and no doubt for many days to come is ‘turn’.  ‘Can you turn that Betula pendula just a bit?  No, no, the other way.  That’s it but just a little bit more.  Now move it out a bit. No, actually, move it back a little.’  There is no moaning.  No complaints.  We all understand that it has to be just right.  It’s like readjusting a crooked painting only it’s taking seven strong and fit men to move it.  This is the perfection; the standard that is set by the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and the Hillier team.

 I am sitting at a make shift table nearing the end of the day under the canopy of trees and the scent of the Syringa x josiflexa ‘Bellicent’ would be a perfumer’s delight.  The guys are working around me and the electrician wants to disconnect me so he can carry out tests.  They are also watering around me.  Water, electricity…hmm.  I know the theme is ‘Risk’ but do we really want to take it that far?  Actually, Health and Safety is paramount. 

I have learnt quite a few more plants names.  Retaining it will be the trick.  Andy McIndoe has been a gem with his design ideas.  They are pulling the chair out from under me.  Time to go.  Should sleep well tonight with a few aches and pains in the morning.

Here's Andy's video blog of the day:

Tuesday 14 May 2013

The Coldest Day in May- @The_RHS Chelsea Flower Show

It just shouldn’t be like this. Quite pleasant, if a little chilly first thing but a ghastly forecast. Snow in South West and torrential rain and gales in the South. Suddenly those suede loafers and summer trews seem less appealing, even if they are pink. Ian calls to tell me the photo shoot outside the Lloyds building is set or Wednesday lunchtime. Think I’ll be freezing in my Bent Banani shirt but can’t be any colder than when Lynn and i were doing those pictures for the Amateur Gardening container feature at Easter. Mind you, I do look blue in those!

Chris came down from Banbury in time for the team briefing at 9 this morning. He’s got the day to load up he minibus and get used to it before we meet to depart for London at 5.45 tomorrow morning.Nigel tweets with a pic of the Sui Generis pools in position. They look amazing! I’m a bit worried about the other end; will make decisions on this when I get there. 
Around 3 a.m. the Sydney building was in a cloud of lilacs and foxgloves with silver leaves and aquilegias; all very pretty but is it risky? Maybe. That was my challenge to the team this morning at our staging meeting: risky colour combinations. Think I’ll be the one that struggles; I always want to co-ordinate.
Another load of trees arrived this morning.  

By the time I arrive on site around lunchtime they’ve been unloaded and Owen and I have an energetic couple of hours getting some of them into position. I like to get a bit of a framework in place to clear the decks for three lorries of plants on Wednesday.
On site the team have got on really well. Brian and the lads from organicstone have the pathway grouted; it looks fantastic. We agree to move the bean stoneisland, it just looks a little awkward with the decking.  I feel this area needs to look sociable and cosy; as it is it all looks a little estranged. Brian inspects every detail and seems happy.
The chaps from M&M Timber have done brilliantly and are just finishing off the edging. Neil follows behind and covers it with black polythene to prevent the muddy boots  of the staging team damaging the paintwork. If they do then we have to repaint which we would all rather avoid.
Paul and Damien are getting on with the electrics. It's important to have all of the main cables in place before too many plants are on the exhibit. 
Owen and I crack on with getting some of the acers, birches and malus into position plus a couple of mega cercidiphyllums. Neil and Nigel help us with the bigger ones, or should I say we help them a little. Amazingly some of the carpinus are really quite dry. Owen gives them a good soaking.
Tom comes over and we discuss the position of his other sculpture, it’s a really nice piece and will look stunning with the pools. We half consider relocating “Monument”, but we decide it looks great with The Monument so it stays where it is. 
Owen forms a close relationship with the crocodiles; they are rather lovely but they do have lethal teeth and spines.  However these are nowhere near as vicious as the spines of our Monkey Puzzle which unfortunately falls over an lacerates Maria’s cheek. She’s working as always on the Kirstenbosch exhibit. We move the monkey puzzle to be on the safe side.  I certainly don’t want to put it into position anywhere here I’ve got to push past it!
Tomorrow will be a long heavy day; are you ready for it?

Monday 13 May 2013

Monday 13th May – Risky Progress! Hillier @The_RHS Chelsea Flower Show

Cool, grey and damp in Hampshire. This is often the weather we get in the run up to Chelsea.  Its funny, that’s never how I think of it. I suppose Chelsea is a bit like childhood holidays: you remember it as sunshine every day, not a cloud in the sky and never a problem.  I know Wes Fleming is excited – he’s tweeting well and the shot of their garden Nigel sent yesterday certainly looks impressive.  This of course is Wes’s last Chelsea; it must be true he said so. Think I’ve heard that somewhere before: I guess we are all a bit addicted!

Anyway the lads have made great progress over the weekend.  Looks like the trees have settled down after their journey to London and ordeal of being put into place.  They’ll enjoy the cool weather. We will too because it means slightly less watering: these are thirsty creatures. 

The team got excited on Saturday when my crocs turned up. No, not those shoes that no middle-aged man should ever be seen in, my African crocodile sculptures on loan from They really are quite magnificent.  I see them slinking through the gunneras, maybe with those twisted willows. I wonder who I’ll give that part of the exhibit to.  Pip suggested the crocs should be called Andy and Ricky. I asked which was which. She said the one with the nice legs was Ricky. Clearly beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I’m thinking she needs to spend time with these two.

 The M&M Timber team got the deck down and painted on Saturday – great job! Today they are putting up the building.  I’ve had it painted lavender; looks a bit darker than I imagined.  That’s one thing that you never really get used to; the light in the Pavilion plays tricks!

Steve and Luke have really cracked on laying the walkway through the exhibit. The organicstone paving looks simply amazing. They’ve already got the ‘Bean’ in place too. That’s what I like – decisiveness. I might have messed around for ages deciding on the angle; but now its down I know it will work.

I did have a bit of a sleepless night last night. I got rather cold feet over the colour I requested for the Sui Generis water features.  I want to do my best for these guys and I want the Aqua Corona pools to look awesome.  I also want the colour to work with Mehrdad’s crystal fountains. Anyway they are now on site and from the picture they look fabulous!

Of course they also have to work with Tom Stogdon’s towering sculpture ‘Monument’. They got this into position over the weekend and Tom sounded happy with where I’ve sited it.  I think we may have to raise it on a plinth so that it doesn’t get lost into the planting, but I’ll worry about that tomorrow.
Back at base Sue is packing up Tea, coffee, cakes and biscuits galore! That reminds me, I still need to buy the beer. Bent Banani have had a mega weekend on shirt sales; undoubtedly the model that’s made the difference. What do you mean who is it?

So far, so good. I’m not intending to head to the show today, however it’s hard to stay in the office. The gravity of Planet Chelsea is strong and maybe, just maybe I’ll be on a train to London very soon.

Saturday 11 May 2013

First day on site for Hillier @The_RHS Chelsea Flower Show The Arrival of the Treebeard and the Ents

A cool grey morning and a few spots of rain. My first thoughts are for the plane trees at showground. At least they will not be shedding that confounded choking dust that instils a feeling of impending pneumonia on arrival.  Sad news as I am driving to the station: Olympian Andrew “Bart” Simpson has been killed in a sailing accident in San Francisco bay. I first met Andrew in Cascais when I went out to Portugal; to meet The British Sailing Team at the beginning of the Skandia Sail for Gold Chelsea project just before the Beijing Olympics. He was such a nice guy and a great sailor and a wonderful host during my stay in Cascais and again in Weymouth. Have followed his progress ever since. Tragic.
My thoughts heading for London on the train turn to the big trees arriving later today.  I know the guys are on site: Nigel tweeted about covering the site with black polythene: the first job before we mark out the plan an start construction.  The BBC are due to film the arrival of the trees. My concern: I hope they fit. Rick and I have picked some monumental multi-stemmed birches. I normally go for more variety, this year I’m going for repetition.   I they work they’ll look phenomenal; if they are too tall for the Pavilion..............I’m not sure. 

We also picked one very big Cedrus deodara ‘Aurea’. It’s very wide and I’ve planned to use it near to the embankment end of the exhibit. Will it be too heavy and yellow with my crystal fountains?
Maybe I should explain: at the centre of each of the Aqua Corona pools by fibreglass moulding specialists Sui Generis are sculptures in glass an copper by Mehrdad Tafreshi of Quist. These are just being made and they are in my imagination and Mehrdad’s; are they the same?  I see them as fallen or inverted chandeliers in pink crystal: something between Doctor Who and Phantom of the Opera. I wonder how he sees them?
In my imagination they demand silver foliage, sapphire ceanothus and soft pink rhododendrons. But is that too safe? This is supposed to be risky after all!
By the time I arrive on site around 11a.m Steve and Luke are with Brian laying out the paving for the pathway. The plan is already marked out: the building looks like a big space. I hope that I’ve left enough room for the planting. The lorry with the trees is in the Pavilion – a very big artic. With very big trees. Help! There is a cameraman and sound man from the BBC waiting to capture the moment.
The sheets are soon off the lorry. Two of the multi-stemmed birches are the first to come off; they are enormous. It’s certainly nerve racking watching Neil lift the rootball with Ben adjusting the straps as necessary an directing from the lorry. Nigel is on the top of the load lifting and pushing the head of the tree to release it from those that lie beneath. We gradually get the tree to the ground and then it takes all of us to “walk” it upright. It reaches to within a few centimetres of the roof of the Great Pavilion; it’s close! We’ve made some makeshift ramps with sand and timber to help the forklift to make the move across the monument plinth. Neil and Nigel are confident; I’m optimistic but can’t help envisaging one of these Ents crashing down and taking the Monument with it. 
Gradually all the trees are coaxed into position. I try to balance the colour and form through the picture. I know if I get this stage right its easier as we work down though the layers.  It’s really important not to have any voids in the upper canopy, or areas where the foliage is just too heavy.  I have to say that our trees have a lot more foliage than most in the showground.

By the end of the day the trees are in position and watered, the path is progressing well. We discuss the levels of the pools and adjust the position of the building. Good progress. 

The boys have set up their camp on site complete with fridge, kettle, mugs and chairs. It has a homely feeling and seems strangely familiar. Have we ever left or is this a continuation of last year. As I head out of the Pavilion I take in the comforting chaos of the outside gardens and the embryo trade stands. Everyone has that focused confusion that I recognise as the key to evolution of this extraordinary place. The dread of Chelsea on the horizon has evaporated; it feels good to be back home on Planet Chelsea!

Thursday 9 May 2013

@The_RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2013 – A day in the life of the staging team

Friday 10th May is our first day on site at RHS Chelsea 2013. We arrive to an almost empty Pavilion with the Monument in the centre.  That’s our home for the next couple of weeks.  Ricky and I have selected our trees for the show and the big ones arrive on that first day; when I say big, I mean big.  The multi-stemmed Betula pendula are extremely tall, by the time those of you that are staging the exhibit arrive on site you’ll know if they fit or not! We are told that the BBC will be on site to film the arrival of the trees.  I hope they look impressive and all goes according to plan.

Next Tuesday – 14th May is our Staging Team Briefing, for those team members that can make it. I’ll tell you how things are going, what to expect and answer any of your questions before we arrive on site the following day, or on the Thursday. You’ll get your passes, high viz jackets, Showa gloves and details of where we are staying just off the Gloucester Road in the apartments we’ve used for the past few years. We’ll load up the minibus with essential supplies, such as the beer and wine for the bar in my room for pre-dinner drinks, and Sue’s tool kit ready for the following day.

The following morning Chris Wilde from Banbury garden centre (it’s his first year as part of the staging team) will meet those of us travelling from Hampshire at Ampfield house at 5.45 a.m. ready to head off for London. We want to be on site at 8 a.m. if possible ready to meet the first lorry delivering our plants.  On site we’ll meet Nigel and Neil, Steve and Luke will have finished by then and will have headed back to Hampshire.  We’ll also meet Jamie from Wakefield, Gillian from the Chelsea Physic Garden and Owen from London who are joining the team in London. 

The first day is all about unloading the first three lorries of plants, watering, untying and preening the plants. We also want to get as many of the larger plants into position as possible. To make space for another three lorries of plants and more of the staging team the following day.  No, that’s not it.  There will still be three lorries of plants on Friday and two on Saturday.  
There is catering on site and we’ll use this for lunch and breaks on the Wednesday, but we will have a tea station up and running on the exhibit on the Thursday. On the first day we’ll work ‘til around 6 and then head to the apartments to check in: showers, drinks and then out to eat.  Nigel and Neil will have booked somewhere for us to eat that evening.  We do something similar each evening – meet for drinks in my room and then we book a restaurant for everyone; nothing smart but good food and good fun.

Our daily regime is meet at 7a.m. – head off to the cafĂ©. Not saying which one on here; we don’t want too many others to join us! Arrive at the show at 8a.m. Break for lunch around 12.30 - work until 6 or later if necessary. 

During the first day you will find there is a bit of standing around for some of you until we really get into the staging routine.   From Thursday we start to split up into smaller staging teams working on specific areas of the exhibit.  I’ll give you a brief. Tell you what I’m looking for in terms of a colour theme and then I’ll help to get you started. You’ll find your creativity develops as we go along and we all get inspired by the plants.

However it’s not all about painting with plants there’s lots of heavier prep work to do: cleaning up, closing up the plants as they thin out, breaking down Danish trollies, lugging bales of bark.  Believe me, no job is more important on the exhibit than any other – all tasks are part of the creation of the Hillier exhibit; never think that a menial task is unimportant!