Saturday 27 April 2013

@The_RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2013 - Hillier Team Briefing - Risk!

Over the past few years I have shared my thoughts and experiences in the build up to Chelsea Flower Show through this blog. This year I thought I would include you all as members of the Hillier Team; your support, interest and commitment to the Show are so important to our success, whether you are staging plants, organising transport, building the foundations, taking the pictures, labelling, visiting the show, following on the internet or any one of the many other tasks involved in making it happen. Yes, there are key players in the team, but none of it can come together or be worthwhile without all of you.

The team that actually builds the Hillier exhibit comes together from all over: from different parts of the Hiilier Nurseries and Garden Centres, from the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, from gardening and the horticultural world at large. Few of us normally work together, some of us haven’t ever met before when we arrive on site. Some have this Chelsea experience only once in their lives; some come back for more.  

Personally I have been responsible for the exhibit for 20 something years; before that I visited the show and sometimes manned the exhibit in show week.  My objective has always been to create a garden exhibit which visitors can relate to; one that will inspire but one which gives ideas that gardeners could create in their own gardens.  The story is new each year, but the palette of plants is similar. That is the challenge: create a new look out of the same ingredients. So far we have always succeeded.
Many believe that my primary concern is the Gold Medal. Yes, it’s important. Last year was our 67th consecutive Gold Medal and we currently hold the Guinness World Record for the most consecutive Gold Medals at Chelsea Flower Show. Maybe we’ll add to that total this year, but that depends on the plants and what we do with them.  It also depends on whether the judges like what we do. It’s my design and choice of how it looks. I hope I get it right for all of us. My two objectives and main concerns every year are firstly getting the job done; believe me that’s a challenge in itself.  Secondly, and most importantly I want everyone involved to feel that this is the best thing they’ve ever done and an experience to remember.
The theme is Risk! Our partners are Beazley, specialist Lloyd’s insurers. I won’t bother to tell you more about the concept: If you haven’t done so already read this:  

Those of you working on the exhibit will find yourselves doing all sorts of tasks: unloading, watering, lifting, tidying, staging, sweeping, painting: some tasks may be wildly creative; many won’t.  It’s a team effort and we all do a bit of everything. You will never be expected to do anything beyond your capabilities. 

I impress on everyone at the outset: Don’t attempt to lift anything on your own that’s too heavy.  Many of the plants are a two or three man lift and there are about 3,500 of them. It’s not a race; take your time.  Safety is paramount. Accidents cost time and trouble and can ruin anyone’s Chelsea experience so let’s stay safe.
Space is limited around the exhibit. Unload and set down plants carefully and sensibly, taking care not to cause any damage to our stock or neighbouring exhibitors’ plants.  We don’t want any of our big, heavy, bony shrubs to be the demise of a vase of tulips or a delicate little alpine.
There will be a fair bit of standing around for those of you joining at the outset. There’s no planting plan and I may need a bit of thinking time! Many of the shrubs and trees are tied up to avoid damage. Untie them and cut off any damaged branches or broken leaves that you see.  Wear gloves and look after your secateurs: I admit I have a habit of borrowing them.

If the weather is warm and dry it can be very dusty in the Pavilion. This is caused partly by the ground, partly by the shrubs, but most of all by the irritating fallout from the Plane Trees.  If you suffer from hay fever, asthma or any other respiratory conditions I recommend you wear a dust mask.  We will provide these but you may prefer to bring your own.
Right the way through staging you must wear High-vis waistcoats; we supply these rather fetching garments.  You must wear safety footwear. This isn’t an RHS requirement by the weekend, but I insist that you wear it on the Hillier exhibit.

This all sounds very dreary and I bet some will be wondering what they are coming to. Those of you looking on may be a bit surprised: but that’s the whole point, I want to take you with us behind the scenes..............

Tim - with the only plant he's ever lifted - typical photographer - a moment worth capturing! 

Tuesday 16 April 2013

@The_RHS Chelsea - Slow Progress

There seems to be rather a long gap between my Chelsea blog posts this year; perhaps that’s because everything has been moving rather slowly.  There are now only five weeks until the show; that is more than a little worrying.  I know exhibitors always say that, but the cold weather and low light means that plants are generally way behind.  In the gardens the forsythia is just about blooming and here in Hampshire Magnolias are opening their glorious spring flowers. Does that mean more frosts and high winds to come?

Sorry to be pessimistic, but this has been such an appalling season so far it is quite hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

I had a look around the Chelsea show plants at the end of last week with Ricky. Outside the conditions were Polar, in the glass they were little better.  By now we usually have quite a lot of the plants in cold storage.  This year Ricky has taken the cherries out of the cold store to try and get the buds to move. Cornus, the flowering dogwoods are some of our star plants.  Last year they hardy produced any flowers and were sadly missed.  This year they are loaded with buds but they have a long way to go if we are going to show them.

The Japanese maples are unfurling slowly and surely. Now, they could be very good because they are coming into leaf slowly rather than producing masses of soft foliage due to higher temperatures.  The risk is that we will suddenly get those high temperatures and they’ll move apace.  Of course they then demand very regular watering, maybe three times a day.  They will also need shading to avoid scorch under glass.

Likewise the foliage dogwoods, including my favourite Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ look good, if further behind than usual. Cornus ‘Hedgerows Gold’ is barely shooting and this is normally in full leaf by now.  But then I’m still enjoying the winter stems of Cornus ‘Midwinter Fire’ in my garden, whereas normally they would be employed as pea sticks by this time.

Hostas are shooting promisingly, but the ferns are remaining tightly curled up in brown, scaly mounds on the compost surface.  We do rely on these plants to lighten and soften our shade planting so hopefully they will get a move on soon.

So what about the colour? The rhododendrons and azaleas look great but the buds are showing little sign of colour. That may be a good thing. Although they can be cold stored for several weeks they age quickly when we bring them out from the cold.  If we can take as many as possible from the nursery straight to the show the flowers will last in better condition for the duration.

The roses need warmth and some sunshine. We have been in this position before, but we have not always had great roses.  One of our best years was the year we did the canal right up to the monument. We filled the beds on each side of it with roses taken straight from the nursery beds.  It must have been a warm spring.  I remember it very clearly because Margaret Thatcher visited the show on the Monday.  I remember her standing at the head of the canal framed by vintage roses and the trimmed hornbeams.

That was one of our finest Chelsea exhibits; we won the Lawrence medal for it. Next year it’s our 150th birthday – I’m tempted to recreate the canal exhibit at Chelsea to celebrate. Best not to think about that right now – I’ve got Chelsea 2013 to get through first.