Wind, rain and drought shall not wither Hampton Court flower festival
Every horticulturist dreams of achieving a gold medal from the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) and 51 have done so at the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show this week.
But I wish the other 547 exhibitors had got one as well for their courage and commitment in beating some of the worst growing conditions in British history.
The hottest and driest spring since 1893, followed by gales and the coldest, wettest June since records began, not only wrought havoc with plants and trees (including the loss of half this year’s expected English apple harvest), but also hit sales at garden centres and retail nurseries.
But you would never guess such traumas lie behind this year’s show. It looks as wonderful as ever, with blooms of breathtaking beauty to see, exquisite scents to smell and the soothing murmur of water to hear.
In fact, visitors will find the bad weather has done them an unexpected favour by preventing several species from flowering until now.
As one grower explained, plants that in the previous 22 shows would have been in full bloom are now only just coming into bud.
So they still have a long season ahead and now is an ideal time to buy from the multiplicity of exhibitors displaying their wares.
There are 39 breathtaking gardens on display, most of which have cost between £12,000 and £200,000 to create, according to size.
But a welcome new feature this year is the Low Cost, High Impact category, showing what can be achieved within tight budgets.
My favourite was Our First Home, Our First Garden. Designed by Nilufer Danis for a young couple in a new home, with only £7,000 to spend, it won a gold medal.
Another new category is World of Gardens, which gives visitors wonderfully scenic glimpses of Switzerland, the Azores, Jordan and Russia.
The Jordanian one, displaying several of the 2,500 plant species native to that country, was awarded gold. The other three achieved silver-gilt.
In the Summer Garden section, Jayne Thomas, of Thames Ditton, won silver for her eyecatching “celebration and jubilation” garden, planted in red, white and blue in honour of the royal jubilee.
Meanwhile, in the floral marquee, Squires Garden Centres of Long Ditton and Twickenham, a family business founded 75 years ago, got silver-gilt for its Natural Tranquillity Garden. Designed by Ian Hammond, plant manager at Squires’ Twickenham base, it is planted in shades of white, chosen to give a long flowering season and soothing atmosphere.
In recent years the show has used horticulture to illustrate social conditions and dramatic events. A prime example is A Riot of Colour, a special feature by The Edible Bus Stop, which describes itself as a “guerrilla community” group that turns brutal grey townscapes into pleasant green places.
Their scene illustrates the after effects of the 2011 London riots. A wrecked taxi and phone box have been reclaimed by nature, a graffiti daubed wall has been veiled by wild greenery and the street is gradually emerging from urban vandalism.
The same aim lies behind the show’s centrepiece, Urban Oasis, where a series of eight settings show how community gardening can turn the starkest and most deprived areas into green havens for everyone to enjoy.
The horror of the bombing at Edgware station in 2005, which killed six passengers, inspired Matthew Childs’ Light at the End of the Tunnel, which not only won gold, but was judged the best exhibit in the Conceptual Garden category.
Matthew was badly injured in the outrage, and his design – visitors enter through a rough concrete wall into a dark tunnel, eventually emerging into a beautiful garden – symbolises his journey from trauma to recovery.
I have attended this show since its birth in 1990 and each year it gives me ecstasy and agony in equal measure. The ecstasy comes while I’m there, revelling in the beauty and ideas it offers.
The agony comes later, struggling for words that do justice to what has become the biggest show of its kind in the world and grieving that a day is not nearly enough to see everything. Nor would there be enough space to write about it if there was So I only make brief mention of the Great Taste and Artisan Food marquee, where you’ll find a feast of specialists (and samples) offering delicacies ranging from cheeses and exotic cakes to rare oils and spices.
I was specially taken with Giggly Pig, the company started by Tracy Mackness to produce organic sausages from the free range saddlebag pigs she breeds herself. She makes 65 varieties of which I bought three. The rest I can buy at Surbiton farmers’ market, where she has a stall every third Saturday.
In the Growing for Taste marquee, Blackmoor Nurseries was on display even though their 75 intended show plants had just been stolen, so it was good to see their courage rewarded with silver gilt for a fine display of soft fruit trees and bushes. But the star turn is the Garlic Farm, which won its eighth consecutive gold in this show, and whose stunning exhibit was judged the best in this section.
Meanwhile florists and rose nurseries have created a banquet for the senses in the Romance and Roses pavilion, where magnificent blooms with exquisite scents are displayed in a setting inspired by Pre-Raphaelite art, sculpture and poetry, and great lovers such as Romeo and Juliet.
q The show continues until 5.30pm on Sunday, and each full paying adult can bring two children aged 16 and under free of charge. Tickets can be bought at the gate or by calling 0844 338 7505.