The public isn’t even let in until Tuesday but the “sold out” signs are up already. If your heart cries out for streams of individually hand-washed pebbles, orange trees with each fruit in its own little shower cap to be whipped off just before the judges arrive, or a silky lawn weeded with eyebrow tweezers, and you haven’t already got your ticket for the Chelsea flower show, then bad luck. Your only hope is to lurk around the railings until a sinister figure in print dress, straw hat and pearl earrings shuffles up to offer you black market tickets – about 10 times the £47 face value might be a good starting point.
All 157,000 tickets sold out months ago, in 16 days, a record. The Royal Horticultural Society is warning the public to beware of touts and of forged tickets.
The RHS also notes that visitor records are being broken at all its gardens, and 19,000 people have joined the society in the past three months. “I believe this increased interest can largely be attributed to a desire to get back to the simpler pleasures in life and also to benefit from the huge trend to grow your own food,” Sue Bigg, director general of the RHS, said.
On Monday the judges and the royals arrive: the Queen is definitely coming, and the romantics among the show staff hope William and Kate will too, to inspect the new rose named in their honour. That’s also the evening for the guests of the corporate sponsors, and some fevered networking over the champagne and Pimms.
Times may be hard, but the sponsors of show gardens – at least £250,000, – include Laurent Perrier, the Royal Bank of Canada, M&G Investments, and the principality of Monaco.
Yesterday, however, was the day for broken fingernails and bad language, and venomous sideways glances at competitors doing the final delicate planting from those still sweating with lump hammers and angle grinders. Hi-visibility jackets are compulsory: there was a nasty near-collision on a corner between two fork lift trucks, one carrying a 15 foot bronze mermaid, the other 40 rolls of turf.
Planning began a year ago, as soon as the last show closed. Since then the weather has almost broken the gardeners’ hearts. “I’ve had to make it up as we go along,” Ray Drew, designer of the Alpine Gardening Society entry, said. His garden is called Between A Rock and A Damp Place – but there hasn’t been a damp place in the south-east in months of drought. “We had the worst winter anyone can remember, and then no spring, straight into hot summer weather. Many of the plants I wanted to use have flowered and gone over weeks ago – but then I’ve been able to fill some gaps with plants that shouldn’t be ready for another month,” Drew said.
Big is big at Chelsea this year: the Laurent Perrier garden has giant sculpted boulders by Peter Randall Page, and Leeds city council brought a half-size stone mill with a real, turning water wheel. Anne Marie Powell’s garden for the British Heart Foundation has huge red acrylic stepping stones, which look alarmingly like pools of clotting blood, and Tom Hoblyn’s Cornish garden has 13 one-tonne slabs of granite.
And then there’s Diarmuid Gavin. The ebullient Irishman has been missing from the show for three years, and at first glance his garden looks worryingly as if he’s grown up: no giant pink plastic balls, just 40 shades of green for the Irish tourist board, and a lozenge shaped pink pavilion. But a surprise awaits.
“You couldn’t do Chelsea every year, it would do your head in,” he said. “And there’s no point in coming here unless you’ve got something new to say.”
The entire pavilion, complete with elegant garden benches with safety straps for eight passengers, and a 22-metre by 10-metre Irish tricolour flag is designed to be lifted 25 metres into the air on the end of a giant crane. “It flies!” he chortled, from under the upside-down lawn inside the roof. “It is the world’s first flying garden!”