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Pursuits | By ​David Wheeler | May 2016

Heucheras on parade at Chelsea

Let the shows begin, says David Wheeler

How can a gardener hope to keep up with May? There’s much to do and even more to enjoy. Seldom in my experience, at least in the milder parts of the country, do Shakespeare’s ‘rough winds’ shake the month’s ‘darling buds’, bringing instead a gentle shower of scent and colour in four short glorious weeks. Lapses do, however, occur. The phrase ‘Chelsea Flower Show weather’ is a familiar downer in this household, recalling gales, heavy rain and muddy turf occasionally endured at London’s premier horticultural event (24th–28th May this year).

I don’t always ‘do’ Chelsea, preferring in some years to seek out provincial shows with the advantage then of acquainting myself with local and often smaller nurseries whose budgets prohibit the taking of expensive stalls at the big urban affairs. The Malvern Spring and Autumn Shows (5th–8th May and 24th–25th September 2016) bring together exhibitors mostly unknown to London and Home Counties gardeners and, like the Hampton Court Flower Show (5th–10th July), you can shop tirelessly in more spacious surroundings with on-site car parking facilities. The Malvern shows also profit from their location: set in glorious orchard-rich rural Worcestershire, just outside the town itself, it is possible with little effort to imagine its great whaleback chain of nearby hills echoing to the sound of Elgar’s best music.

Having never worked behind the scenes in the nursery business, I’m a stranger to those mysteries of plant husbandry that lead to the synchronised display of unlikely (unseasonal) floral partnerships. How, under the roof of one marquee in May, is it possible to delight in the juxtapositioning of January’s snowdrops and the roses and delphiniums which, in Britain, belong to later months? I don’t need to know the intricate workings of such magic; it’s enough to revel in the results. And with the use of camera and notebook I rush to record the names of desirable plants to add to that Wants List that all gardeners carry in their pockets or their heads. Increasingly at such shows, too, there are stalls selling all kinds of horti sundries and domestic bric-a-brac as well as fresh regional food – much of it to be relished repeatedly if the producer/vendor operates a mail-order service. Hope for good weather and go for the whole day.

Apart from the straightforward business of buying plants, bulbs or seeds at these events, there is the possibility of seeing new plants and new plant associations. Which of us has not come away from some such show with his mind juggling potentially costly neoteric ideas? I love having my long-held prejudices swept away, having perhaps fallen in love with familiar plants hitherto ignored or long ago abandoned. Danger comes when you are totally smitten by things new, triggering a complete makeover of the home patch. It’s not unknown. After visiting some gardening mêlées I have in the past dug up and given away barrowloads of long-established plants in favour of parvenus.

My fascination with sombre-coloured pelargoniums emanates from such encounters, as does my recent intoxication with hydrangeas – midsummer and autumn-flowering shrubs destined I’d say for a huge popular renaissance. Both the Savill Garden in Windsor Great Park and the Subtropical Gardens at Abbotsbury in Dorset are currently running hydrangea trials in advance of a major trial to be held at the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Wisley a couple of years hence.

What, then, will steal my heart this year? In courtship right now with fragrant lilacs, old-fashioned sweet peas, heritage roses and autumn crocuses, it won’t take much to throw me over the edge.

This story was from May 2016 issue. Subscribe Now