London’s Chelsea Flower Show 2013

Like last year, I was lucky to have a sneak peek at the 2013 Chelsea Flower Show on Press Day.

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It’s brilliant to be able to avoid the crowds, especially for this year’s 100 year anniversary show – sold out, of course!

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I never know which way to walk first since it’s such a huge area to explore, but this year I found myself heading toward a grassy patch with intriguing small huts, which I found out were “artisan retreats” filled with artists like Cath Kidston, the London College of Fashion and more.

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Drawn to bright blue colours, I headed inside the first hut, delighted to find myself face to face with paper cutout artist Rob Ryan! We had a little chat, he showed me his new kneeling chair which looks something similar to this and said he’d be happy to do an interview for LLO. Looking forward to that!

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The hut next to Rob’s was Pippa Small’s artistic home for the weekend. What a bright and happy place! I felt uplifted as soon as I walked inside.

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Pippa had run off, but I spent quite a while sitting on the floor chatting with her beautiful sister  decorative artist Alexandra Small Simondetti about art and travel and life. She was absolutely lovely and happened to be the one in charge of much of the interior design I was so drawn to.

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Our chat was my favourite part of the whole day. She is one of those people who make you feel comfortable in their presence and has plenty of interesting stories to tell. I would have stayed all day if I could.

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She decorates Pippa’s shops and was telling me about the tree at the back wall of this hut. It’s made with real leaves from different trees to represent diversity and how we all grow together, the same. She has a Magnolia tree outside of her window at home and chose to paint those flowers for the tree here. 

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Anyway, she said she hasn’t been as active with her art lately as she’s been spending time with her twins, but I’m hoping to interview her as well.

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I popped in to a few of the other huts. Cath Kidston has a lawnmower with flowers painted across the strip of cut grass.

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The London College of Fashion had a display about natural dyeing of clothing with some examples of students’ work. There were a few others as well.

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And then I carried on to see some flowers.

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It’s fun to go on press day as a blogger with my new little Lumix camera and tiny pancake lens and see some of the folks from the BBC, Guardian and other big media outlets working hard with all of their equipment, lugging around cameras, lights and tripods. They get more polished shots, of course, but it looks like quite a big production!

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Outdoors were all the big gardens like the East Village garden by Michael Balston and Marie-Louise Agius who I just interviewed which won a gold medal – woohoo! But there were many others as well.

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I have to point out that while the bigger media outlets seem to be making a bit of a fuss over the fact that Chelsea lifted the ban on gnomes this year I only saw one or two. They were barely noticeable, unless they were hiding from me. Here’s some gnome cane tops…better than a poke in the eye – as I guess most things are.

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 Some of the gardens had little treehouse buildings or small sheds.

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Love these right red trees!

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I took over 800 photos yesterday so it was hard to narrow it down to the ones in this entry!

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One of the most fascinating things about going to Chelsea Flower Show is the people. I spotted a few like Joanna Lumley, who turned heads for obvious reasons, but it’s a great place to people watch generally.

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I thought it might be fun to compile a little list of things I overhead while walking around. I will quote them between photos. Read with a posh accent. (Note, they are random and don’t correlate with the people in the images!)

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“Lydia dear, my what a lovely dress! Simply gorgeous.”

P1010579_2A flower hat and dress made with seeds, Lucy Ellis’ outfit is inspired by Van Gogh

“Darling, we must find one of these for Charlotte’s birthday dinner.”

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“I was going to wear my orchid earrings but they didn’t quite go with these shoes.”

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“You like white flowers, don’t you dear?” “Oh yes, but I’ve worked in hospitals too many year to know never to put red and white together. That means death.”

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“I do hope we win a blasted gold medal this year.”

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“Yes, yes, everything here is gorgeous and interesting and wonderful. That goes without saying.”

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“Oh no, no. This combination is simply dreadful, don’t you agree?”

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“Hyacinths smell a bit like, well, sick, don’t they dear?” “I disagree. I find them pleasant. I quite enjoy their scent.”

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“Look out Dad! I’m having a photo taken of my shoes!”

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“It was appalling the way they judged her last year. She clearly deserved gold.”

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“Excuse me. Would you mind taking your dirty boots off of this grass, Sir?”

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“The successful people in banking often attend our afternoon gala.”

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“If it’s bad news, you let your agent do the dirty work, right?”

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Okay, back to the flower displays!

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At some point, I wandered into the main tent which hits you with its sweet smell mixed with various types of potting soil and fertiliser.

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Many of the displays had themes. Like tea.

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And apparently teapots used to be given as prizes for major flower shows! The sign in the display below says, “A hundred years ago, a copper kettle would have traditionally been awarded to the winning auriculas at all major shows. These antique kettles are the type that would have been won by a happy exhibitor.”

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The whole place was a mass of bright colour.

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I found some more pretty red trees.

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Some interestingly phallic carnivorous plants.

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And more.

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Beautiful bright orange tulips.

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Some dreamy colour combinations.

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An exhibition booth showing the more scientific side of garden design.

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Lots of bright, exotic tropical plants.

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Others that we have in our kitchen window at home.

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Even some hanging from the ceiling.

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Wandering around, I started to daydream about those adult things like houses with gardens that I’ll probably never have while I’m still in London.

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But it’s nice to pretend.

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Even the simple green leafy plants were looking beautiful and lush.

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And there were strawberries growing from boots while reminded me of childhood Summers in New York when we picked them from our garden.

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Can’t you just taste these? How tempting was it to snitch one from the plate… but I behaved.

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The strawberries definitely made me wish for sun and picnics and garden parties and sundresses.

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There was a book garden.

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A pretty English rose garden with arched stone windows.

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One with 50,000 (!) imported orchids from Thailand.

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There was a garden that focused on recycling, planting in old oil containers and using whiskey crates to carry veggies.

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There was a bike parked outside.

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Here’s that blue again, like Rob Ryan’s hut!

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And the contrast of simple while flowers.

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More of that vibrant orange hue.

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A popular colour, much like Spring/Summer fashion this year.

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Spotted a bunch of bright orange bags being carried around as well, with mysterious contents. Mysterious only because I didn’t have one…

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There were lovely bright pinks too. 

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The size of some of the flowers alone was incredible.

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Alongside all of this colour, there was a big focus on green space too.

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There were sculptures and garden art galore.

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Some of the art was made with nature itself.

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Wouldn’t it be nice to lounge on a nice slice of perfect grass under a bright sun with a good book?

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Or sit in a green haven with a cup of steaming tea?

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Of course, along with all of this garden design and nod to nature, there is shopping. The essentials. Seeds.

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Gloves.

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Signs.

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Carousel rocking horses? (I like these as I come from North Tonawanda – the “Home of the Carousel“!”

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And, last but certainly not least, what is all this British gardening without the Hunter wellies!?

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I have about 750 more photos but I figured your scrolling finger would be tired by now.

So who’s going to Chelsea? Who’s been already? What did you think? Did you see any of those pesky gnomes wandering about? 

London Art Spot: Marie-Louise Agius

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Marie-Louise has a challenging task at hand: She’s designing a garden for one of the biggest London events of the year: The Chelsea Flower Show. This year is the show’s 100th anniversary, so all eyes are on Chelsea with big expectations for the centenary. With her partner in design at Balston Agius, Michael Balston, she’s working to represent London’s newest neighbourhood in E20, the East Village in garden form.

Read on to hear from Marie Louise on what it’s like to design your first garden at Chelsea, a special feature in her garden that’s pretty rare to find without connections like hers (she’s the Director and Trustee of Exbury Gardens) and of course, her best food and drink recommendations in this fabulous city.

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LLO: Tell us a bit about yourself and your background in garden design.
M-LA: I trained in garden design post university and immediately found myself a round peg in a round hole, I loved it. Looking back on it, given my family links in the horticultural world, with my great-grandfather (mother’s side) building Exbury Gardens and sponsoring some of the great plant hunters to bring back seed at the turn of the last century, and with my father’s passion for plants and gardening, it was probably a destiny that was greater than any one decision!

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LLO: East Village, London’s newest neighbourhood, is sponsoring you and Michael Balston to create a garden for this year’s Chelsea Flower show. Give us a short summary of their brief.
M-LA: We wanted to capture the ethos of the East Village, the ‘design for living’ theme that Delancey has for combining good architecture with great external spaces. It was also important to reflect the history of Stratford and the Lea Valley where the East Village is located.

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LLO: I hear this is your first time exhibiting at Chelsea? What have been the biggest challenges and rewards so far leading up to the fast-approaching exhibition date?
M-LA: The challenge has been in the preparation, trying to ensure that we had as many elements prefabricated off site for reconstruction and tweaking when we started the build on site. It’s a complex design with some of the more architectural details having challenged our fabricators, who have been stars. The preparation of the plants through a challenging winter has also been nerve-wracking. However, for me, one of the most rewarding elements of the process has been the team camaraderie, the sheer number of people who have worked tirelessly with us to help us achieve our vision.

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LLO: You’ve translated building materials from the East Village into some of your garden structures. Can you give us one of the best examples of this?
M-LA: The balcony structure at the side of our garden uses timber for the deck and the canopy and has a glass balustrade at the front; it will bring the public ‘into’ our garden and allow them to feel as if they were standing on a balcony in the East Village, looking out over a landscaped green space. The curved glass, timber and steel cantilevered seat in the top corner also abstractly reflects the history of glasshouses in the Lea Valley. In the 1960s at their peak, it had the largest concentration of glass houses anywhere in the world!

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LLO: East Village is all about design for living; how does your garden encompass this ethos?
M-LA: Our garden is a space which can be enjoyed when viewed from above, as it would be if you were in East Village, or from within – as you wander through, appreciating the textures and colours of the plants and when sitting on the seat at the end, looking back down the garden, picking up the curved forms of the design that references some of the architectural elements within East Village and the Queen Elizabeth Park. It’s about quality of space, quality of materials and quality of experience.

LLO: What’s your favourite East London discovery and why?
M-LA: The Thames Barrier Park. It is a great outdoor space with a mixture of different areas – contemporary structures and materials as well as some very unusual structural planting and great views out over the Thames Barrier itself.

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LLO: Tell us a bit about the logistics of putting together a garden for Chelsea and some of the plants and shrubs you’re including in your design.
M-LA: We have been working closely with Willerby Landscapes, our contractor, and we both knew that the key is the preparation. We have worked through the design to the highest level – for example, drawing the pattern of the decking to even include the 2mm gaps to ensure that there are no surprises when we started on site. Logistically, the plants have come from a number of different nurseries, all around the UK, as opposed to a single source, to ensure that we get the full range of plants we hope to be able to use. This has meant a lot of travelling for me to visit both nurseries and fabricators throughout the pre-build to monitor progress and make tweaks as necessary.

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LLO: Has your position as the Director and Trustee of Exbury Gardens allowed you to do anything special with your garden that you may not have been able to do without that resource at your fingertips?
M-LA: Yes, we have lifted two very large Rhododendron macabeanum’s which were grown at Exbury from wild collected seed. These plants are rare and certainly not commercially available at the size we have got in the East Village garden. They are simply spectacular, prehistoric looking plants that have extraordinarily large leaves and would be sensational planted somewhere like East Village where a sheltered courtyard environment would suit them.

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LLO: Which public garden space in London would you redesign if given the opportunity and what would you most like to change about it?
M-LA: I walk my dog in Kensington Gardens & Hyde Park in the mornings which are sensational as they are; however, I’d love to introduce more interesting collections of trees around the parks, diversifying the seasonal and species interest.

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LLO: Give us your best London food and drink recommendations, away from the tourist trail.
M-LA: The White Cosmopolitan at Bar Boulud is my favourite cocktail in town; the Martini’s in Dukes Hotel have to be tried once in a lifetime; for a no decisions needed, one choice on the menu only fabulous dinner, grab a steak at L’Entrecote off Marylebone high street and if you don’t want to head out anywhere, I’ll always head to The Garden Basket on Stratford Street for the best fresh fruit and veg in town.

Thanks Marie-Louise!