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Sun shines on Chelsea's gardening Oscars

By Hilary Whiteman, CNN
  • Chelsea Flower Show is pinnacle of gardening and a highlight of the London calendar
  • More than 157,000 people attended the 2009 five-day show
  • Best in Show garden 2010 was Mediterranean-themed plot inspired by a holiday to Tuscany
  • Eight gardens won gold; One winner says: It's most difficult-to-achieve award in horticulture
  • Gardening
  • Flowers
  • United Kingdom

London, England (CNN) -- "So that's it. Time to rock 'n' roll," sniffed the burly security guard, cracking open a can of energy drink, as the tannoy announced the opening of the 2010 Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show to the public.

It may not rock everyone's world but tickets to the world's most prestigious flower show in the posh London suburb sold out two weeks before the event, and were being sold online this week for more than twice their face value.

While celebrities sauntered through the grounds as guests at Monday's gala preview, sensible shoes were the order of the day as tens of thousands of garden-lovers shuffled for a view of the exhibits through crowds that were sometimes three-rows deep.

By midday Tuesday, teams had handed out 10,000 pamphlets at the garden deemed Best in Show, Andy Sturgeon's Mediterranean-themed plot sponsored by The Daily Telegraph which was inspired by a holiday to Tuscany. "Normally we do 12,000 in a whole day," said one of the build team.

Sturgeon's was one of eight show gardens to win gold and saw off stiff competition from its rivals: the traditional English M&G Garden, a tranquil retreat from Cancer Research UK and The Tourism Malaysia Garden, the first ever full-size Malaysian garden at Chelsea.

While champagne was flowing at the Laurent-Perrier Garden, Foster's beer was on ice at the Trailfinders Australia Garden designed by Melbourne-based landscaper Scott Wynd.

"It is the pinnacle of what you can do as a landscape designer. It is huge," Wynd said. "We regard it as the horticulture Ashes nearly, it's becoming that competitive."

His design featured a lap pool and spa with sunken eating area set amid towering Strelitzia alba, or striking perennials likened to birds of paradise, imported from Rome.

"It's a very structural garden softened by the plant life so that does probably ruffle the feathers of the English judges. They're all plants, plants, plants," Wynd said, adding "I think they are slowly starting to turn and appreciate more architecture and a lot more boldness."

Tucked away down one side of the 11-acre site were the courtyard gardens of which the Two Moors Festival, a design highlighting the links between music and the English countryside, was deemed best.

For sponsors, the publicity generated by the Chelsea Flower Show is almost unparalleled. Last year, 2.2 million people watched the BBC's coverage of the event, alongside 157,000 people with tickets who walked through the gates of the five-day show.

For the promoters of the English county of Yorkshire the opportunity was too good to miss. "It will be massive," Gary Verity, chief executive of Welcome to Yorkshire told CNN, while perched on an oversized spoon carved from Yorkshire Oak in the Rhubard Crumble and Custard Garden.

His brief to the designers at Gillespies was to make a garden that was edible, so they came up with giant bowl of rhubarb -- Yorkshire is home to 'the rhubarb triangle' -- surrounded by hops, licorice, thyme, lavender, sage and fennel. It won a silver flora medal.

"It has had huge interest at the show. Her Majesty the Queen when she did the Royal tour last night spent about five minutes talking to us about the garden which was incredible," Verity said.

A few gardens on, Holly Cheese was using the flower show to launch her online business selling bee-friendly seeds and flowers. "I started to hear what was going on with the bees and I was really horrified about it," Cheese said.

According to the British Beekeepers' Association, British bee stocks dropped 17 percent in 2009-2010. It was less dramatic fall in numbers than the previous two years but still a clear sign that the decline in UK bee populations hasn't been stalled.

"We thought if we get people to buy the right plants and improve the environment for them, that's one thing we can do," Cheese said.

Alongside the gardens, more than 250 businesses lined the main boulevard selling everything from mechanical butterflies, giant snail sculptures, outdoor can openers, signs, giant pillows, planters, gazebos and novel water features.

Long queues formed outside the Pimms tent, as small plastic cups of the British summer drink changed hands for £5 ($7.20). More than 46,000 glasses, of all sizes, were sold last year as well as 2,000 bottles of champagne.

Near the grandstand, plant-lovers lazed on the lawn as the band launched into a rousing rendition of music "associated with Doris Day." The relaxed, warm spring day was in sharp contrast to conditions just one week ago when frost threatened to wilt plants nurtured for months for their big outing, those that survived the coldest British winter in more than 30 years or had been brought in from elsewhere.

On Saturday, five days after being manicured to perfection and cast into the public eye, the displays will be dismantled and the plants sold or re-located.

While Chelsea is must-do event on the calendars of leading designers, for exhibitors it is a stressful and expensive endeavor.

Robert Cantley last exhibited his exotic Nepenthes, commonly known as pitcher plants, at the show three years ago. This year, the display by his company Borneo Exotics won gold.

"To get a gold medal at Chelsea, you know in your heart that you've got the most difficult-to-achieve award in the horticulture world. It's quite nice," he said.

But gold doesn't guarantee his return next year.

Cantley's rare plants, native to south-east Asia and under threat from deforestation in Borneo, were cultivated and air freighted from his company's nursery in Sri Lanka to London.

"It's not financially viable for us to come. We don't make any money from this but we love doing it because Chelsea is special," he said, a short time later adding "We might come back next year. Of all the shows in the world, without exaggeration, nothing comes close to this one."