CORNWALL AT CHELSEA: BURNCOOSE GARDENS

PUBLISHED: 10:00 03 June 2015 | UPDATED: 13:02 30 August 2017

Chelsea 2014 re-size 2

Chelsea 2014 re-size 2

Cornwall's Burncoose Nurseries and Gardens in Redruth picked up their 22nd gold medal at 2015 RHS Chelsea

Burncoose Nurseries in Redruth has been attending the RHS Chelsea Flower Show for more than 30 years – and this year picked up their 22nd GOLD medal. Speaking before the event ANDREW MILLS tells us about their entrantfor 2015

For 2015 our theme is Endangered in the Wild’. The International Union for Conservation in Nature (IUCN) produces a Red List’ of plants which are endangered and threatened with extinction in the wild. What is so surprising is that a good few of the plants on the endangered in the wild list are in fact in the Burncoose catalogue and some of them are even fairly common in our Cornish gardens despite their threatened state in the wild. So visitors to Chelsea will be able to see for themselves the plants that may well become extinct in 10 to 20 years’ time in the wild so that they can then also do their bit by growing them and preserving them for future generations in their own gardens. There are some real plant surprises on the list – Pinus radiata being a good case in point.

I like big rhododendrons, they always look good in a feature, herbaceous plants are good too but those are often dependent on having a warm spring. We have a few favourite plants too, some that have been taken to the show several times before and sometimes used, sometimes not.

Although the allocation of space in the Grand Marquee is a formality for longstanding exhibitors like Burncoose Chelsea, space is at a premium and you do not always get the size or shape of stand you request. The RHS require a sketch plan of the stand and what its overall theme will be before allocating space and position in November. By early autumn, if not earlier, the plants needed to match this theme need to be put aside, potted on and assembled in the Show Tunnel for the following May’s show.

Geraldine Hammond and Louisa Lazarowicz have been designing and creating the Burncoose stands at Chelsea for the last five years. It is their job to assemble the plants needed to complement and demonstrate the theme of the stand each year as well as to showcase a selection of the wide range of the 4,000 ornamental trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants which Burncoose Nurseries offers on its website and mail order catalogue. Chelsea judges place great importance on not misleading the public so plants cannot be used randomly. Plants must be shown on the stand as they would be associated with each other in real gardens. Woodland shrubs need to be separated from, for instance, water loving plants or tender greenhouse plants in different and separate parts of the stand.

Burncoose have attended Chelsea for the last 30 years so dreaming up new themes for the stand each year is not easy. The show team normally have a brainstorming session in the summer to come up with a novel but achievable idea. Last year we featured 101 plants originating from wild collected seed in China to celebrate the 101st RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

Every year the weather in the lead up to the start of Chelsea is subtly different. Warm springs make our traditional Chelsea show plants (rhodos and azaleas) flower too early. We do try to hold them back in our large coldstore set at around 2°C but plants will only tolerate such treatment for about a fortnight without harm. In a colder spring season, as in 2012 particularly, it is impossible to get a lot of herbaceous plants into flower on time and hydrangeas are slow to show colour. So in the six weeks before the show many Chelsea plants get moved into or out of tunnels, into shade or full sun. One never gets it absolutely right with the same plants two years in a row. Visitors to Chelsea often fail to realise that our first load of stock plants leaves Burncoose seven days before the show opens to the public. The weather at the show site in London can be very different to Cornwall. So, in planning for Chelsea you need to take far more plants to the show than you will actually use on the stand. That gives scope to replace or remove things which flop or go over or fail to come out properly before judging. This is perhaps the most fundamentally tricky aspect of showing at Chelsea and perhaps one of the reasons why Burncoose does not always’ get a gold medal. Our tally is now 21 Golds and 9 Silver Gilts.

In 1999 Burncoose took on the Monument Stand at Chelsea. This is the largest stand in the show and traditionally occupied by Hillier’s Nurseries. This required ten lorry loads of props and plants. By contrast our most recent exhibits have been 30x40 meters in size requiring a meagre three lorry loads of plants for the show. Selling the whole of a Chelsea stand to one person is one of those pipe dreams that you hear talked about but which never seem to happen to you - 2005 we did sell the whole of a rhododendron stand to a customer near Manchester.

The weather is clearly the great decider of how a Chelsea stand ends up looking. However there are other practical difficulties, not to mention cost, of showing so far from home. Judging of Chelsea takes place on the Sunday and Monday before the show opens on the Tuesday. Stands therefore need to be really finished by Saturday night. One lorry breakdown or one disaster with something big falling over can put one well behind in staging the exhibit.

Stands which are not ready on time are obvious to the judging so staging late into night is the norm. Tiredness can be a problem and there are still six public viewing days to contend with – 8am to 8pm. No one can stick 12 days of such relentless work so we change staff to keep a few people fresh for loading the lorry after the show and driving all the way back to Cornwall on a bank holiday weekend.

The best thing is meeting our customers; people we have dealings with across the year, sending them plants; it’s lovely when they introduce themselves to us at Chelsea and we get to put a face to the name and find out how their garden is doing.

This article first appeared in Cornwall Life May 2015

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