The Hampton Court Flower Show always strikes me as a giant conjuring trick. Only magic, you would think, could transform 34 flat grassy acres almost overnight into an English woodland, an Ethiopian valley, the Australian outback and the First World War trenches.
And only magic could turn it just as swiftly back into parkland.
I have not missed a single show since it started in 1990. I've seen it grow from a modest event over 10 acres to the largest show of its kind in the world.
Vikings at the Hampton Court Flower Show
This, the 23rd be particularly memorable, however, for it's the one I thought I would never see. After five months in a barren hospital ward, I was agog for a floral adventure – and was startled when the first locally-designed gardens I encountered were celebrations of lust and lesbianism.
The Seven Deadly Sins was the brief governing the conceptual gardens and two local designers rose magnificently to the occasion. Surbiton horticulturalist Amanda Miller’s first ever show garden won a gold medal for its creative take on the prejudice faced by gay people.
The Stonewall Garden – Breaking Down the Walls of Pride was inspired by the 27-year-old’s experience of "coming out" in the small Australian town where she grew up.
The design, backed by a motif of blindfolded figures, charts the transition from blinkered judgmentalism to harmonious freedom.
A dark monotony of box balls laced with barbed wire represents the benighted mindset that lacerates non-conformists. It gives way, via a crumbling wall, to borders of beautifully balanced colours dominated by purple, the colour of pride.
"I didn't want to be too strident with the planting because that suggests the aggressive, destructive kind of pride that we need to overcome," says Miller who trained in horticulture after seven years in the navy and moved to Surbiton to be with her partner.
"I originally chose ‘wrath’ to illustrate my experience, but again that seemed to send out the wrong message. I preferred an appeal for freedom and integration that would be relevant to everyone whatever their circumstances."
Lust is the sin that led Rachel Parker Soden from West Molesey to a silver medal for her debut garden. The designer, who grew up in East Molesey above the old Streets of London pub (now Zizzi’s) was inspired by a line from the film Withnail and I: "Flowers are essentially tarts, prostitutes for the bees."
"I also recalled the owner of a nursery where I worked saying that Sanguisorba smelt seminiferous and made her feel queasy," she says.
Naturally, Sanguisorba features prominently in her planting plan. Research trips to the red-light district of Amsterdam produced a garden focused on a glasshouse filled with orchids, anthuriums and other voluptuous, suggestively-shaped and steamily-scented plants.
In front, a stone pavement crossing a canal represents the Amsterdam street; behind, a "secret" path conjures seamy backstreets, where the plants are all tinged red as if reflecting light from the brothels. Witty details include bedsprings emerging from the soil give the term flower-bed a whole new meaning.
"The glasshouse is a brothel of plants putting on a live show, and viewers become voyeurs as they admire the beauty of the flowers, which are a by-product of the plants’ reproductive cycle," says Rachel, who started her garden-design business 18 months ago.
"But the RHS has told me that I’m not allowed to call their visitors voyeurs!"
Claygate designer Selina Botham’s silver medal-winning creation is altogether more wholesome.
She was commissioned by Jordans Cereals to come up with a wildlife garden that would reflect the company’s commitment to preserving the British countryside and her aim was to show that a wildlife garden can be a thing of beauty and not merely an event, will rampancy of weeds.
Grassy paths coil through layers of grasses and native flowers into a central terrace with a reflective pool. 'All the materials, bar a bit of cement in the pool rim, are natural,' says Botham who runs a landscaping business, Designs for All Seasons. "The benches beside the pool are made of thatch, the stepping stones are from logs and the terrace is made of nuts and pine cones. A lot of the garden – from the daisies in the grass paths to the crab apple and hazel trees – is edible and I’ve tried to include the ingredients used in some of the new Jordans recipes, including rose hips and wheat."
So with wholesomeness and sexuality sitting side by side, this year’s flower show is, as always, a thrill of contrasts, inspiration and the unexpected.
And, of course, that inevitable touch of magic.
Silver medal for Squires
Fifty years ago, Twickenham architect and landscaper Colin Squire thought of a novel way to excite jaded post-war gardeners.
Inspired by the new American concept of garden centres he opened an outlet in Twickenham, one of the first of its kind in the region.
It was an era when more people were cultivating their own gardens instead of employing a gardener and Colin, who had pioneered the rearing of container-grown plants, saw a chance to expand his family's landscaping and cultivation business to cater for them.
Today Squires numbers 15 garden centres across south west London and is celebrating its half century with a show garden that illustrates what millennial gardeners desire from their plots.
A Hampton Garden, which garnered a silver medal, is modelled on a typically-sized plot in the London suburbs and reflects the revolution in British gardens since Squires first opened its doors.
"Although gardens have got smaller and smaller people expect more and more from them," says Colin. "They’re regarded as an extension of the living space rather than somewhere to hang the washing and people want lounging and dining areas as well as colourful planting."
A Hampton Garden shows how you can incorporate all these modern prerequisites into a confined space. A decked terrace built over a square pool bears a wicker sofa set – "garden furniture was almost non-existent when we started out," says Colin – and a dining table and chairs is set out by a "living wall" of heucheras planted in wooden brackets.
"Garden walls are flavour of the month because they increase the planting area in confined spaces and there are all sorts of DIY kits available to do it affordably", says Colin.
Wildlife is catered for by a bug hotel made of handsomely stacked logs, but the drama is in the rainbow planting. The aim is to show the enormous variety of flowers available compared to 50 years ago and every plant used is available in Squires garden centres.
Squires’ exhibits have won medals at every show since 1990 and this year was no exception. A Hampton Garden scooped a silver and will hopefully inspire replicas in backyards across the borough.
This should become easier for novice householders, because 50 years on, Squires is planning to return to its roots and launch a design consultancy in its shops so that customers can turn their impulse buys into show gardens.