14 May 1999

HOT PURSUIT OF

CHELSEA GOLD…

Perfect plants and blooms, perfectly presented is what

exhibitors strive for in pursuit of a gold medal for their

stands at Chelsea Flower. Tessa Gates went to Somerset

to meet two growers preparing for the event

CHELSEA Show is not the biggest in the world but it is the most prestigious which is why exhibitors such as Kelways of Barrymore Farm, Langport, Somerset, specialists in peonies and irises, go to such trouble and expense to be there.

"We do about 12 shows a year and Chelsea is the most stressful," says Kelways manager David Root. "Last year we had two stands and we needed seven people in London for a week – think of the cost of that. But if you are trying to show you are the best then you must just swallow the cost."

And you need to be the best on the day to get a gold medal at Chelsea. Every plant on the stand has to be perfect, the labelling has to be exact, the presentation has to impress and the huge panel of judges has to be unanimous in agreeing that a stand warrants a gold medal.

Plants will have been transported between different temperature houses for weeks and sometimes months prior to the show to fool them into flowering when the exhibitor rather than nature deems right.

The pursuit of gold at Chelsea is part of a plan to re-establish the Kelways as a top name – the firm has seen highs and lows since it was set up by James Kelway back in 1851. Then it was a large general nursery with a complete cornucopia of seeds and plants. By 1900 it employed 400-500 people and was one of the biggest nurseries in the world. It supplied seeds, plants and shrubs to farms, estates and royalty and was famous for its peonies, some of which sold for £8-10 even then.

However, World War I, the diminishing fortunes of the country house estates and a wrangle over a cereal seed consignment took the company to bankruptcy in the 1930s and its fortunes have gone up and down with various owners ever since. David Root had been with Kelways for just six months when it last went into receivership and has seen it turned round by its present owner, Chris Johnson. "He had previously rescued an orchid specialist and he bought Kelways because it is a British institution," says David. "He is looking to the long term and said we must concentrate on what we are best known for – peonies and irises – and we had to build up our presence at shows. Thanks to his efforts we have got back on the show circuit and have being re-establishing our reputation over the past five years."

They have gained a clutch of bronze and silver medals and then in April took their first gold at a Royal Horticultural Society show. It has been a tremendous boost to the staff, not least farmers daughter Linda Butt who stages the show exhibits.

"Getting the plants to flower on the day is the hardest part of showing," she says, "but with peonies getting the biggest blooms just depends on winter weather being hard enough."

And what blooms they are – magnificent in colour and form and with the capacity to surprise. Peonies are often described as "capricious" as some double varieties may flower as semi-doubles in the early years and colour and marking may vary as the plant matures. There are herbaceous peonies – easy to grow hardy perennials that flower in early summer – and Japanese and Chinese tree peonies.

Japanese and Chinese tree peonies are hardy and robust and eventually form a large multi stemmed shrub with blooms – sometimes as many as 50 – that can be 6-10in in diameter. Japanese tree peonies , like the pink-bloomed Shimane Sepei which Linda says is a definite show star, are propagated by grafting.

"The Chinese tree peonies are a new introduction. They are slightly more vigorous and will be a good cottage garden plant as they can be grown by division. A plant could go on for 50 years," says Linda, who has worked at Kelways for seven years.

"Peonies are not plants for impatient gardeners and they need three or four years to get going. People need encouragement to buy the first plant and within two years they are back for another and you have got them hooked," says Linda. She too has needed patience preparing the tree peonies for shows. "They are brought on in five different environments and sometimes that means moving them daily," she explains.

Every bloom is wrapped in cottonwool to stop it opening and protect it from bruising in transit. "It doesnt stop the flowers maturing. When they are unwrapped they open in minutes and can last up to two weeks. But we cannot wrap herbaceous peonies as they secrete nectar and the cottonwool would stick to them. We have to be very careful when transporting them."

Irises too have to have their blooms wrapped and unlike peonies, which are not subject to the whims of fashion as new varieties take about 15 years to establish, there tends to be trends in irises. "There are about 800 types of bearded iris, too many really, " says David. "It is mostly amateurs who have been breeding and producing the new colour breaks. Everyone is looking for oranges or pinks, pinks are what we are striving for. At the moment the public dont want to buy yellow iris – perhaps they think they are too like the old flag iris, but a lot of amateur breeders are pursuing the perfect yellow. We are the biggest grower and have to provide what the public wants."

"However at Chelsea our piece de resistance will be the tree peonies. They are most spectacular and the ultimate in hardy shrubs. There is one called Dou Lu which has double blooms that are a light pea green when they open and turn white as they mature. And then there is the Shimane Hakugan which is a semi double with pure milky white flowers with a bright red carpel like a cherry in the middle," says David.

"We hope to crack holding the tree peonies back for the show this year." And crack winning that prestigious gold medal, too.

Inquiries: Kelways (01458-250521)

Chelsea Flower Show (May 25-28) ticket hotline (0171-3444343)