The Chelsea ‘Chop’
Chelsea week is the one time of the year that gardening dominates the airwaves and takes centre stage in the public's mind which is slightly curious because as any "real" gardener knows gardens are an all year round obsession that occupies one's thoughts and efforts for 52 weeks of the year . It is that constant input and long term commitment that really produces the results and offers the rewards. I am therefore a little ambivalent about the razzamatazz of theatrical horticultural perfection, seemingly achieved in an instant, that Chelsea and other shows purvey to a ravening public desperate to be told that you can buy a perfect garden in the same way you can buy a perfect interior if you throw enough money at it. Having said that the whole show is a triumphant tour de force demonstrating huge skill and dedication from all involved in its presentation and I was oohing and aahing along with everyone else as I wandered round, just don't mistake it for the real thing!
So fantasy aside what have we been up to at West Dean Gardens over the last few weeks? Well Chelsea has given its name to more than the Show as we now also have the eponymous "Chelsea chop". No, this is not a karate move or a particularly succulent cut of lamb but a simple device used to reduce the bulk of and delay the flowering of a wide range of herbaceous plants such as sedums, geraniums, acanthus etc. Like most things horticultural it is not an exact operation in either its execution or timing and is dependent on a number of variables including the nature of the plant, the effect desired and the season that year. Thus this year is "early" so the Chelsea chop was in fact happening a couple of weeks prior to the event, nonetheless the name is a useful aide memoire. One of the plants that we "chop" annually are the larger Sedums such as "Autumn Joy" as left to their own devices their crowns tend to overextend themselves and then flop out from the centre as the flower heads develop. By cutting the developing crown back to about 3" at about the middle of May they will remain much more compact and self-supporting. It's as simple as that and well worth experimenting with anything that tends to flop in your conditions, plants are generally forgiving and rarely die because of an ill-advised intervention on the part of the gardener. However if you really want the low down on the subject there is no better guide than Tracy Di Sabato's book "The Well-Tended Perennial Garden", which although written for the USA market is still an exemplary guide.
That aside May is undoubtedly the "crunch" month when everything needs doing at once and even the best organised gardener begins to doubt whether everything will all get done in the right time frame. This has been a particularly balmy spring but mild temperatures, reasonable sunshine and regular showers mean that the grass is growing apace and our usual weekly cut is barely enough to stay on top of the growth, waiting until your lawn looks like a silage crop is not a good policy, once a week is! With the risk of frost past we are furiously trying to get all of our annual displays and half hardy perennial material out of the frames where they have been hardening off and into the ground. This has the added benefit of reducing the amount of time spent watering pots! Under glass many hours are being spent pruning, tieing in and deflowering the grape vines. Experience has taught us that time invested now pays huge dividends. By getting the fruit bearing framework properly trained at this stage you can then afford to be a little more relaxed when they start fruiting and reduce their growth rate. Early investment of time nearly always pays dividends in the garden.
But despite the pressure don't forget to look up and smell the flowers! Good luck!!