Chelsea 2015 Orchids

The Hidden Beauty of Kranji & other Orchids at Chelsea 2015 – Chris Barker

When I first noted this month’s lecture I thought we were in for 2 small ones with the main portion being a bit of a travelogue of Singapore. As is often the case I wasn’t properly paying attention. Tut tut.

This tale begins way back in 2014 when the selection committee for the RHS Chelsea show invited John Tan and a couple of Singapore based Orchid Societies to build a garden at the 2015 show. Bringing a number of Orchids from abroad requires an amount of UK paperwork for CITES compliance. This is an area where Chris has some experience with managing the Malvern International Orchid Show, and together with his board membership of the BOC made him the ‘go to person’. Obviously to do the paperwork Chris needed some detail, and received an outline of the garden and the anticipated orchids to be used. On receiving these at first Chris was totally flabergasted, as it was an outside display that was to feature such warm growing plants as Vandas and Dendrobiums. Singapore is close to the equator where these plants enjoy superb conditions all year around. England (even in the south) in May can be very cold, and up here in the Peak district and Pennines it can even snow! “It’s madness” Chris told John, “You need to be inside the floral tent”. All the tent spots had been allocated; it was too late to change plans, so it will be what it will be. A good deal of finger crossing would follow.

John Tan is a Singapore based Garden designer and orchid enthusiast. Having a garden at Chelsea would promote his name around the horticultural world. His design would initially be built in Singapore by his associates – Esmond Landscapes, and the UK hard landscaping was to be completed by Landform Consultants. John works with Raymond Toh, and it was their third design that was finally accepted and the one that would be built. Their initial budget was £100K – which eventually would go nowhere the unknown end cost.

Singapore is a small city state/island to the south of Malasia. Kranji is a swampy area to the north of the island, and is now a national nature reserve as well as a WW2 Cemetery, and as a consequence is very well kept. The island has become well developed over the last few decades and only the rich have the opportunity to purchase houses with grounds as the remainder live in high rise condos towards the main city. The rich like to look their best of course, and John tan has become one of the garden landscapers of choice. His designs generally include water features, and this was to form the backdrop to his Chelsea design. The major design feature was a metal tower with a waterfall which was pre-built with 3 layers of boarding for eventual greening. Once proven it was dismantled for transportation. Underneath it included a tunnel to represent the major transportation systems within Singapore city. Being pre-built allowed the structure to become naturally rusted. The top of the design included a shallow pool with a glass floor that should create sun generated ripples onto the natural floor level in the final build. Sadly, in the UK on the show dates the sun failed to shine and the effect was sadly negated.

In The UK the site at Chelsea is actually quite small, and starts off as grass – which must be reinstated within 3 days of the end of the show. Build up starts 14 days prior to the show, and works and delivery has to be timed appropriately as everyone on site is busy at the same times whether in the gardens or in the huge floral pavilion. John’s display would be just outside the pavilion, and had to wait whilst this build was completed on the first day. First job was to dig a huge hole for the pool as well as making the concrete base for the waterfall. Once this had set the construction work started for the waterfall and tunnel. Delivery of huge architectural trees from Holland had to fit around site schedules alongside the huge amount of deliveries of Dutch plants and flowers including hundreds of orchids. The pond was a metre deep and needed lining, which in turn needed to be buried under rocks and plants to look as natural as possible. After 7 days the waterfall was working, with no leaks. It is worth noting at this point that different staff were involved with each stage of the build, with some coming over initially from Singapore and then going home whilst the plant staff came over for the second week of the build-up. It then took another couple of days for the architectural plants (trees) to be installed together with all the ongoing supports ready for the final colour cover.

Throughout the build the weather wasn’t great and this continued into the second week. Plants at the back of the waterfall were installed in the wet which was necessary to cover up the black plastic. Planting ferns etc on top of the waterfall in rain and sodden compost was a definite low point! With just 5 days to go there were no orchids on the display as well as nothing that really indicated Kranji origins. This was the day that the orchids actually arrived at Heathrow. There were 2 scheduled shipments with plants in pots for the display and cut flowers to give away. Some of the cut flowers should have come in through the Netherlands, but due to a mix up back at home some of the shipment was diverted through Thailand directly to the UK alongside other shipments. As the shipments didn’t match the anticipated paperwork then Heathrow Customs impounded the whole lot. This took 24 hours to resolve, and finally with just 3 days to go the flowers arrived on site, and instantly added masses of colour with huge vandaceous flowers and section Latouria Dendrobiums (antelope type). Once in place with the wet and overcast conditions they didn’t look at their best for prejudging. This continued into the judging day so the final Silver Gilt award was perhaps a bit below expectations, as once the rain stopped and the sun came out the exhibit looked fantastic in both colour and effect – so much so that it was the feature on the RHS homepage. Some of the features didn’t work as well as expected, with the Cerbera odollam trees constantly shedding leaves, and a small patch at ground floor had the wrong type of gravel! Overnight the whole display had to be covered in layers of horticultural fleece.

Overall the display was well received by the public, and many members of the public were able to purchase some fabulous plants at the end for a bargain whilst a lot of the display simply ended up wasted in a skip!

Elsewhere in the pavilion Thailand had a huge display of cut Dendrobium flowers with single petals glued down to the display. TOGA had a reasonable display of drooping yellow Oncidiums with rivers of Phals. Whilst it was quite reasonable it didn’t show anywhere near their potential.

The OSGB had a good display, and won a coveted Gold. Their theme boards featured hardy Orchids, however by the time of the show and the 2015 weather most member’s plants had either gone over or hadn’t come out. After many enquiries of UK hardy orchid growers eventually Steve Clements was able to come to the rescue with many of his specimen plants, which fortunately were also able to match the associated posters. A number of quality Cyps came from Jacque Armand who also had a magnificent display of hardy orchids within their usual array of spring bulbs.

McBeans traditionally exhibit at Chelsea, and with their future in doubt towards the end of 2014 they hadn’t applied for Chelsea in 2015. However, with a potential exhibitor dropping out late on they were able to accept an invitation and mounted a strong colourful display.

At the end of the show as mentioned there are 3 days to remove everything and reinstate grass – or face large penalties. Almost everything including the Thai artifacts were simply crushed. Dendrobiums from behind the Singapore waterfall were rescued. The architectural waterfall was donated to the Welsh Botanic Gardens, whilst most unsold plants went to members of the OSGB or Kew. Whilst these may appear as bargains, in reality many of the plants were much stressed and didn’t survive too well. John Tan’s display was sponsored by Unibond, but support from the Singapore Tourist Board failed to materialise, leaving him and associates with a high proportion of the huge cost. It isn’t for us to ask whether it was worth it, but it is unlikely that he will want to do it again.

NB. Cerbera odollam mentioned earlier is known as the ‘Suicide Tree’ due to the highly toxic fruit. If you want to end it all, this is as cheap a way as any – even if not painless. A captivating talk well illustrated with pictures by Chris and also from John Tan in the build-up, and a hearty round of applause was well deserved.

Tip of the Month

March is the time of year where it is easy to be caught out by the weather. Once the sun starts to shine it can get very warm, and plants on windowsills and unshaded greenhouses can easily get scorched. Don’t forget that many of them will have grown leaves in our dull winter light, so strong sunlight comes as a shock. If you have plants on south facing sills then it will be better to move them to more of an easterly location or hide them behind net curtains. For Greenhouses it is now necessary to install the first layer of shading (depending on your own regime).

The extra warmth will start to bring plants out of their winter rest period, and you need to consider increasing the frequency of watering as they will soon start to dry out more easily. Along with extra water some plants will want more feed, so now is the time to check on your collection and see what you think they need…