Norfolk growers are going for gold at Chelsea Flower Show
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2016
Norfolk flower growers are racing against the clock to deliver the perfect blooms for the Chelsea Flower Show – with the pursuit of coveted gold medals adding to the pressure.
With hard-won reputations hanging on the stroke of a judge's pen, the Chelsea Flower Show is a high-pressure showcase for horticultural growers across the country.
The mounting tension has not been helped by some changeable conditions in East Anglia this spring – adding to the challenge of producing hundreds of contrasting blooms in unison at the perfect moment.
And nerves are jangling just a little more than usual at one Norfolk rose specialist, which is pulling out all the stops in a bid to secure its tenth successive gold medal.
Peter Beales Roses, based at Attleborough, will be sending 3,000 plants from its glasshouses in Wreningham to the Royal Horticultural Society's annual floral extravaganza.
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The first lorries left this week, loaded with flowers of about 250 different varieties of shrub roses, climbers and ramblers which must all be at their peak when the event opens on May 24.
To ensure the flowers are good enough to ensure the continued reputation of the grower, as well as that of the many other stand-holders which it supplies, has taken decades of expertise, according to nursery manager Ian Limmer.
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'There is a lot of pressure and sleepless nights, because we have promised these outside stand-holders that they will have 50 or 100 plants and we have to deliver the goods,' he said. 'It is no good arriving two days before and saying: 'I am sorry, the weather was bad'. They don't want excuses, they want plants.
'Over the last five or six years we have worked very hard to keep people happy and to build that reputation.
'The gold medal is the pinnacle. You cannot get any higher in this trade. The pressure is immense to get that gold medal because everyone expects us to have one, especially after getting nine on the trot. At some point it will come to an end, but the pressure is on to make sure it is not this year.
'You are almost shaking with nerves when you see the medal card on your stand.'
Mr Limmer said the skill of growing roses for an event like Chelsea was in knowing when to force the flowering of certain varieties – and when to hold them back, depending on the weather.
'We are constantly looking at buds and that is where you need those 40 years of experience to know each separate variety and when it is going to open – whether we need to hold our nerve, or get it inside,' he said.
'It is easier to force something than it is to hold it back. As soon as it gets too hot it has got to go into the shade tunnel, but then the colours can be changed.
'If it flowers too early then it won't make the show. That is why we have had 3,000 in there. There will be a few that are too early and a few too late, and we are never completely sure what the weather will be like. We might lose about 50 plants this year out of the 3,000, which I think is absolutely incredible.'
Michael Baldwin, who is the firm's hybridisation manager and production manager for Chelsea, said he started choosing roses with Mr Limmer for the show as soon as last year's event was over.
'We have already got the design for the stand when we start thinking about the plants in September,' he said. 'In November they are lifted and potted, and then left outside for three months to over-winter. That will give them a chance for the roots to get going.
'As a rule of thumb we look to get most of them in by Valentine's Day, but we have got three flowering periods. The later flowering ones like New Dawn and Rambling Rector go into the glasshouse first, and the earlier flowering ones Comte de Chambord and MacMillan Nurse will go in later.
'Then we will have a few species and wild roses which will flower very quickly so we put them in at the last minute. It is a serious game of nerves with those.
'The backbone of the stand will be the same varieties most years, because we know they will give good colour. Some other varieties we may never have grown under glass before, but we will bring them in so the public can see something different.'
Peter Beales Roses will be launching a new variety at this year's Chelsea Flower Show, chosen by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall.
The Sandringham rose, with its heavily-scented deep pink petals, was one of three products of the company's continual seed-breeding programme which were presented to the royal guests at the Sandringham Flower Show in 2014.
Nursery manager Ian Limmer said: 'Prince Charles was aware that we were going to ask whether he wanted a new rose. So we took three posies – an apricot climber, a pale pink shrub and a strong pink shrub rose. Charles said: 'We like the apricot climber', but Camilla said: 'No, we are going with this one'.
'It takes 18 months to produce a rose, so we started propagating larger numbers of the Sandringham rose ready for it to be launched at Chelsea this year. There are already 50 of them maturing in the gardens at Sandringham, ready to flower after the show.'
Clematis grower's ambitions
Another Norfolk firm going for gold in the Floral Marquee at Chelsea will be Thorncroft Clematis, based at Reymerston, near Dereham.
Director Peter Skeggs-Gooch is the third generation of his family to run the business, started by his grandmother Dorothy Tolver and his mother Ruth Gooch in 1985.
He said: 'Our exhibit will be typically large-flowered clematis growing upon ironwork trellises and arches, and over our garden shed.
'The exhibit is going to be one which the public can walk through.. It is only the second time we have done this, and it provided a bit more of a challenge to us last year. We had eight gold medals in a row until last year, when we slipped down to silver gilt after we tried this new approach and the walk-through design. Now we know what we needed to change, we will be gunning for gold again this year.
'We are going to have about 50 different cultivars of clematis, so that is quite a range on one display, and about 550-600 plants in the whole exhibit.'
Mr Skeggs-Gooch said the Chelsea Flower Show was a pivotal week in the company's calendar.
'I would almost say it is critical to our year,' he said. 'It really is the focal point of all our late winter and spring effort to produce the very best quality display. The promotional effect of the Chelsea Flower Show will continue to be effective not just for this year, but into following years as well. We still get customers coming back to us with a list of show plants from five or six years ago.
'Although we used to have a retail shop we are now predominantly a mail order business, but we have a variety of Open Days, including a Chelsea sell-off day on June 4 this year, where the excess plants from Chelsea will be sold off.'
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