Saturday, 23 May 2015

Thoughts on Chelsea Flower Show

This week, the British public have had a surfeit of Chelsea Flower Show on TV now that the world's greatest flower show goes on for a whole week, from Sunday through to Saturday night.

I used to live opposite Chelsea Flower Show and I was annually bemused by hundreds of well-dressed people staggering along, with huge bamboo and other plants, a mile to Victoria Station, after "the great sell-off" on Thursday evenings, when it closed. Years ago, before security was strengthened, not knowing what was going on, I wandered in through an open gate while the Queen was in the main marquee, on her own.  I know how she feels. A Chelsea pensioner in red kindly showed me round. I have never felt moved to go, since. I never intend to go - now that I know what a real garden actually is.

My view is that Chelsea Flower Show is not about gardens. The show is pure fantasy dominated by the flower trade, worth millions of pounds. At Chelsea, plants picked for their textures and colours are thrown together, without blemish or blight. For every plant on show, ten weaker ones have been passed over. These beauties have never felt the wind on their tender leaves or endured an English winter. They are without aphids, without slugs, and as a consequence in full, forced bloom. They are not 'children of Nature'.

                     The Perfume Garden, designed by Laurie Chetwood and Patrick Collins

The reality is very different. All gardens must contend not just with colour and plant life, but with bugs, insect and animal life. The gardens of Kensington and Chelsea are now infested with brazen urban foxes, vermin and slugs. Their rich owners can scarcely go in them, to enjoy them. Real gardeners understand that each garden has its own unique conditions, insects, bugs and furry visitors.

No one at Chelsea ever thinks about the acidity of soil each garden would possess in reality. This would nurture certain plants and kill others. The issues of shade and dappled light and what plants suits these barely matters at Chelsea. In reality, it is these questions that exercise the gardener. Instead, at Chelsea, everything is thrown together, as in an Old Master Painting: the Show is entirely posed.  Each created Chelsea garden should bear these signs:
  • In one year's time half the plants in this garden will have died 
  • Beware: this soil has no worms in it.... 
Dirt, worms and bacteria-infested Nature is far more interesting than Chelsea Flower Show. Nature does magical things in real gardens. Three weeks ago, I found four apparently dead fern shoots deprived of light under a pile of last year's leaves.  Today, they are magnificent specimens without any help from me.

Nature smooths corners, beautifies, selects the best and destroys the others, taking their place with what is more fitting. These robust plants grow strong and vital, gain the vitality and character than the plants at Chelsea lack.

Chelsea is about cultivars, promoting the latest hybrids in unreal, dreamlike spaces, possibly mainly for the benefit of collectors. Are our local gardens full of these hybrids, or of the old stock that has endured for centuries?  Perhaps once in every few years, a Chelsea gold-winning plant, robust in every way, penetrates the mass market, but on the whole, we live untouched, amid the bounty of Nature, by the great artificial Show.

1 comment:

  1. Agree. Apparent when we tried to find 'old stock' plants for customers. Big garden superstores have a range dictated by season and fashion. On the other hand some show gardens do 'transplant' after Chelsea as a recent RHS magazine article pointed out - they found good homes for them e.g. schools and hospices.