Chelsea. The most famous flower show in the world pulls in its devotees once more this week, cheering up the whole of London with its colour, scent and glamour. The show’s continuing success, when so much – knowledge, plants, advice – are freely available online, has much to do with the BBC’s need to fill schedules, the foreign media’s enduring fascination with ‘Englishness’, and the desire of committed gardeners to worship in the company of their co-religionists. It cannot be any kind of fun for plant nursery people, since the logistical difficulties are fearsome. But, though their ranks have thinned a little in recent years, they mostly can’t resist the buzz.
In the last thirty years, the Royal Horticultural Society, which runs Chelsea, has pursued an admirable policy of decentralisation, developing gardens at Rosemoor in Devon, Hyde Hall in Essex, Harlow Carr in Harrogate, and the soon-to-be-opened Bridgewater, near Salford. Moreover, provincial RHS flower shows have proliferated. However, I have my doubts about the projected ‘National Centre for Horticultural Science and Learning’, which is intended to upgrade herbarium, library, educational and advice facilities at the RHS’ ‘flagship’ Wisley Gardens.
The late Sir Simon Hornby, when President, was keen to develop a comparable project in 1995, only to run into flak from members like me, especially as it included relocating the Lindley Library from Vincent Square to Wisley. Apart from the lack of consultation, we saw a real practical difficulty in placing the foremost horticultural library in the world close to the M25, with a railway station four miles away and an infrequent bus service. Although the new plan does not include moving the Lindley Library, it reinforces the focus of the Society at Wisley, leaving the other gardens subordinate. After 25 years, West Byfleet station is no nearer, the bus service no more frequent, and the M25 exponentially busier. In the words of Julia Cameron, nothing dies harder than a bad idea.
Chelsea Flower Show naturally attracts satellite events. The local shops are charmingly en fête, as part of Chelsea in Bloom. There is also the Chelsea Fringe, consisting of nine days of community gardening activities, garden openings and exhibitions all over London. Founded in 2011 by Tim Richardson, that rare beast, a gardening intellectual, the Fringe events are uncurated, unsponsored, run by volunteers – and very jolly. (Who would not enjoy climbing trees in the Inner Temple gardens?) And may I recommend Bryan Poole’s exhibition of beautiful botanical etchings, painstakingly created using the intaglio method employed by Pierre-Joseph Redouté, on view this Saturday and Sunday at the London Sketch Club in Dilke Street.
Show gardens at Chelsea cannot happen without deep-pocketed sponsors, and these are as random as a dream. This year, the big spenders include Ikea, Savills, The Forestry Commission, Welcome to Yorkshire, Dubai Tourism, Wedgwood, Trailfinders, M & G, Morgan Stanley and Warner’s Distillery. Their chosen garden designers fall over themselves to stress their gardens’ ‘sustainability’ and eco- friendliness, although such complex layouts, pulled apart after a mere five days, can hardly be called sustainable. The Ikea show garden is entitled ‘Gardening Will Save the World’. But will flatpacks?
Ursula Buchan’s latest book, Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan is published by Bloomsbury.