I’ve grown a little bored of the Chelsea Flower Show. There, I’ve said it. Once upon a time I used to love the anticipation, researching the show gardens, planning my visit, watching the television coverage and reviewing the event afterwards. Now I find I that I can scarcely be bothered. Could it be that I’ve visited too many times – I’ve been a regular now for 30 years – or is it that the show is failing to excite me anymore?
I’m aware that admitting to being tired of Chelsea is unlikely to make me any friends at the RHS, and I am certain many would feel more positive about it. Perhaps my malaise reflects more on me than it does on the show, but lately I find that I buy a ticket for Chelsea because I must, for fear of missing out, rather than because I want to. Along with many others, I was intrigued to discover how the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) would navigate the postponement of the show from May until September, a first since the event was inaugurated in 1913. It would have been logical for visitors to expect a cavalcade of autumn colour; chrysanthemums, dahlias, sunflowers; pumpkins, pears and tomatoes; berries, hips and haws. They were there if you looked hard enough but in woefully small numbers. Rather than reinvent the show for an autumn season, we were presented with ‘Chelsea Lite’ ….. or maybe that should be ‘Chelsea Minus’. There was no diminution of quality, thank heavens, but fewer gardens, fewer exhibitors in the great pavilion and a gross proliferation of trade stands proffering goods priced way beyond the means of the majority of visitors. Whilst Chelsea’s elitism is never more than thinly veiled, it was magnified threefold by a reduction in the number of gardens and floral exhibits. In some respects, Chelsea 2021 felt like little more than an outdoor shopping event for London’s wealthiest residents.
I do appreciate that rescheduling a show on the scale of Chelsea must be a gargantuan task. However, it’s been a long time coming and the RHS would have known that expectations were high. Covid has impacted almost every element of commerce, causing problems with materials, production and supply chains, but visitors are neither very interested in that nor particularly sympathetic. They wanted something to help them forget their troubles, reconnect with society and reignite their imagination. Though there were a handful of new exhibitors showcasing wares more suited to the latter part of the year, there were not nearly enough. In most of the show gardens it felt as though planting plans had been adjusted to accommodate plants with autumn interest out of necessity, rather than to celebrate their particular beauty. There were grasses (when aren’t there?), rudbeckia, echinacea, salvia and a smattering of crocosmia and hydrangea, but precious few cosmos, chrysanthemum and coleus. Where were the great displays of pumpkins and gourds, apples and pears, potatoes and tomatoes? The opportunity was ripe (sorry) for a heavenly harvest festival at Chelsea 2021. Instead, it was left to the king of such things, Medwyn Williams, to stage the only major exhibit of exhibition-quality vegetables, and a fine one it was too. Why weren’t new exhibitors incentivised or compelled to come to Chelsea this September? Perhaps they were and just found the challenge too onerous for a one-off autumn event? I wanted dazzling dahlias and colourful chrysanths, bowers of fuchsia and an embarrassment of tender exotics. I was disappointed.
The amount of space left over in the Great Pavilion may also stand testament to the extent to which the act of gardening has been orientated towards spring. I know it and the nurserymen know it – spring is when the money is made. Despite autumn being one of the best times for planning and planting a garden, that message just hasn’t been communicated well enough to the gardening public. It’s spring, not autumn, that’s always touted as the start of the gardening year and that’s lead to a dearth of good quality plants available for sale later in the year. Visit a garden centre for inspiration now, and I guarantee you’ll be disappointed, if not confronted by Christmas decorations. Autumn presents the horticultural industry with a significant opportunity to extend its season and create a second sales peak, and Chelsea was the greatest chance in years to highlight that. The offer was left on the table.
I can’t help but wonder whether the RHS has been too distracted by other activities such as the opening of RHS Hilltop at Wisley and their new northern garden at Bridgewater near Manchester to give the displaced Chelsea Flower Show proper focus. I’d suggest that if the RHS wishes to continue extending its vice-like grip on all things horticultural in the UK, it needs to keep an eye on its crown jewels.
Lest I sound too negative, there were some positive changes to Chelsea for 2021. QR codes have come of age. The monochrome uber-chessboards replaced printed plant lists and pamphlets on many of the stands. I’d be interested to know what the ‘click-through’ rate was on these (I generally couldn’t be bothered), but I certainly welcome the reduction in paper waste. Houseplants were finally given the platform they deserve in the form of a series of posh sheds crammed with fabulous foliage. These were brilliantly and inventively presented, drawing crowds to the extent that this area of the show became uncomfortably congested. Hopefully, this popular plant category will be celebrated again in May, perhaps at the expense of some of the grotesquely overblown trade stands. The introduction of balcony gardens as a garden category was welcome. Sadly the results were mundane, samey and hard to view. I wondered whether the designers had sight of each others’ plans in order to make sure each offered something different. The results were nice, but not very stimulating.
Only six large show gardens were staged, all of them good, a few of them great. My personal favourite was the Trailfinders 50th Anniversary Garden designed by Johnathan Snow. Gardens evoking foreign landscapes are terribly difficult to pull off in the heart of London, but Johnathan achieved his goal with great aplomb. Both John and I have visited Nepal and other regions of the Himalayas, and we were both transported back to the foothills by this gently sloping garden. Colourful prayer flags strung haphazardly between the trees were the perfect visual cue; the planting and use of water were also masterful. If I could have taken any garden home, it would have been this one. My second favourite was probably the Guangzhou Garden which was awarded a gold medal and Best Show Garden. I have been to Guangzhou more times than I care to recall and have never experienced anything quite so beautiful. However, if this garden is representative of the way forward for the environment in this part of southern China I am all for it. Limpid water deliciously planted with marginals occupied a large part of the plot, so perhaps not the most practical of gardens for a family (unless they were ducks), but joyful to look at nevertheless. Designers Peter Chmiel with Chin-Jung Chen excelled themselves with a muted, semi-wild planting scheme and some of the tallest, most delicate structures I can recall in a Chelsea show garden. (When I have more time I promise to cover the show garden fully, as they are certainly worth more than my paragraph here.)
Whilst not all bad, I was still bored: having John there for company was definitely the highlight of my day. Every year the same layout; trade stands, gardens and exhibitors on the same pitches. I know why this is, but to a regular show-goer it feels like Groundhog Day. The RHS really need to mix things up a bit. We see the same old celebs, ageing more or less gracefully, and experience the same shocking service from the hospitality providers. This last point really riles me up, since after paying a princely sum to get in, visitors are subjected to stratospheric prices for appalling service from completely untrained staff. They’re then required to sit on the grass (the free M&G Investment bag is perfect for protecting one’s derrière from dampness) in order to consume their overpriced refreshments. And then, to top it all, there’s the filming. The BBC’s presence at Chelsea is deeply intrusive, bordering on unacceptable when you’ve paid so much to get in. If I was ushered not-so-politely out of the way once, it was tens of times. Production teams litter the gardens discussing their plans while presenters preen and practice before each take. Perhaps filming should take place before the show opens or after it closes and not during the event? The TV coverage is undeniably great – perhaps the best way to enjoy the show – but at what detriment to the punters?
Herein lies the question, an idea sown in my mind by my friend, the photographer Marianne Majerus: what is the Chelsea Flower Show actually for? To my mind, it’s a public showcase for the finest horticulture in the land, if not the world, and that’s why I go. For others it’s entertainment – a nice day out among flowers and gardens, paid for personally or by a generous sponsor. The BBC treat it like a film set, in order to bring the joy of Chelsea to a much wider audience globally. For a few, it’s still a place to be seen, and increasingly it has become a place for purveyors of garden buildings and ornaments to sell their hyper-expensive wares to a very niche consumer. For the RHS I expect Chelsea is not only a revenue stream in itself, but also a major reason why members sign up in the first place. None of these reasons for being is wrong, but one can only think that perhaps Chelsea is trying to be too many things to too many people.
I would like to see the Chelsea Flower Show shaken up a bit – a new layout, a refresh of the whole flower / garden show concept. Perhaps it even requires a new location to create breathing space, or would it then just become the Hampton Court Flower Show? Or maybe it should just be smaller and more focussed towards excellence and trendsetting. And if the RHS really can’t refresh Chelsea, then perhaps the UK needs a decent rival garden show with an imaginative sponsor? There must be one out there. I’d love to hear what you think, or if you feel I am talking nonsense.
The reality is that things are unlikely to change other than little by little. Chelsea is too ingrained in tradition and the gardening calendar to withstand alteration in a major way, as we’ve experienced this year. It will return to May, the voids will be filled with what was there before and exhibitors will return to their familiar pitches. Hospitality will continue to be chronic, unless you can afford to book one of the on-site restaurants (maybe they are chronic too, but I’ll never earn enough to find out), and inexplicably plummy people will still buy tweed gilets and ugly horse sculptures made of driftwood. Chelsea is a juggernaut that’s had to swerve because of Covid. The question is, will it still be as much fun to drive in future? TFG.