Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Why I'm not going to Chelsea.



I usually go to the show every three or four years. Like a lot of people. Once you have seen two Chelseas you realise that one is much like another. Those who are going for the first time will have a fantastic time. No doubt about that. But after seeing a few of them, the appeal palls, and they begin to blur in the memory. I went last year, and as always these days, the main thrill is meeting people I have not seen in ages, a sort of big party really, and good networking. But the show itself, left me feeling vaguely depressed, and I came away feeling I would be quite happy never to go to another in my life. Which to be honest, I am sure won't not be the case, but I'll give it a few more years yet.

I don't think Chelsea is very much about gardening or garden design any more. It has been swallowed up as a big media event. Few people in the media understand gardening – all they understand is audience ratings and the money that depends on that. Media hype is guaranteed to distort anything it touches. In its trail follows money, which distorts everything even more. I'm not knocking the RHS or anyone who does anything there – if you can make it work for you, go for it!

Years ago, 1989-1991 I 'did' Chelsea, in that I had a nursery stand in the marquee (its called a marquee darling, don't you dare call it a tent). That was in the days when the marquee and its nursery stands were the core of the show and the gardens around the edge were not much more than wallpaper. I remember thinking at the time why the RHS bothers with the show. The site is ridiculously cramped, logistics are horrendously tight, and the numbers who can be let in has to be limited because it was getting so crowded – any more and there would be one of those terrible incidents like you get on Hindu pilgrimages when hundreds get crushed in a stampede. A lot of people don't go because of the crowds, although if you go at 8.00 when it opens you can have a good clear two hours before it gets too crowded.

Hampton Court Flower Show, the regional shows like Malvern and Tatton Park are much more pleasant experiences: room to breathe, space to lie on the grass (if weather agreeable), show gardens you can actually see, you can buy plants, all so much more civilised. No wonder so many in the nursery trade would rather go to these than Chelsea. The great marquee has been emptying over the years, even to the point where the RHS are subsidising nurseries to exhibit. The costs of showing, staying in London etc, at a time of year when most nursery people are über-busy anyway, are prohibitive. I remember talking to one last year, who gave me a cost breakdown of doing the show, swearing she would never do it again.

What has taken over of course, are the show gardens, whose significance has been hugely blown up by media hype. Garden design was blown up ridiculously as a profession some years ago by media hype (at the expense of gardenING, remember the -ING, it is very important). Having moved on to other things, they haven't let go of Chelsea, and continue to perpetuate the folly of thinking that what happens in show gardens is somehow relevant to what people might do in gardens at home. The problem is that these are gardens put on for a few days. The rules (as I understand them) allow for all sorts of plants to be put together that would not normally be put together in a garden. The constricted sites and viewpoints make for gardens that are generally completely impractical, as any one of the overpaid fools who is so stupid as to buy a Chelsea garden rapidly discovers. A friend once said to me that “Chelsea gardens are not about garden design, they are flower arranging”. They are just too high impact and too far removed from reality to do much to really inform the public about gardens that actually last the summer, let alone for a few years.

Show gardens are big money, at least £150,000, and that's probably out of date as a figure. Sponsors want returns, which means nothing less than a gold will satisfy them. So everybody is trying to please the judges, they are trying to hit a target, which tends to stifle creativity. A lot of the best work at Chelsea can be seen in the small gardens, the ones which have less investment riding on them.

What would work is a summer long show that has show gardens in a big park, where people can come and see, and perhaps make repeat visits and see how the gardens shape up through the season. A bit like the summer-long German garden shows (although, from my all-too limited experience in visiting these, there is not much of a show garden element) or the wonderful Chaumont-sur-Loire garden festival in France (although this verges on installation art too much to be really useful to most people). The German shows include a huge amount of garden related goings-on: temporary events, lectures, displays of summer bedding, big landscape interventions etc, etc. They act as a setting for a whole series of experiences which link the worlds of landscape, gardening and nature far more than the madness of a few over-hyped days on a cramped site can ever hope to do.

The other good thing about the German shows is that they move around, so one place does not get a show for at least another 10-15 years. And they are about urban regeneration. They are somehow much more public-spirited and democratic. There is media-hype and nonsense to be sure, but fundamentally they are about things that last and which work – good sustainable gardening and public landscape regeneration. We have a lot to learn from them.

As an alternative, there is of course The Chelsea Fringe.

16 comments:

Helen Johnstone said...

What a refreshing read. I have felt increasingly the same about Chelsea over the last two years and have felt a lone voice, not least because I have no standing in horticulture. I know from several very respected nurserymen I have met in the past 6 months that Chelsea is too expensive and they feel like paupers compared to the showgardens. However, watching the coverage this year I started to think I was misplaced in my assumptions but I shouldnt have let myself be beguiled by the media and your post has reassured me that I'm not alone in these feelings

susan harris said...

I feel much the same way about the Philadelphia Flower Show. Once is enough and I've been to at least four of them.

julia said...

i agree with you whole heartedly. It's all a bit bling now - tv seems to put it across in the worst aspect - shopping and features and also which celeb likes what - that fills other criteria. Interestingly, folks have been very critical of Beth Chatto talking about gardening as a hobby lately, but that's her opinion.Anyone who remembers her displays in the marquee that combined aesthetic + artistic flair to 'right plant right place' would surely respect her huge influence of planting design in the UK in the last 50 years. Gardens and the horticultural aspct are now business and that means shows like this are for others. True plant lovers can exist without media hype. Very good book Noel by the way.

Mario said...

Many US shows have gone the way you describe Chelsea. I can't blame you for not going.

beangenie said...

I absolutely agree.

At the start of Chelsea I usually think wistfully that I'd quite like to go - for about 5 seconds, until I come to my senses. I did it for several years as an exhibitor, and I did think that had ruined it for me (it's easier to get something to eat or make 'comfort stops' when you have the exhibitor's area to fall back on), but it's much more than that, and you've summed it up. The other shows are so much nicer.

Julie said...

It would be lovely to have new garden ideas displayed and evolve as in Germany. We went to Chelsea last year, after a break of many years and enjoyed our day, there were many beautiful temporary gardens, but none as exciting as some of the permanent and real gardens open in the UK available to visit all year round, for less than a fiver. The NGS site has a some excellent photographs and information on what is available.

Anke Buehrmann said...

Thank you for this great article. It expresses precisely what I feel about Chelsea. The show has become much to arty-farty. I was totally impressed when I was there for the first time and enjoyed the huge range of plants that were shown in the tent, sorry, marquee. It was also impressive to see beautiful gardens, often in front of thatched cottages or other idyllic things that make a garden look over-nice. But is that still gardening when the garden designers work with that kind of additional "beautifiers"? To me it looks more and more like a fake and makes me a bit aggressive because it creates the impression that gardens look always that stunning and you do not need to know much about plants because it is all about nice design. So I am glad that you mentioned the German garden shows. They are made to last over a much longer time and they are not that overdesigned. Instead they are realistic and inspirational. By the way, a garden show that ignores garden gnomes or considers them "primitive" or inappropriate as Chelsea did for some years insults a lot of gardenera who are happy with their little bit of garden no matter how plain or natural it is. In the end gardening is also about individalism and should not be taken to seriously, as it is also simply a matter of fun.

Elena Gardin said...

Thank you very much for this post as it made me reflect a lot.
My first and only time at Chelsea was in 2010 and I had a great time though I felt a bit overwhelmed by the "show element" (and the old ladies trying to climb on me to get the best picture of the temporary gardens). This feeling grew during the following years and I have started to wonder if Chelsea is actually changing into Vanity Fair (Thackeray's not the fashion magazine ..or maybe both). As a landscape architect and architect, I hear lots of time people saying "Garden is a status symbol". It is true partly but has it become only this? I think so and proof is given by some well known fashion companies starting their own garden centre in the States. But, as professional dedicated to this world, whose meaning is as much profound as mankind itself, should we just accept it?

College Gardener said...

Thank you for this great piece! I have often wondered about the impracticality of those show gardens - and their sometimes just aesthetically questionable design - based on pictures I have seen but. never having been, I was not aware of many of the other attendant problems. The comparison to Hindu pilgrimages might be quite apt, because gardening publications as well as the media in general here in the US but also, from my experience, in places like Germany, Portugal, and even Malaysia have been touting Chelsea as a sort of necessary pilgrimage for the horticulturally inclined. Thank you also for the shout-out to German summer long garden shows. I have not actually been to one since I was a little kid, but their positive long-term effects are very noticeable both in my own native city of Stuttgart, which held one in the early 1990s, and even in my family's ancestral home of Kassel, where the event in question lies even further back.

Layanee said...

This sounds all too familiar and I can understand why you are not going. I did have the good fortune to see the show once and the crowds were horrific. The gardens were quite wonderful and those 'marquee' vendors a delight to this American. Why didn't I order a pair of custom boots? Maybe it was the high price tag but they were luscious. I wish we had a show like this in the U.S.without all the hype. To my knowledge there is no show which features outside vignette gardens to the extent of Chelsea. Money is tight everywhere and sponsors do rule the day. Stay home and have a cup or better yet, a glass of wine.

Anonymous said...

Loved your comments but didn't we have the type of show you are looking for in the style of the garden festivals with the likes of Stoke and Gateshead around early eighties if I recall

Amanda Squires said...

Like the ideas, thoughtful, especially about a summer long series of accessible local shows. Anyone interested in their gardens or in gardening need inspiration and knowledge about what can really work in their soil/weather/climate. Chelsea is just off the Richter Scale for the majority of low paid or no paid gardening public. I love the venue because of the heritage there but they should think of using the site differently and not attracting so many people and make it less sponsor orientated, I agree, let more creativity in; encourage it; let's see more unknown faces there and get rid of the main avenue gardens that cost so much and are just a showcase for designers who are already well known and sponsors who just use it as a publicity thing. I've been twice & did enjoy it but it needs a fresh approach now; times have changed and about £80 minimum for a day out, just for entry and train is too much for me anyway.

Tristan said...

I share the sentiments and especially, the lack of ing, but at least there is one event in horticulture that gets good general coverage.
I suppose the balance is between attracting the marginal gardeners with coverage and info and repelling them with some half-hearted celebrity and elderly TV production.
I have a feeling the whole thing might be slumping to the latter but that said I'm already hooked on the ing so it's not for me is it?

Jon Tilley said...

I actually come from the other end of this discussion, I actually exhibit at RHS Tatton and this year I am building a conceptual garden at Hampton Court. I actually find the experience quite frustrating, so much work on a very small budget, not 300 - 500,000, but 6000, try getting plants shipped from all over the world on that budget. The big Chelsea gardens play lip service to environmental responsibility, but it is laughable really. I have some great memories of my years at the RHS shows, but I don't really get any work from it as I do conceptual gardens and the general public don't really want giant grass claws in their back gardens. Which is what we are building this year, really for the fun of it, as I am not looking for work, it is really a creative process. If someone offers me 200,000 to build a Chelsea show garden - great. But to be honest I don't know how they spend that much on a 200 square metre plot. It's almost obscene. Anyway come and say hello if you are going to Hampton Court. Dragonfly Garden Design, and the garden is called The Claw. Cheers

Matt Mattus said...

Oh, I am so glad that I am not the only one. After two Chelsea's ( and I am American) I think I had enough. I really never get to see the gardens anyway, due to the crowns, opting for the tents and the more classic displays of specific species and plants (sweet peas, primula and, of course, the parsnips). I should check some of the other shows, shouldn't I? Or, perhaps stick to the AGS shows. Those are always far more interesting. And no press!

Noel Kingsbury said...


Having read your blog re Why I will not go to Chelsea, I would like to argue a bit. You, British people, are so lucky to have something like Chelsea. And other flower shows as well. As you can drop by pretty much whenever you feel like. After the first time in 2010 I was astonished. Beautiful show gardens, the marquee, but most of all I liked the people. Older couples, holding hands and speaking in latin plant terms with each other. And the feeling. This year everything was nice, I liked the gardens (yes, these are made just for a week, cramped with plants and flowers that do not flower together etc) but it is a SHOW! And actually I did not miss being able to buy plants at all (like you do) but just look and enjoy, sit back and relax and watch the crowds. I am amazed by the crazy undertaking by all who are involved! It is such a commitment! My absolute highlight, however, was a young boy, who during the schools’ competition had won a prize to come to Chelsea and speak about their school garden. He was so enthusiastic, he could have talked for hours and was so proud of what they had done! He was Chelsea to me. And thanks to him and his classmates, there will be great gardeners (I am not sure if this is the right word?) and gardenholics like you in the future.

(sent to me in an email from Estonia)NK