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.