Fear & Loathing At The Chelsea Flower Show

‘AND God said, “Let the Earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed and the fruit tree yielding fruit” and it was so.’ Even in those first seven days of over-achievement it was a particularly nice piece of work. You could landfill a quarry with all the great paintings and written words that Man – one of God’s later and less perfect creations – has dedicated to the planet’s vegetation. “In all things of nature there is something of the marvellous,” declared Aristotle. “The Earth laughs in flower,” smiled Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ever since civilisation gradually dragged us away from the pastoral idyll where we all held hands, wore garlands and jumped, laughing, over sheep, people have been trying to recreate it for themselves.

A garden is an attempt to reshape nature according to your own taste and design, taking whatever items you need or like from the wild and arranging them in whatever way gives you the most private pleasure. In that way, a garden is not necessarily any less synthesised or more beautiful than a building – and you don’t have to like somebody else’s garden any more than you have to like their hat or their kitchen.

It’s hard not to respect gardeners – people with the commitment and optimism to painstakingly make real their own imaginary place of solace and delight. But the trouble with gardening, as the American poet Phyllis McGinley once pointed out, is that “it does not remain an avocation, it becomes an obsession”. There is a control freakishness to it, an element of playing your own little God.

And the Chelsea Flower Show is the great celebration of that obsession, the Christmas of the horticultural calendar, the centre of the gardener’s world. It is a competition (preening and one- upmanship are inherent in the gardening mentality), a market, an industry and an institution.

It has survived as a significant event ever since the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) held its first Great Spring Show in 1862, where the finest people could show off their most splendid plants to patrons and peers. Nowadays the world’s top garden designers and floral nurseries are all desperate for a place because of the prestige and commercial exposure, and oil and insurance companies are queuing up to sponsor these masterpiece art-garden installations for more than (pounds) 100,000. Suppliers want in to introduce garden tools, furniture and gadgets to the biggest possible market. And common or garden gardeners want ideas for their own private paradises.

But for the uninitiated (and I know as much about flowers as I do about girls – they’re pretty and they smell nice) the Chelsea Flower Show is like running with the bulls. Having vaguely expected something like a walk in Glasgow’s Botanics, I find that the first day of the 2002 show (open only to card-carrying members of the Royal Horticultural Society, although that includes every self-respecting gardener in Britain) is more like Disneyland in July.

There are touts outside the grounds pleading for spare tickets. The turnstiles are bottlenecked. The avenues between the stalls and exhibits are jammed to paralysis with agitated enthusiasts. And stewards with megaphones are trying to enforce a rather ineffectual one-way system and keep the slothful throng moving around the show gardens – the rows of professionally conjoured landscapes that are assessed by RHS judges much like the dogs at Crufts.

In 1987 the show was gridlocked by 247,000 punters. The RHS has since reduced the ticket allocation, which hasn’t done much to relieve the crush but has made Chelsea more exclusive than the Grand National. The irony hits you shortly after the atomic cloud of pollen. The Chelsea Flower Show is the absolute antithesis of the serenity you would seek in a garden.

After 10 minutes of aimless shuffling I stop, intimidated, at the stall of a Scottish woman dealing in pyramid glasshouses. She doesn’t want to be named in the paper, but tells me she has been coming here for 15 years. “It’s not even busy yet,” she says. “It gets really horrible later on.”

I try to take a break next door in one of Rusco garden furniture’s comfy rope hammocks, but the saleslady sees I’m way too snug and turfs me out sharpish. Chastised, I follow everybody else to this year’s big-deal exhibit – the Prince of Wales’s Healing Garden – and try to steal some opinions from the more informed.

Charles apparently designed it with the help of a “transpersonal psychologist” and an “engineer in “organic structures”, and it is based on arcane English geometry and loaded with ancient curative symbolism. It is scattered with herbs and flowers with medicinal qualities, there is a hornbeam tree dedicated to the Queen Mother, and one corner is taken up with an interesting grassy shelter/hobbit- dwelling type thing. Overall, though, it looks like a golf bunker surrounded by weeds.

“It’s just an overgrown garden,” the old man next to me says to his wife. “If we let the weeds grow, ours would be like this.”

“Herbs are weeds, darling,” observes his wife.

Still, according to the gardening media and the word on the street, the prince’s weedy overgrown look is quite the thing this season. Many of the show gardens have dispensed with the elaborate decking and over-styling of recent years and gone back to their roots. One of these gardens is an appealingly wild-looking piece of Japanese meadow with some simple chairs at the far end – and this year’s Best In Show winner is The Garden Open, a broken gate overrun with grass and nettles.

It was designed by Roger Platt, who seems to be the Michael Schumacher of gardening, having dominated the Chelsea show several times. Some of the green-fingered public aren’t digging this trend at all, feeling that the more traditional cultivating and domesticating aspect of gardening is where the real art lies. “A garden is like a painting, you see,” muses Jim McKinnon, a 30-year veteran of the show. “It either moves you or it doesn’t. And that,” he says, pointing to Platt’s site, “doesn’t move me at all. It’s not a garden, it’s just a chunk of the countryside.”

Isn’t that the point? “I don’t think it should be, no.”

A few of the exhibitors are a little disgruntled with the RHS judges and suspicious of the criteria on which the medals are awarded (they are divided into gold, silver-gilt, silver and bronze). Inside one of the floral pavilions, the Bonsai Kai Club – despite a terrific display of varied and mysterious little trees, raised with love and meticulous care – have only been awarded a bronze. The show is increasingly dominated by big, commercial ventures, and Bonsai Kai Club member Janet Mitchell feels the bronze award is due to her organisation’s amateur status.

“It’s very political,” she says. “And it’s hard for amateurs. These judges are an old guard. They don’t like new people, and there’s a lot of inconsistency in their decisions.” Mitchell is upset, but says that this knock will have no effect on her faith in the “theraputic power” of tending bonsai. “It’s like having a high and being serene at the same time,” she says, convincing me to try my hand at it as soon as I get home.

The floral pavilions are two monumental marquees housing exquisite displays of exotic and domestic plants in strange shapes and ferocious colours. Gardens may be a matter of taste (one landscaper is enthusing about his funky disco fusion of pink Plexiglass decking and traditional English ferns when a woman next to us spits: “That’s crap. Total crap”) but flowers, even the over-familiar ones, are hard to actively dislike. Which reduces the chat among the oppressive, claustrophobic crowd to banal expressions of approval.

True enough, the hibiscus from Mauritius are delightful, and the delphiniums really are a soothing shade of blue. But there are only so many times you can hear people say “Ooh, lovely” right next to your ear before the words lose what little meaning they have and you’re bubbling with misanthropy. I need some action, a break from this relentless pleasantness, and figure I’ll get it at the Carniverous Plant Society. What’s the most evil plant they’ve got? “Well, it’s not really evil,” says society member Bernie Scriven. “But the most dramatic is obviously the Venus flytrap.”

Maybe I’ve seen too many B-movies, but I could have sworn that those babies were big enough to chomp a person’s head off. In real life they’re just toothy leaves, smaller than a 10p coin. “They catch flies, not humans,” Scriven tells me quite seriously. He then points out some other flowery fiends, including one that triggers underwater traps which are “very nasty to small fish and tadpoles” and a particularly unpleasant fleshy tube that fills up to the brim with insects, digesting them slowly. Scriven has a “vivid interest in nature’s struggle to survive”. “Most plants are static, but these are different,” he says. “They get no nutrients and they have to find alternative food sources.”

Further attempts to engage with the Flower Show on this more butch level are not particularly successful. The garden equipment vendors will let you heft the chainsaws but not turn them on. And the superbly named Crusader Power Scythe turns out to be a tough but dull- looking lawnmower. Inching irritably down one of the avenues, I come across an army of animal sculptures made from twisted rods of rusted red iron – mostly ants, bats and tarantulas. They look weird and beautiful. The artist, a Belgian bloke called David Vanorbeek, is dressed like Indiana Jones and has his feet up on a metal deer. He is smoking a roll-up cigarette and drinking red wine from the bottle.

“I’m bored,” he says. “And a bit drunk, I think.” Vanorbeek hasn’t really enjoyed his time at the Flower Show, and he hasn’t sold anything. “It’s shit. All these idiots walking around like clockwork looking for all the usual things. I’m going to stop doing garden shows and just sell in galleries.” His real ambition is to find a place – “hopefully the Tate Modern” – that will let him smash a giant iron preying mantis into the wall with a huge catapult. A woman enquires about the price of the deer, which is standing next to a larger stag. “It’s (pounds) 5000 for the pair,” says Vanorbeek. “But how much just for one?”

“They’re a couple and I won’t separate them.”

“But that’s silly, isn’t it?”

“It makes sense to me. If I buy you, I would have to buy your husband too.”

Thus entertained, I take a last look around the showpiece gardens. They are amazing, expensive, impractical pieces of work, like aspirational catwalk fashion. The gold-winning, Merrill Lynch- sponsored landscape looks like it might be pretty peaceful, with a whispering water feature and a curved lawn, and after a day at the Chelsea Flower Show all you want to do is jump the rope and lie on the grass, waiting for all these people to go away. But you can’t. And at the end of the week this garden will be dismantled. The message, I suppose, is that you have to get your own.

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