Chelsea Flower Show – a SPANA in the works

The SPANA garden at Chelsea (BBC)I have always moaned about Chelsea for all the usual reasons – the crowds and the scrum; the inevitable domination of the whole event by the show gardens and the fact that they often deceive, horticulturally; and all the drossy, tasteless things on sale (not in the main thoroughfare where the big players have their stalls, but in the ‘off piste’ avenues – it was worse than ever this year).  

So I thought that this year I would try to get under Chelsea’s skin a bit more… to see if my prejudices were actually justified.

I was therefore really pleased to have a small input into the SPANA Courtyard Garden – its Moroccan theme, complete with donkey cart, was conceived initially by SPANA’S Chief Exec. Jeremy Hulme and designed by Chris O’Donohue, winner of a Silver Gilt medal at last year’s Chelsea Flower Show.

Back in February , at the invitation of SPANA, Chris and I made a lightening trip to Marrakech to source pots and appropriate artefacts for the garden and get a feel for things generally.

The flowers arrive at the SPANA gardenAnd during the Chelsea’s Build Up week I spent the best part of a sodden day helping him and his team put the garden together, and took the opportunity to take a look at some of the big gardens in the process of being put built. 

During Chelsea week itself, I subsequently did what I normally do – I went in my official hack capacity to Press Day, and I talked a lot – to RHS Council members (at an RHS lunch), and to an extremely interesting QC – Oliver Sells – who has been instrumental in getting what sounds to me like a good old fashioned flower show off the ground in the Inner Temple (which is where the RHS held its first show in the 19th century, I understand) in September. 

I also sat in on a discussion at Vista (I wrote about this before on a previous post – Vista is a slightly high-brow lecture/discussion group – each lecture followed by a wonderful informal supper… all slightly awe-inspiring but always thought-provoking). 

The theme of the evening was something along the lines of ‘where is Chelsea going?’, a discussion lead by Tim Richardson and Ethne Clarke (who looked so like Angela Merkel it was hard to concentrate on what she said!).  It seems there’s an interesting split in the horticultural world, effectively a Great Divide: should Chelsea be THE show case for cutting edge design (which designers feel, disappointedly, that it is not)… or should it be about growers, plant breeders and sellers (who are finding it increasingly expensive and disruptive to attend).

But I then also went back, on other days, to talk to people, listen in and generally get a feel for how the public reacted to it all.

But did any of this hectic activity change my mind? 

Not really.  I was staggered – to the point of depression – about the purely theatrical performance that is the overwhelming competitive side of Chelsea – and hated what we did to the plants to create the required ‘look’ for the little SPANA garden, (which got a Silver Medal and, far more importantly, loads of excellent publicity for the fantastic charity). 

I hate to think of the waste – of time, resources, plants – that went into the creation of the big show gardens, and from my eavesdropping visit on the public day it was clear that the public – some of the public anyway – feels the same as I do. 

The overall feeling I got was that everyone wanted to see more flowers, more growers in the big pavillion, and many of them commented that it was a ‘bit thin’ this year, and a lot of people wanted less of the tat. Only one woman in the ice cream queue, who hadn’t been to Chelsea since the 1950s, thought it was ‘better than before’.

So now we hear that the whole show is in trouble because local residents don’t like all the disruption.  Something, somehow, has got to change, but it will probably take ages for such a big ship to change course.

So on we go, to next July.  It’s sad to say, but personally, I find the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show more honest, more energetic, a better day out and more realistically priced. And altogether more helpful to gardeners.


2 thoughts on “Chelsea Flower Show – a SPANA in the works

  1. I agree with your comments on the pavilion: it did seem to me that there were fewer nurseries there this year (and a huge Jo Malone stand that seemed to be full of cut flowers: what was THAT about?). For me, the biggest thrill at Chelsea is to see the new varieties, to ask advice from someone who knows their plants inside out and to see plants at their best. I know the RHS has to make money, but sometimes it seems as if they’ve lost sight of the main aim, which is to encourage gardening (or so I thought).
    I’m afraid I have no sympathy at all with local residents. The Chelsea Flower Show has been on that site far longer than they have. Wherever a huge event takes place (Edinburgh Festival, Hay-on-Wye etc), the locals always complain. What do they expect people to do, just cancel everything?

  2. This year I wasn’t there, but have enjoyed the coverage greatly and watch it knowing that it is a show, and an opportunity for outlandish display. I expect extravagance! (Though do take the point about waste and resources). I’ve found the RHS site actually very helpful, with a ‘get the look’ guide with practical and sensible tips. Perhaps the numbers visiting the show each year best demonstrate its popularity and drive the quality?! There’s plenty room I think for all types of show, and I like to visit both Chelsea and Hampton Court. They both make me feel super-eager about gardening and my plot.

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