Horticultural Theatre

Roger Macdonald visits the 2012 Chelsea Flower Show

In 1826 about one hundred people turned up to see the first of a series of floral fetes arranged by the London (not yet Royal) Horticultural Society on the Duke of Devonshire’s estate in Chiswick. The income from this modest annual event was not enough to keep the RHS solvent and in the 1850s it avoided bankruptcy only by selling its precious collection of rare books on botany. Their honorary treasurer of the time would have been amazed to see how the early seedlings of the 1820s have blossomed into the world’s most famous, and probably most profitable gardening extravaganza, the Chelsea Flower Show.

Held since 1912 in the gardens of the Chelsea Hospital, interrupted only for part of the First World War and the whole of the Second, the show now attracts 157,000 visitors each May, an arbitrary limit set by the RHS to prevent over-crowding. On some days this can still seem a tad too high, because it is a real struggle to get near the most popular exhibits of spectacular gardens. The show takes 40 days to prepare and dismantle but is open for only six, three for the general public, two for RHS members, and one for The Queen and VIPs. The playwright Alan Melville sardonically observed on Desert Island Discs that if the ‘private view’ (when RHS members attend) was considered ‘private’ then in future he would be going to Trafalgar Square on New Years Eve for ‘complete isolation’.

Tickets (which start at £50) are extremely hard to come by. Nowadays this is very much a corporate event, with an abundance of hospitality tents. The ancient Grand Marquee I remember from yesteryear finally split at the seams and has been replaced by the vast Grand Pavilion, rather too grand a name methinks for its white pvc and aluminium struts.  If you want the latest varieties of luscious blooms to turn up as seed packets in November, this is the place to go.

These days the pavilion’s host of exhibitors sell, and sell hard, to the general public and complained to me that the fine weather of 2012 kept most of their prospective customers outside in the sunshine.

A goodly number were being entertained from the bandstand by a variety of eclectic acts from opera to skiffle, sufficiently entertaining to divert the audience’s attention away from the extraordinary high prices charged for Pimms and pasties. 

Some show gardens use more plants and flowers in a single week than the average garden in a lifetime but then this is pure horticultural theatre, where money is no object; the shrewd visitor goes home with some good ideas that can be turned into practice with the help of an ordinary garden centre.  But payments were being taken during my visit for exotic sculptures in stone and metal, the equally exotic price barely dented by the show discount; and I heard one visitor ordering a conservatory for more than £100,000.

This must be one of the few gardens in Britain where digging is by and large prohibited – a reflection of the need to return the site to the Chelsea Hospital in pristine condition at the end of the show. The missing dimension of depth limits the exhibits, even the triumph of 2012, a row of painstakingly constructed artisan gardens.

The resources that go into creating these natural paradises of wild shrubs and flowers are truly enormous, an encouraging reminder of what I have achieved in my own back garden by a combination of luck and lethargy.

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Roger Macdonald

Writer & consultant

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