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25 May 2022

A shadow hangs over this year’s Chelsea Flower Show – our climate crisis

Chelsea was always ecologically problematic, but it feels impossible now to view it simply as a pretty flower show.

By Alice Vincent

Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to cover the Chelsea Flower Show, I’ve developed a strategy to prevent it from overwhelming me. Most people who write about gardening will have their own, I’m sure. I knew of one editor who masterfully lined up a schedule of the exhibits passing out free booze, ensuring several hours of civilised quaffing among the roses.

Mine is less glamorous. I get there as early as possible – the gates open at 7am on press day – and stash my bike rather illegally backstage, among the spare plants deemed not desirable enough to be planted. Then, I potter quietly around the show gardens, stepping over the thick wires that snake from television cameras, careful not to photobomb any professional shots of the garden with my iPhone-wielding arm. There are no celebrities or politicians here yet; sometimes Monty Don will be doing his bit. Broadcasters run through their lines while pacing around immaculate pieces of patio. I just get to look.

This is the first time Chelsea has opened in May since 2019 (it was virtual in 2020, and postponed until September in 2021). Those three years have seen stark Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, Black Lives Matter protests, a global pandemic, and the cost-of-living crisis. It’s not as if Chelsea wasn’t seen as elitist, inaccessible and ecologically problematic before, but it feels impossible, now, to view it as simply a pretty flower show. To remove a garden – and the act of gardening – from the politics that bolster its existence is a privilege. The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) can’t ignore the conditions that facilitate the show any more.

It’s not an easy task: a Chelsea show garden is inherently wasteful. Sponsors – including, this year, Meta (formerly Facebook) – funnel hundreds of thousands of pounds into plots that are created to exist for a week. Design entrants must now state what will happen to their gardens after the show. Jamie Butterworth’s Sanctuary Garden, for example, will be rebuilt at a school – but the carbon footprint of the reconstruction is enormous. This week, judges will be trialling new criteria to award gardens on their ecological merits, which they might formalise for 2023.

The RHS has vowed to phase out peat usage across its shows by 2025, which seems too late for many, considering peat bogs are a carbon trap. You can learn more about that at the discovery zone inside the pavilion, where a peat bog has been created for visitors to step into – and then, presumably, go and admire a load of plants grown in the stuff.

[See also: The magic of pressing flowers in spring]

There’s also the widely overlooked issue of unpaid labour: as pointed out by professional gardener Claire Vokins, while designers and contractors get paid, the great majority of people who meticulously plant up Chelsea’s gardens are volunteers, and the great majority of those volunteers are women. 

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Chelsea is a spectacle: all that magic, all that hard work, poured into a field in the middle of London. The designers are immensely talented, the nurseries and craftspeople remarkable. Many have made the decisions and the effort to create exhibits that respond to the challenges posed by our ailing planet. It all looks wonderful, but it’s impossible to ignore the waste: many gardens showcased wildflowers that thrive in our natural spaces on rainwater, and yet I still saw volunteers out with a last-minute hose.

Chelsea’s gardens reflect our times, and this year’s demonstrate a dreamy, drifting escapism grounded by comforting nooks – for reflection and well-being – and a celebration of naturalistic planting. Adam Hunt and Lulu Urquhart have built a beaver dam, surrounded by plants some visitors will think of as weeds, such as herb-robert, which will prompt some necessary conversations. The Meta Garden (its actual name) was inspired by the “soil, fungi and plants” that comprise our “resilient woodlands”. The gardens are undeniably beautiful: the white umbellifers of cow parsley, the drift of ragged robin, the curl and pattern of bearded iris, but they also made me think of the forests and meadows, which would weather with the seasons. Imagine if we spent a week broadcasting those on the BBC, instead.

[See also: This England: Losing Faith]

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This article appears in the 25 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Out of Control