The Magazine

Britain in Bloom

The Chelsea Flower Show celebrates its centennial.

Jun 17, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 38 • By SARA LODGE
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As you can spend an entire day—from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.—at Chelsea, it is important to remember to sit down. Visitors picnic under the chestnut trees (if the rain holds off), listening to a band play military marches and medleys from Show Boat. There are many concessions selling champagne with strawberries, tea with cake—or beer with fish and chips. One suspects that some visitors with few horticultural aspirations come chiefly to socialize and get pleasantly squiffy, their cheeks becoming as ruddy as carnations while the shadows fall.

The growers and designers throw their own parties. After an intense three weeks delivering and disposing of many thousands of plants—some of which are mature trees in 265-gallon pots—they are on an adrenalin high akin to the cast of a circus. Many of the people who join the gardening profession, like those in the theater, have run away from other jobs as lawyers or office-workers. They love the risk, the camaraderie, and the creativity. And it is hard to blame them.

Of course, there is plenty at Chelsea that is pretentious, vulgar, or bizarre. Among the commercial stalls in the avenues are booths purveying life-sized metal statues of gorillas, frog mariachi bands, and nude women riding dinosaurs. You can also purchase a wide variety of follies and ruins: The latter come in at about £1,500 for a small turret, and range upwards to £20,000 for the façade of an ancestral abbey. I found a sculpture of a skeleton towing a lawn-roller a good deal more disturbing than garden gnomes, which are usually banned from Chelsea on grounds of taste but which made a discreet, one-off appearance this year in a well-hidden glass case. (These special gnomes were all painted by celebrities and are to be auctioned for charity. Sir Elton John created a glam-rock gnome, with pink glitter attire and sunglasses. Lord Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, had, unsurprisingly, gone for a very traditional costume. A stately gnome, if you will.)

For all its fads and furbelows, the Chelsea Flower Show strikes at something very deep in the roots of British life. The designer plots bring out the paradox that, on a small island, gardens function both as intensely private spaces—the sites of Romantic dreams of seclusion—and as public spaces, which display our connoisseurship, our class, and our credo more frankly than anything else we Britons own. 

If an Englishman’s home is his castle, his garden is his chapel. The British are not united, as Americans are, by a single flag (the Scots, Welsh, and Irish hoist their own banners, and many Englishmen prefer the Cross of St. George to the Union Jack). But the importance and delight of gardens, which feature so strongly in our literature, is a touchstone that brings us together, an anthem on which everyone can agree.

Perhaps it is because we have so little land, relatively speaking, that each single bed seems worth losing sleep over. Or perhaps more poignant fantasies are at work. The British upper and middle classes are, in the main, ambivalent about commerce and the material trappings of wealth: Cars, designer clothes, and other luxury goods are not flaunted by the arbiters of taste. But gardens are different, because they are natural—even when they are highly studied. The ultimate goal of the Chelsea Flower Show, as of so many Britons, is to create gardens that look as if they have been there forever: landscapes of timeless charm and beauty, whose expansive air of tranquility and cycles of growth and change seem unconscious of any market. 

In a country where family trees and historic homes are worth far more, culturally, than new money ever could be, the rose whose rise is imperceptible has the sweetest scent of all.

Sara Lodge, a senior lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics.

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