In his short story “The Occasional Garden,” Saki pinpoints a subject dear to the British heart, but also key to its social anxieties. Elinor Rapsley is about to receive a lunch visit from a woman whom she detests, Gwenda Pottingdon. Gwenda’s garden is the envy of the neighborhood; Elinor’s is a barren wasteland. Gwenda is coming on purpose to crow over Elinor’s pathetic pansies while describing her own rare and sumptuous roses.
Elinor, however, has a surprise in store. A friend has told her about the Occasional-Oasis Supply Association, which, for a fee, can transform her garden for a few hours into a backdrop of cinematic splendor. When Gwenda arrives, she is startled to see “the pomegranate and lemon trees, the terraced fountain, where golden carp slithered and wriggled amid the roots of gorgeous-hued irises,” the “banked masses of exotic blooms [and] the pagoda-like enclosure, where Japanese sand-badgers disported themselves.”
She chokes on her lunch, and we—the reader—laugh into our sleeves. For we understand that in Britain, having an exquisite garden is the ultimate social trump card. Even if the garden only lasts for an afternoon.
In 1913, the Royal Horticultural Society held its Great Spring Show for the first time in Chelsea: a display designed to demonstrate, through the construction of temporary gardens and plant exhibits, the abundance of new and exciting varieties and the visual effects the keen gardener could achieve. Nowadays, the Chelsea Flower Show is a firmly established part of the London Season. Attended by the queen and other celebrities, it transforms the 66 acres around the Royal Hospital Chelsea into a series of temporary Edens quite as elaborate and competitive as anything that Saki could have imagined.
For five days in May, over 160,000 eager ticket-holders pour through the Garden Gate to enjoy an event that is both a tribute to Britain’s past—a throwback to the Victorian days of Great Exhibitions—and a hotbed of contemporary fashion, where gardens may be suspended from cranes, or feature space-age structures, novelty fabrics, or digital effects.
The first thing you will see as you follow the gravel path past Christopher Wren’s Royal Hospital Chelsea, an elegant, symmetrical edifice built in 1692 and dedicated to housing retired soldiers, is the Chelsea Pensioners themselves. These veterans wear a distinctive red uniform, often with medals and a tricorn hat. Their average age is 83, and they sway like cheerful scarlet poppies amidst the corn of incoming garden-lovers, collecting donations for military charities. This is their home, and you sense that the annual frenzy of floribundance is a source of quiet amusement to them.
Onward you press, along the grand, tree-lined Eastern Avenue, ignoring meantime the many commercial stalls that want to woo you with Wellington boots or secure your order for twine. You are heading for the Great Pavilion, the vast tent at the heart of the show. Here, growers specializing in particular types of plants advertise their prowess by creating displays of extravagant wonder. There is so much eye-popping color that it is easy to wander in a daze, like a child in a candy store, simply marveling at the panoply of different species in their infinite variety of form.
There are dioramas of daffodils, crowds of cacti, hosts of hostas, and fusillades of fuchsias. Some of the nurseries represented here have been in business since the Victorian era, and their gardeners still wear their trademark bowler hats and waistcoats. Jim Durrant of McBean’s Orchids, which was founded in 1879 and has always had a stand at Chelsea, explained that orchids are worth a great deal less now than in 1913. Back then, individual specimens sold to wealthy collectors for the equivalent of £20,000 apiece. McBean’s would make enough money from orders at Chelsea to pay for the running of its Sussex nursery for a whole year.
Now, owing to modern propagation methods that produce orchids in large numbers, those plants sell for around £30. Although the stand rental itself is free, transport and accommodation costs mean that McBean’s takes a loss at Chelsea. But being there is a point of pride and of profile: It broadens the customer base. As I gazed entranced at the rising slope of spotted, slender--throated cream and bronze and magenta blooms behind Durrant, more hard-headed and deep-pocketed visitors were waving their order forms and credit cards, pointing fingers to indicate that they wanted five of these, and nine of those.
You can’t buy plants to take away at Chelsea—at least until Saturday afternoon, when the show is dismantled. The tension between the omnipresence of beautiful plants and the fact that you can’t have them (or not yet) creates a frisson of quasi-erotic wistfulness. Concrete as the exhibits may be, the Chelsea Flower Show is all about fantasy. It is about the garden of your imagination much more than the one in your backyard.
Ranged around the Grand Pavilion are the 15 official “show gardens,” and you will have to be patient if you want a good look at any of them. Rock concert-style crowds throng and surge against the wire barriers as if trying to glimpse a zoo tiger or the Mona Lisa. You may suffer a middle-class, middle-aged elbow in the kidneys, or a Cath Kidston chintz tote swung perilously close to your glasses.
These mini-idylls, the largest of which is 32 by 72 feet, are scrutinized for their design as closely as any catwalk creation. Some are classical in inspiration: The 2013 Laurent-Perrier garden, designed by Swedish art-throb Ulf Nordfjell, featured a bronze sculpture of Orpheus leaping lyrically upward in a movement echoed by five tapering oaks—tall, golden trees that had the slim, paintbrush shape of cypresses. These oaks (Quercus fastigiata) became one of the most talked-about items at the show. Other gardens are more urban in feel. The Midlands city of Stoke-on-Trent, famous for the industrial potteries that produce Britain’s tableware, sponsored a garden this year that was designed to reflect the regeneration of the city. It contained an extraordinary open structure in the shape of a kiln, partially stacked with white china “flower bricks.” Behind this was a living wall of plants in colors supposed to represent the Staffordshire landscape. Water cascaded through a series of tiered pools, toward a circular, tiled tabletop depicting plants exhibited in the garden.
I’m not convinced that I’d want any of this in my personal oasis, but, with perhaps the addition of a few flamingos, I think Gwenda Pottingdon would be impressed.
Each of the gardens and pavilion stands is assessed by a committee and awarded a class of medal: gold, silver-gilt, silver, or bronze. Part of the pleasure of the show is tutting in outrage at the decisions. As with the Oscars, members of the public often suspect that politics trumps talent. If a garden is sponsored by Prince Harry, highlighting the plight of AIDS-affected Lesotho (as the Sentebale garden did this year), then—many whisper, and I cannot demur—it will win gold regardless of how ugly it is.
Some of the more quietly attractive gardens this year were in the smaller “Artisan” and “Fresh” categories. In “The Massachusetts Garden,” inspired by the poetry of Emily Dickinson, designer Susannah Hunter, who normally works with textiles for handbags, had created a floral backdrop that was like a Japanese screen, but entirely made from appliqué leather. She estimated that there were 15,000 handsewn petals in the garden, creating imaginary hollyhocks and foxgloves and a wisteria trellis behind some lovely naturalistic planting by Catherine MacDonald, including irises, poppies, and dogwoods.
I liked the soft planting, too, in the “Get Well Soon” garden by the National Botanic Garden of Wales, which was full of medicinal herbs and restful, creamy-hued tulips (“Maureen Double”), aquilegia (“White Star”), and delphiniums (“Galahad”), with now and again a splash of wine-red anemones (“Bordeaux”) to revive the drooping spirit.
The Artisan Gardens are designed to showcase natural and sustainable materials, and it is clear that concern about sustainability has risen up the Chelsea agenda in recent years. Several universities had stands in the Great Pavilion, presenting their work on grass-free lawns—why not try a wildflower meadow instead, which will need less watering?—and allowing visitors to play with scientific instruments that can measure chlorophyll in wheat varieties, making fertilizer application more efficient. Products for sale included wool compost and various kinds of batboxes, “frogitats,” and “hogitats” (to encourage hedgehogs). Iconic animal species such as the nightingale, turtledove, and hedgehog have diminished by 90 percent in Britain in the last 50 years: a sad toll that is attributed to habitat loss, pesticide use, and changing climate patterns. Hedges, which provide nesting sites for birds and allow hedgehogs to move between gardens, are currently “in”; fences are “out.”
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.