Chelsea's own goal

The Chelsea Flower Show used to be the real high-point of the horticultural calendar. But now, gardener Diana Ross asks if its standards have been compromised by the need to make big bucks
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I was enchanted by my first experience of the Chelsea Flower Show. What really struck a chord was a sweet little vegetable garden: row upon perfect row of baby carrots and peas and chives and parsley separated by wide black stripes of peaty soil. I'd create one just like that eventually, if I ever managed to get out of the city.

My sister disabused me: "it's an illusion," she said. "Real gardening isn't like that. It's a war zone." However, the Royal Horticultural Society which organises the Chelsea Flower Show every May has always insisted on perfection and in any case, back then, peat bogs were exploitable and chemical warfare was quite the thing. Weeds and the wild still existed but were going through a period of persecution. So any attempt to delude us all at Chelsea in those days was only done to reinforce the idea that perfection was achievable.

I don't feel beguiled when I pay the show a visit nowadays, but I do feel cross. I know I ought somehow to be enjoying myself, even though I'm not, and also that I'm not alone. I've discovered there are a lot of people feeling vaguely guilty and resentful like me, finding it a struggle to acknowledge that an altogether sharper, nastier atmosphere pervades the show and that there appears to have been a reversal of roles. The Society originally founded "to serve horticulture, in all its aspects" is now expecting horticulture to serve it.

This is hard to come to terms with when the RHS is a charity and the Queen is its patron. These factors also mean that hardly anyone questions what's going on, or not in print, at least.

Acceptance of my own disenchantment came last year on the show's press day. The spring of 1996 was interminably late in arriving and as the army was busily digging children out of snowdrifts on Dartmoor, the wind in London was threatening to whisk away the great flower tent and everyone in it. A frost was forecast.

Inauspicious weather notwithstanding, a marriage between big business and television was in the process of being brokered by the RHS, and the press and the cameras crews were out in force, prowling about in search of a story. A posse of public relations people loitered on the look-out for business.

The motor industry appeared to have abandoned Earl's Court for the fresh air of SW3, its product liberally laden with shrubs and flowers like camouflaged tanks on a cottage garden manoeuvre. Space allocated to an exhibition of plants at Chelsea costs nothing. Roughly speaking, if it's green and it grows then it can be shown for free. Only those dealing in hardware have to pay for their sites.

A top of the range Skoda had been placed unambiguously on the forecourt of the "Honesty Garden". I thought it must be delivering plants but then thought again. Horticulturists' vans are always old and battered. Nearby, a motor insurance company had parked an open-top sports car in a crumbling old stable surrounded by hollyhocks and delphiniums. By the time the Queen arrived the Skoda had disappeared, but the roadster, with its leather-strapped bonnet looking more like old luggage than old motor, had been allowed to remain. The juxtapositioning of the Low Allergen Garden between the two was particularly unfortunate.

Inside the tent Dunlop Tyres were celebrating 100 years of British Motor- ing with an exhibit featuring a Jaguar XJ220. It crouched wolfishly under its carapace of carpet bedding. Marketing people dashed about dementedly, watched bleakly by a bemused horticulturist who was himself partially submerged beneath a less telegenic but extremely rare collection of interesting shrubs. I supposed he would be bound to win a gold medal. But there was not a chance of that. The "excellence of the plant material" is what counts; neither its rarity value nor its variety earn any points. It would take the diligent horticulturalist too much time away from his nursery and far more money than he could spare to decorate his stand to RHS requirements.

The rule book also states that "the source of plant material should not concern the judges". This explains the massed pots of perfectly grown, deeply boring, blue lace-cap hydrangeas from Holland used on some of the big stands - the sort you can buy in any old florist; the battery-raised hen end of the horticultural business. A poor but dedicated nurseryman once tried using pine cones and oak logs to decorate his stand but fell foul of the judging committee because oaks, he was told in all seriousness, produce acorns, not pine cones. He shrugged, resignedly: "I need Chelsea more than Chelsea needs me," he said.

It certainly looks that way. How, though, it can be seen to be in the best interests of horticulture (or England's reputation for producing the planet's greatest gardening gurus) to encourage a demonstration, however excellent its material, of the art of labour-intensive, cost-prohibitive, eco-unfriendly and ultimately outdated Parks Department skills escapes me. Especially when cash-strapped local councils are in despair and disarray and could do with some interesting new ideas on how to plant up their roundabouts. And to encourage the sponsorship of the environment's most powerful enemy, the car, seems even stranger.

The perceived need to attract the attention of the cameras had successfully put the lie to my ex-mother-in-law's aphorism about dashing colour: "so charming in nature, so vulgar in woollies." The front cover of a seed catalogue is less garish and smells as sweetly as many of the hybrids on display.

But then, television can't do scent. Last year, the BBC let one of its pool of regulation twenty-something blondes loose at the show. She wandered about for a while, found herself a suitably bright (scent-free) rhododendron to poke her nose into, inhaled deeply and, beaming blissfully, turned to camera. In its next edition, the elite and alarmed Gardens Illustrated magazine wondered rhetorically how happy the RHS were about this treatment. Delighted, I'd say.

Until about four years ago, Chelsea was the RHS's only major show. Then, when it was realised that not another soul could be packed inside the rail- ings without serious threat to life, the Hampton Court Flower Festival was taken over and, in a flash, a charming fair selling interesting plants to 50,000 keen gardeners was transformed into a "family" show catering to 200,000 visitors and selling just about anything. Now, Hampton Court too has reached saturation point and RHS floral supershows - known as "blockbusters" - are sprouting up wherever the chimney pots are thickest and, more ominously, where no shows previously existed. Strathclyde is one example; Tatton Park and Manchester are coming soon. Any coverage of Chelsea on television will help immeasurably to pull in punters to these sister events.

It is the same as when a supermarket opens and the neighbourhood corner shops soon start to close. The corner shops of the horticultural world are the small, independent flower festivals and the amateur specialist plant societies. As the RHS pursues its aggressive policy of membership recruitment, so these small societies are squeezed out.

At least one independent festival organiser is righteously outraged. Lord Cavendish's event at Holker Hall is being threatened by the new RHS bash at Strathclyde which is just two hours up the motorway and has been scheduled for the same weekend. He was given no advance notice that plans were afoot and when he protested to his friend Sir Simon Hornby, president of the RHS, he was told - that "this has all been a ghastly misunderstanding. I am sure we can work something out". Something was worked out and back came the solution: that Cavendish might consider changing his dates.

It has taken six years and well over pounds 80,000 of investment to get Holker on the map and out of the red. "I am not against competition so long as it is competition on a fair basis," says Lord Cavendish. But now when he recalls how generous the Society was with its advice on how to get started he reels from the shock of the way he feels it has now turned its back on him.

Thinking that someone used to reading balance sheets might shed a little light, I tracked one down. But after stringing together words like "assets" and "synergetic benefits" and "critical mass" and "infrastructure", he ended up as baffled as me, concluding that "if they were genuinely interested in horticulture they'd allow as many shows as possible to promote it."

While everyone agrees that the RHS serves an important purpose, many are confused by the direction it has taken. One grower, who works hard in a voluntary capacity for the RHS, resists the siren call to show because, he says, "I am appalled by the standards."After muttering dark comments about how the Society dishes out its once prestigious gold medals "like confetti", he told me, "It's time to call a halt." Others confirmed his fears. All declined to be identified. No one on the Council was prepared to talk to me, except nurseryman John Metcalf, an outspoken if impotent scourge of the RHS, who asserted that for an individual "getting anything out of the Council is like searching for cotton wool in a fog."

There are some facts that bear this out. A mere 8 per cent of the Society's pounds 16,712,000 annual income goes to its charitable commitment to science and education, for example. The rest is spent on things like the RHS gardens at Wisely and Rosemoor - which are free to members - despite the President's expressed hope that we join the Society more for what we can give it than for what it can give us. Clearly, he does not trust this to be the case since, unfortunately, these gardens soak up money faster than the "blockbuster" shows can coin it, which means yet another gets scheduled. And then there are the grand schemes to celebrate both the millennium and the Society's aproaching bicentenary to be financed.

"In the old days," one source explained, "when the Society had some wise old establishment gent as president of the Council, he would restrain any wild or inappropriate scheme saying, `this is not the direction in which the Society should be going.' In that, way, it was self-regulating." But now the accountants hold sway, and rumour has it that to hear a plant mentioned by name at a Council meeting is a rare event. Added to this, the Council is as impenetrable as Kafka's Castle, although it was whispered that a putsch was contemplated recently, only no one with the right credentials could be found who was prepared to front the attack. The problem lies in the fact that all the establishment figures are busy making serious money in the City. Or in trying to keep their own festivals on the rails.

If the RHS has metamorphosed from a benign and paternalistic organisation into a commercial one protecting its patch, it is going to be difficult to deter. But hope could lie in officialdom. Sue Jones at the Office of Fair Trading says, "If there is evidence of anti-competitive behaviour on the part of an organisation that has a stake of 25 per cent or more of the market in which it operates, then, if we received a complaint, we would be prepared to investigate." Out of the 55 major flower shows to be held in England and Scotland in 1997, as listed in Gardener's World magazine, 20 - more than a third - will be under the aegis of the RHS.

The gardeners reading this will understand what I mean when I say that Honey Fungus comes to mind. This is an organism which feeds off other healthy plant tissue and has a scary ability to move covertly underground from one plant to the next. It is the real horticulturalist's nightmare.

Chelsea Flower Show, Royal Hospital Grounds, London SW3, 20 to 23 May. Admis-sion: pounds 7 to pounds 24. For tickets call 0171 344 4343

Diana Ross is a gardener and a member of the Royal Horticultural Society