"It's so cold I can't believe it's the middle of May," said the middle-aged woman with carrier bags in each arm. "I'm sure it's getting warmer," said the man in an overcoat ad cashmere scarf. I was at one of the main attractions of the summer season, the Chelsea Flower Show, where the winning garden took its inspiration from Australia and the weather came straight from Scandinavia.
It is a curious event: it's part trade fair, part al fresco catering festival, and part exhibition of high-definition garden design (the only trouble with the latter being that you need to be prepared to use your elbows to get through the crowds for a gander). It's also - as you might expect - a very white, very middle-class, very middle-aged, audience that Chelsea attracts.
I would imagine that, for much of the recent history of the Chelsea Flower Show, there has been some concern about how to make the event, and gardening itself, appeal to a wider and younger demographic. And this year is no different. Dame Helen Mirren, on her visit to Chelsea, said that she couldn't understand why, if cookery is on the new curriculum for secondary schools from next year, gardening couldn't be, too. "Not enough young people garden, or even know how to," she said. "It's such a positive thing to do, and very useful."
No one could argue with that, and the Royal Horticultural Society are making a great effort with schools, but the sad truth is that many schoolchildren in inner-city Britain often don't have access to a playing field, never mind a greenhouse. And in any case, gardening is always going to be more enticing for people of a certain age, who may have done their own propagating and now seek vicarious comfort in Mother Nature doing what comes...well, naturally. They've seen their children grow and flourish, and now they want to get that same joy from their geraniums.
Gardening is a refuge for hobbyists, and like all good hobbies - golf, DIY, and philately, for instance - there's so much stuff that you have to buy. I shudder to think how much is spent at the retail outlets over the week at Chelsea, but anyone not in the know who was near Sloane Square this week might have thought, at the sight of so many people carrying shopping bags, that Christmas had indeed come early.
A related issue for the RHS - who organise Chelsea - is that fewer young people are interested in gardening as a career. In a survey, 70 per cent of 18-year-olds said that they felt gardening was for people who had "failed academically" and half of them thought it to be unskilled labour. Despite unemployment rates among young Britons, the majority of horticultural businesses find it problematic, if not impossible, to fill vacancies. "The industry is not cool," says Sue Biggs, director-general of the RHS. But nothing is for ever. Who'd have thought the nation could be gripped by ballroom dancing? Or that sewing would have a renaissance? Or that young people could be turned on to science? Stand by for Strictly Come Pruning! Have a nice weekend, in the garden or not.Reuse content