Chelsea sprouts a new fringe festival: After 99 years, a flower show for the grassroots

The world famous attraction will have a new offshoot of free displays around the capital

Jane Merrick
Saturday 31 March 2012 22:52

The Chelsea Flower Show might be the most prestigious gardening event in the world, with a gold medal the pinnacle of horticultural excellence. But the reality for visitors, who this year are paying up to £55 for a day's ticket, is a fight through heaving hordes in the hope of catching a glimpse of the show gardens.

So this year, for the first time, gardening enthusiasts will be able to visit the Chelsea Fringe, a three-week festival of horticulture, community gardening and performance art where the only price will be the cost of a bus or train ticket to get to the events, which are scattered throughout London.

As with the Edinburgh Fringe, which sprang up as an alternative to the mainstream festival, the Chelsea Fringe is designed as an antidote to high-end culture and tradition. With the Royal Horticultural Society's Chelsea celebrating its 99th year, it is surprising it has taken nearly a century for a parallel festival to emerge.

The fringe festival has been organised by Tim Richardson, who has used his experience as a gardening journalist and theatre critic, combined with many visits to Chelsea, to pull together dozens of gardens and projects showcased during the event, which runs from 19 May – three days before Chelsea – to 10 June. About 50 volunteers are working on the festival, which is independent of Chelsea, although it has the support of the RHS.

Some 20 projects have already registered since applications opened earlier this month, but Mr Richardson says that anyone who has a project which is "about gardens and is interesting" is eligible to apply. Organisers are hoping that several thousand people will visit the festival.

Most of the events and gardens will be free and open to the public, although some may charge. While 99 per cent are in London, there is a project in Devon. There has also been interest from gardeners in Italy, Canada and Austria for similar festivals and next year one is planned for New York.

One of the highlights of this year will be a citrus garden at St Leonard's Church in Shoreditch, east London, one of the churches named in the nursery rhyme "Oranges and Lemons" and where the BBC 2 sitcom Rev is filmed. A designer, Daniel Shea, is working with local children and homeless people, who are already involved with the church's charitable work, to create the garden.

Also on the list is a guide to guerrilla gardens around Elephant and Castle, a walking tour of "Hidden Hyde Park", an "Edible High Road" in Chiswick, and a mobile "Bicycling Beer Garden" that will travel around London during the three weeks. An "Edible Bus Stop" in Brixton, which was first created a year ago, is a plot of flowers and vegetables by the number 322 bus stop.

Steve Wheen – known as the Pothole Gardener and who could be described as the Banksy of horticulture – creates miniature gardens in holes in the road in east London and will be exhibiting at the festival.

Mr Richardson said he hoped to combine the community spirit that gardening evokes – what he called "garden-fence syndrome", where neighbours are brought together by a shared love of flowers and vegetable growing – with spectacular but accessible garden design and performance art.

The idea of a fringe came to him in a "eureka" moment at Chelsea two years ago. He added: "I love Chelsea, we all love Chelsea. I go to Chelsea every year. But it doesn't reach all the parts of the gardening world that it might. It cannot.

"We are trying to be a bit irreverent. We want to burst out of the showground in three ways – geographically, so we are going to be across London; demographically, by involving people who wouldn't normally go to the Chelsea Flower Show; and conceptually, across the whole spectrum – community gardens, avant-garde artists, and performance art."

Although the idea for the fringe festival began two years ago, Mr Richardson acknowledged that the community spirit shown in the aftermath of the riots last August will be echoed in many of the projects. One project that has been enlisted is Living Under One Sun, a community gardens project based in Northumberland Park in Tottenham, north London, which was the scene of some of the worst rioting last year.

While under-fives are banned from the Chelsea Flower Show, the Chelsea Fringe will positively welcome young children, with some events specifically tailored to young green fingers.

And, apart from the price, there is another major difference to Chelsea: there will be no competition, judging or medals. "These are not the kind of people who want to grow the biggest vegetable," said Mr Richardson.

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