David Randall: Suburban gardeners of Britain join with me - I don't want to go to Chelsea!

Sensual gardens, mirrors and sixth-form sculptures almost make you yearn for begonias lined up in prim little borders

Monday 07 October 2013 16:22

The Chelsea Flower Show is just a few days away. Time then for me to start tingling with anticipation about glorious displays of flowers framed by settings that no ordinary gardener would dare to contrive. Yes, once more I shall spend the third week in May 1,000 miles from the nightmare that Chelsea has become.

It's high time someone took a long, sharp hatpin and jabbed it in the backside of this overblown festival. And, since the power and reach of the Royal Horticultural Society means that no one connected with professional gardening, or its media, is likely to do that, the task of deflater has fallen to me, a gardener from the suburbs.

Let me begin by giving credit where it is due. The show is such a miracle of logistics that, now that Tony Blair has sanctioned a bid for the Olympics, he may want to remove this responsibility from the sports bodies and hand it to the RHS. There'll be no shilly-shallying with unfinished stadiums then. And, if Chelsea is anything to go by, there would be no Dome-style no-shows from the public either.

The crowds might include hordes of corporate entertainees looking down their noses as the ticket-buying classes unwrap their cling-filmed sandwiches; townie toffs, boatered or Barboured according to climate; and freeloading journalists who've cadged press passes to boast about the week's hot ticket. But they'd be there.

Mind you, they wouldn't see much; being elbowed aside by stout matrons from the Home Counties, or courtesy carloads of clucking, camera-catching, two-bit celebrities anxious not to miss a chance, is far more likely. But at least the event would happen – and on time, under-budget, in profit, whatever the weather, and all accompanied by a band playing selections from My Fair Lady.

Another reason to suppose that the RHS would make a success of the Games is that the Olympics have nothing whatever to do with gardening. For it is in this regard, and in particular with the show gardens, that Chelsea has parted company with reality as most of us know and tend it. These gardens have become the horticultural equivalent of Turner Prize installations: facile ideas and mannered over-reachings for effect erected into "art" by the patronage of an organisation that ought to know better. God save us from their witless themes (enter the sensual garden this year, and even a greenless one); their silly materials (the girders, the mirrors, and sixth-form sculptures that make you almost yearn for begonias lined up in prim little borders); and their descriptions written in pretentious prose. Here is the authentic voice of people with money to burn and nothing to say. A few phrases at random from this year: "The garden translates tropical subaquascape into terrestrial forms", "demonstrates the formula for harmony and beauty through the special relationship between the part and the whole", and "a pontoon of polished metal and a contrasting waterfall of rusted metal demonstrate the natural forces on man". The menu writer for Harvester Inns could not have put it better.

What all this reveals is that there is, at the heart of this show and most of what passes for garden chic in this country, a warped elevation of form over content. These are not gardens as we use them, but romper rooms for designers liberated from the need to accommodate compost heaps, incinerators, potting-up areas, somewhere to keep the bikes, clothes-lines, dustbins, undergrowth for frogs and hedgehogs, berries for the birds, vegetable plots, toolsheds, barbecues, sandpits, and, most important of all, settings for the plants that we love.

With few exceptions, the gurus of gardening show little sign that they have ever seen a flower in nature, where each finds its own distinct space, its own frame within the greenery. Plants sort themselves out. They flower in turn and even their display has function. They have content rather than mere form. To extrude them into some over-designed, themed artifice is to garden not with plants but against them.

And so, after due consideration, and weighing my words most carefully, I say a pox on this primped-up, pompous, self-preening, powder-puff parade of pretentious pseudo-perfection. I'm off to Switzerland, where they really know how to do a good rockery.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments