Chelsea 2017 – this ghastly fame phenomenon, by Catharine Howard.

June 6, 2017

in Events, Shows

I had intended to join the sponsors and give Chelsea a miss this year, but I can’t turn down a good offer. Catharine was less than delighted by Chelsea 2017…..

 Anne Wareham copyright Charles Hawes
Anne Wareham, editor
Chelsea 2017 Copyright Catharine Howard 1.

Chelsea 2017 – this ghastly fame phenomenon, by Catharine Howard. 

Chelsea is the mother of all flower shows but this year it got a kick in the teeth from sponsors pulling out.  Part of a post Brexit wave, so they say. It is the sponsors who pay the cost of the show gardens and pretty often dedicate them to a good cause.
As a press visitor I was given the show Catalogue.  Very useful – even more so if you put it together with the Photo-call Notice.  This is a rather whimsical document which lists by time and venue a series of jolly japes to attract publicity and the press.  There will always be the naming of a new rose – (this time for Judy Dench),  bevies of beautiful models tricked out all flowery and some random stunts.  My favourite this time – and I quote in full:
“Sculptures of three magnificent horses thunder down a winding mountain stream fed by a curtain of water that tumbles over a huge stone waterfall.  Grizzly bears stands five metres high with an eagle circling overhead.  In the middle, Philip Mould, well known art dealer, broadcaster and author will stand beneath the hooves of two larger than life rutting stags which form the arched entrance to the exhibit.”  (Doing what?)
Chelsea 2017 Copyright Catharine Howard 2I love that this flower show offers  its profile to draw attention to some really important charities and things that matter  – this year  the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, nurturing  good mental health, breast cancer, horse welfare, the importance of pollinators  and a children’s hospice featured in the long list.  
And some of it is flim-flam. 
At the high end Linklaters had sponsored a garden for Maggie’s Centres – these are tranquil homely, support centres for cancer sufferers. The garden was hidden behind tall hedges and was a haven decked out in highly fashionable dark grey concrete.   
Chelsea 2017 Copyright Catharine Howard 5

Maggie’s Centre Garden

In the lower budget Fresh Gardens category, Ian Price created a garden that is a symbol of the depression that he has lived with.  “Mind Trap” was very clever from name and concept through to the planting.  The centre of the small site gave the sense of entrapment.  Ian was out to confront the stigma and secrecy that surrounds mental health. 

Chelsea 2017 Copyright Cath

Mind Trap Garden

So you can see a goodly proportion is humbling and thought provoking.  

Now I want to tell you about another hand-out we got:  “RHS Chelsea Flower Show CELEBRITY SPOTTING”.  The lady next to me at the press table, from Canada, was creeped out – we both were. “I mean who are all these people?”  All 90+ of them, that is.  When I left the show ground  I showed this to my mother aged  91. A poor score, only 2 recognised. Then to my two sons, ages 28 and 30 – slightly better,  – 6, collectively.   
When did we become the living rendition of Hello magazine?  What is the relevance of this ghastly fame phenomenon?  What has it got to do with horticulture? Has the RHS lost the plot?  Ideas of what this flower show is all about float round in my head . Various notions like flagship, promoting horticulture, launching new plants and products, money and celebrity all swirl crazily.   
The celebrity relationship is the obvious symbiosis of gaining press coverage but the RHS needs to take care where self serving nonsense sneaks in. Why, several years back was James May of Top Gear allowed to exhibit plants entirely made of Plasticine?  Exhibitors should get real too: one stand was flaunting a visit by Gary Kemp and his wife.  Who he? A delve revealed a pop musician from Spandau Ballet as old as me. Duh. Do we care? That goes for the RHS list too.
Then there is the Great Pavilion at the core of the site.  All three and a half acres of it.  This is the territory of the best nurseries in the country.  I have been here in the past setting up, helping on the stand.  Fewer and fewer nurseries are here. This year Crug has dropped from the league. It is understandable – life other than Chelsea has to stand still if you are to exhibit here. But this is the oxygen of the show – without it the catwalk is pulled.  
I heard muttering from stall holders that to get on site to set up, all the cars and lorries had to stack for several hours in Battersea Park.  This ratchets up the list of reasons not to exhibit though it is necessary for security purposes. As sniffer dogs romped politely past my rucksack the thought crossed my mind that it would be easier not to invite the Queen. Would that kill the golden goose of the Gala evening? The good and the great  dancing round the queen bee might just push off in a hissy fit. Where then would the revenue be?
Chelsea 2017 Copyright Catharine Howard 4Last of all – one horticultural point that crops up every year.  So many of the show gardens approach their planting like a florist with cut flowers.  The planting can look droolingly superb but is horticulturally unrealistic. Put baldly, plants are crammed in side by side which would never cohabit in reality. We shouldn’t forget the ecological aspect of plants and the constraints of the soil as limiting factors. This ought to be addressed since the Chelsea Flower Show is the beginning and end of gardening.
Or so we all would like to think. 
Catherine Howard. 

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Helen Gazeley June 9, 2017 at 6:45 pm

The TV coverage annoys me because there’s so much to cover, yet they will put in pre-shot films of participants before they arrive. And Joanna Lumley’s lovely, but her views on gardens and Chelsea don’t add anything to our knowledge of what’s on show.

Meanwhile, Catharine, I couldn’t agree more about the list of celebrities. I’m heartened that I’m not the only one who recognises a tiny proportion. You can’t help feeling that the next sponsor may be Hello! magazine.


Lyn Eglinton June 7, 2017 at 10:45 pm

I had considered attending this year but the thought of the long flight from NZ and the heaving crowds convinced me staying home was the better option.
Here in NZ we have a gardening & horticultural industry in decline.Gardens both private and public are under threat from” politically correct” influences resulting in native only plantings .Our native bush tends to the drear and dismal.Wellington is positively drab .
We have no garden shows remotely like the number of events you enjoy
Maybe I will have to endure that flight.And your crowds.

So Chelsea is hideously commercial and a tad vulgar.But better than nothing..


annewareham June 7, 2017 at 11:03 pm

It’s our gardens – by which I mean the real ones – which count. Not that stuff.


Mary Harrison June 7, 2017 at 9:22 pm

Emperor’s old clothes


annewareham June 7, 2017 at 11:02 pm

Ha! I have always thought that is the fairy story for the garden world par excellence. That’s a good new take on it. Xx


Jeff Brown June 7, 2017 at 1:22 pm

Going this year was my first time to Chelsea as well as Britain. The artisan gardens were my favorites even though I enjoyed seeing the others.
I would love to know what are some of the other events that you and your readers would consider better.


Catharine Howard June 7, 2017 at 4:50 pm

Start with to pinpoint interesting gardens in the area you are visiting.


Rob Clarke June 7, 2017 at 12:30 pm

From a now member of the public but once a Nurseryman I, along with many others feel that the RHS have lost the plot with Chelsea. Not only the RHS , the BBC coverage after the first showing gets very boring, droning on and on about the showgardens , very few of which have much relevance to most gardeners.
There are exceptions of course , but a load of stone blocks brought across from Malta in my mind is not a garden and definitely not a worthwhile cost to the environment .
Hundreds of nurseries exhibiting at Chelsea at huge financial cost to themselves don’t even get a mention. To me, this is the most interesting side of the show and the only reason that would make me visit , though if this is the only reason to go, there are many other shows throughout the country that are cheaper and easier to visit. No “celebrities” though !!!!


Catharine Howard June 7, 2017 at 4:46 pm

Touche Rob.


Mike Millington June 7, 2017 at 9:11 am

This was spot on! I wrote this review on TripAdvisor of The Chelsea Flower Show after my one and only visit:


Catherine June 7, 2017 at 4:08 am

From my press day at Chelsea a few years ago, I came to understand that celebrity spotting is what they do to your photographs of the gardens. Very hard to get a photo of anything without Rob Brydon cluttering up the place.


Catharine Howard June 7, 2017 at 10:32 am

Mike yours was bang on.


John Kingdon June 6, 2017 at 10:00 pm

I’ve been offered free tickets, press passes, whatever. I refuse to even consider visiting what is the “Three Os” event. Over-rated, Over-crowded, Over-priced. There are plenty of rivers you can jump into if you want to be at one with a crocodile.

There are also lots of events whose name is not prefixed with “RHS”. Generally far better and you get a lot more for your £.

And lots of gardening/horticultural societies to join other than the RHS. Generally far better and you get a lot more for your £.

And don’t get me started on buying anything from RHS Plants!

The end.


Catharine Howard June 7, 2017 at 8:25 am

Dear John
I won’t get you started as I sit here chortling over the crocodile words.
You are right about the other gardening societies.


Heather June 6, 2017 at 9:45 pm

Hmm. An interesting read. From the point of view of an exhibitor who has showed at Chelsea for over 50 years we can no longer justify exhibiting there. The emphasis has now shifted so much onto celebrity and so far away from horticulture that there seems little point in wasting our time. The red tape
involved is indeed offputting and gets worse every year. And the atmosphere is no longer one of excitement, there is no thrill. We used to do Chelsea for orders, but now get fewer than 25% of what would be considered a good week. So we told ourselves we were there for coverage, either by the press or the BBC, but coverage rarely covers the once Great Pavillion, the BBC were
more interested in the pattern of our curtains at home (seriously, I was asked!) than the wonderful new yellow pelargonium that took 34 years to produce and we released on the 30th anniversary of our national collection. Not interesting enough. So no, we will have a break from Chelsea as I don’t have the time or the inclination to chase celebrities. I’m sorry to say that we’re not alone.


Catharine Howard June 7, 2017 at 8:22 am

Dear Heather
I feared this was the reality. I was and am very interested in your yellow pelargonium.


Claire Austin June 7, 2017 at 12:15 pm

I am totally at one with Heather’s views. We have also decided not exhibit. What with the cost of staying in London for up to 10 days, the red tape that is handed down to exhibitors, plus the lack of any sort of coverage by the BBC, exhibiting at Chelsea for many smaller nurseries just does not stack up, and this doesn’t even cover the neglecting of work on the nursery. Add to this the cost to visitors for getting in the show of up to £100 for a day, why would any visitor buy a plant? I wouldn’t.


Diana Studer June 27, 2017 at 4:17 pm

I can remember a negative review of a yellow pelargonium by a North American nurseryman, years ago.

If it’s a good yellow, why not?


Cheryl Cummings June 6, 2017 at 3:31 pm

Denied a press pass last year as a member of the Garden Media Guild, this year as a member of the Society of Garden Designers I volunteered to man their stand for a day during the show, I drew the short straw and was asked to be there on the Saturday, spending the previous week dreading the heaving masses of visitors I was sure I would have to fight my way through if I wanted to venture from the safety of the stand to see anything. To my great surprise and others obvious disappointment it wasn’t actually that bad.
I say bad where others may say good, because my delight came from the ability to take a brisk stroll around in the time I had, look at what I wanted to see and to sit on the cool grass of a large open lawn to rest my legs.
There was space to move around, look at the exhibits and actually sit down to eat my chips which I felt compelled to buy as there wasn’t a queue to buy them!

Where others will bemoan the lack of sponsorship leading to fewer main avenue gardens, the Fresh and Artisan gardens gave the attention to detail we expect and I can honestly say that the result was a much pleasanter day than I’d feared and I found the Radio Two ‘filler’ gardens refreshing, resulting from the freedom of lack of judging I’m sure.

No doubt if the big money continues to stay away Chelsea will change, but will the celebrities be put off? Of course not, twice a day coverage by the BBC will see to that!


Catharine Howard June 7, 2017 at 8:20 am

Dear Cheryl
It sounds as if you had a good day. It would just be rather good if the focus were plants rather than people.


Cheryl Cummings June 7, 2017 at 4:04 pm

I quite agree Catherine, Chelsea seems to suffer from our current culture of celebrity as much as politics does and I think as long as the show continues to get as much air time from the BBC as it currently does then the RHS will want to keep the celebrity band wagon rolling. It will be interesting to see if lack of sponsorship continues over the next few years; from my own personal point of view if it results in less environmental damage than Chelsea currently creates that will be no bad thing.


Katherine Crouch June 6, 2017 at 2:46 pm

Yes, I felt tired rather than inspired at the prospect of Chelsea, either on TV or by visiting. I didn’t go. Too many macho big blocks of unsuitable materials in unfeasible proportions, too many 5 litre perennials crammed together, too much competition to see who can procure the biggest tree from Italy that will pass through the Bullring gate. Again.

But if you have never been, go once. Bits are extraordinary. Submit to the nonsense, slow your pace to go with the flow of the stifling crowds, mutter about how small it is and how much it is for a coffee. Delight in the few things that take your fancy and don’t wince at the price tags. Take notes and flyers from the nursery stands and resolve to order from them.

Then go to a local show where you can buy stuff and have a sit down. Much will be ordinary. It might have a longer shelf life than the extraordinary. Next show I am going to is Blenheim Palace. Let’s see, eh?


Catharine Howard June 7, 2017 at 8:16 am

Dear Katherine
Good advice on how to tackle a show. Report back on Blenheim please. Do you have a website/blog?


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