Even in its second century, the RHS Chelsea Flower Show (previewed on page 58) remains without equal, much to the vexation of its imitators the world over. Across Britain, however, there are now numerous events where one can sense the very spirit, passion and national character that gave rise to Chelsea and which continue to make it great. These are the small, local plant shows and garden fairs that are filling the nation’s calendar from spring to autumn. It’s a phenomenon no less worthy of celebration than the RHS’S spectaculars.
Although we’ve long had it in us to hold them, such events are a fairly recent thing. They’re not the same as those time-honoured arenas of close floral combat, village and county shows. They differ, too, from the regional competitive exhibitions staged by specialist societies, the school gyms and church halls variously filled with potatoes, orchids, roses, dahlias, chrysanthemums, alpines and apples. nor, usually, are they NGS open days, although their venues may well participate in the scheme at other times. Think, rather, of a fleeting bazaar, artisanal but sophisticated, that offers the intensely desirable: rare and beautiful plants and lovingly made goods, from secateurs to sculpture. The prices are low and the vendors expert, enthusiastic and often the creators of their wares.
It sounds like a mirage, an impression compounded by the events perhaps lasting no longer than a day, materialising on one’s doorstep, on the village green or in the grounds of a grand house nearby, and being awash with familiar faces, friends and neighbours, all of them sharing in that most British of communions, love of gardening.
It’s not a mirage, however. These plant sales and garden days are fast becoming fixtures of country life. For smaller nurseries (often the most exciting, but hardpressed), they’re a lifeline, an opportunity not just to show and sell, but to communicate with customers in ways that online shopping will never match.
For our part, being British, we delight in the casualness and serendipity of it all, in strolling outdoors, perhaps in a notable garden, with the dogs running around somewhere and cake in prospect, picking up plants as covetable as anything at Chelsea from trestle tables that also do duty at jumble sales.
Many of these events raise significant funds for charity. In hosting them, private gardens find appreciative audiences and become, briefly, centres of community and, long-term, generators of philanthropy.
next week, trends will be set at the world’s greatest flower show, but few could be as popular and beneficial as the spread of Chelsea’s country cousins.
‘Think of a fleeting bazaar, artisanal but sophisticated... and awash with love