The big hope for the 2023 Chelsea Flower Show? Gardens made for people, not ecosystem engineers

Former Country Life gardens editor Katherine Bradley-Hole hopes Chelsea’s pendulum has swung back towards traditional gardens.

The RHS Chelsea Flower Show returns next week. It’s a joyful time marker, heralding the English outdoor summer, its holidays and festivals and, of course, the abundance of gardens. “Gardens are for the people,” said mid-20th-century American landscape architect Thomas Church. His book of the same name (first published in 1955) is a must-read for every generation of garden designers.

Recently, however, the RHS flagship show has raised concerns that judges are pushing gardens that people use away from judges who prefer to award “wilderness habitat” that is not gardens.

The most extreme example was seen last year when a Gold Medal and Best Show Garden award was given to an exhibition that the RHS described as “wilder countryside that ecosystem engineers like beavers help create.”

Gold medalist at RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2022 and winner of Best in Show: A Rewilding Britain Landscape. Credit: Andrew Sydenham/Country Life

The late John Sayles, who headed the National Trust Gardens in the last quarter of the 20th century, was also Chief Judge of the Chelsea Show Gardens for many years. He suggested that flower show gardens should be “theatrical pictures” but should also work as a garden. Credulity in this respect has recently reached its limit.

This year, however, there are glimmers of resistance. For example, Savills showcases a productive garden that combines ornamental and edible plants with a working kitchen and dining area that offers authentic home ideas, while Hamptons takes us to elegant al fresco dining among Mediterranean fruits and fragrant herbs. Are they on to something?

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Seed maker Burpees, which supplies familiar brands including Suttons, Unwins, Thompson & Morgan and Mr Fothergill’s, increased sales of its massive edible range by 58% from pre-pandemic 2019. Tomatoes have taken the lead, followed by eggplants. , sweet and hot peppers and cucumbers. The company cites supply chain pressure that stores will continue to experience, as well as rising food prices and guarantees of origin and freshness due to rising home-grown crops.

The nursery and garden center sector supports around 700,000 jobs and contributes £28.8bn to GDP, £6.3bn to the treasury, according to the latest figures from the Horticultural Association (HTA). The HTA sees the inevitable challenges for horticultural businesses in terms of inflation, subsequent price hikes and a decline in consumer confidence in their spending.

While helping wild creatures is important, people need gardens too. It is time for RHS to step up and show that it is fully committed to horticulture, skilled horticulture and design. These things are, after all, the blood of society and the show. target.

This article is featured in the May 17, 2023 issue of Country Life, in which Katherine also announces the 2023 Chelsea Flower Show in depth.

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