When the world wearies and society fails to satisfy, there is always the garden. – Minnie Aumoni
By May Woods
Undoubtedly the cancellation of the biggest event on any horticulturalist’s calendar, the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, has left many bereft.
In its long history, the Chelsea Flower Show has been cancelled only in the event of world wars. For the first half of the First World War, the show went on, paused only for the penultimate years of 1917 and 1918.
Having just announced a new, online offering, the word cancelled is perhaps too heavy-handed. The show must go on, and in this case it will: virtually. An interactive display is planned, and will offer “visitors” tours of the private gardens of well-known garden designers, florists and gardening personalities. First, lockdown offers up the delights of bookshelf snooping, courtesy of Zoom. Now we are allowed a window into the sunlit pastures of horticulturalists’ back gardens. It feels like the equivalent of putting a spy cam in Jamie Oliver’s kitchen. Do his meals really take 15 minutes? Are there definitely no turkey dinosaurs in the freezer?
Yet while the online format of the RHS Flower Show is sure to be engaging, accessible and informative, this year will be a far cry from the norm for those pining for the beloved annual event. For some, it’s a lost holiday. For others, it’s a year of planning, preparation, and growing; now seemingly without purpose.
“When we heard, it was like being knocked on the head. A kick to the stomach. I can’t describe it really. Some of the things we grow for the show, like leeks and onions, we started off last July, which is a long time”, said Medwyn Williams, twelve times RHS Chelsea Flower Show gold medal winner and President of the National Vegetable Society.
Williams grew up watching his farmer father grow vegetables. “As soon as I got my own house, this is what I did. All I’d seen my father do was grow veg, so that’s what I did, too”. As with most gold medal winners, for years Williams had hoped to achieve this highest horticultural accolade.
“Martin Luther Kings had a dream, didn’t he? Well I had a dream too, and it was to win a gold medal at Chelsea. And I did it, the first time! I’ve never not won gold, with every attempt”. Williams is rightly proud of his record. While disappointed to not be exhibiting this year, he is collaborating with his sponsors, Canna, to share his creations virtually.
For many like Williams, the RHS Chelsea Flower Show has been life-defining. In 2001, Keiko Smith had the opportunity to work with Professor Fukuhara, the designer of an original Japanese Garden sponsored by the Daily Telegraph. Keiko describes designing the Ikebana in the garden and the Tea Ceremony Room as a pivotal moment in her career.
“The garden won the Gold for ’Best Garden Award’. Since that time, my life changed as I began my career in Ikebana and Western Flower Arrangement.”
Similarly, Chelsea occupies a special place in the heart of acclaimed florist and designer Tracy Rowbottom.
“It’s meant a lot to me over my life. I’ve worked there for different companies, helped with different stands, and competed in my own right. A year without Chelsea is very strange. I kept thinking they will never cancel Chelsea, it’s an institution!”
It is of a certain poignancy that as we struggle with state enforced isolation, this year’s RHS Flower Show was to be themed around mental health and loneliness. Zoe Ball, working with horticulturalist Jo Thompson, had been commissioned to design a Friendship Garden, influenced by urban spaces. With our movement restricted and our community facilities closed, a new societal divide is glaringly evident. Those with access to a garden have hit the lockdown jackpot. Both the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors, and the ability to partake in gardening, are two coveted privileges in our current world. And while likely jarring for those confined entirely indoors, RHS’s digital show will offer help, inspiration, and a welcome dash of colour for those struggling to utilise a small space.
Visit https://www.rhs.org.uk/shows-events/rhs-chelsea-flower-show for more information and access to the 2020 digital show, 18-23 May