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Clemmie Hambro finds that the world’s most prestigious garden event is staging an alternative show on the streets of London

Here we are, poised, ready and limbered up for the wonder that is the Chelsea Flower Show. Very little can rival it. It is horticulture’s Royal Ascot. The best of the best all in one place, but without the hats (well, rain hats maybe).

This year we have the young contender Sarah Price with her first show garden – the darling of the design world is having a monster year, what with designing most of the Olympic Park, and she is one of the top runners for Best In Show (see Sarah Langton- Lockton’s interview on page 48), along with stalwarts Arne Maynard, Cleve West and Andy Sturgeon. A

lso this year there is a new category of garden at Chelsea called Fresh, where designers are encouraged to be ‘less conventional’ and ‘more experimental’, which I am sure will get tongues wagging. And my favourite category from last year is returning for a second go – The Artisan Gardens (some shown here) which use natural and sustainably resourced materials in thought-provoking ways.

However, the very exciting firstever Chelsea Fringe Festival will be running alongside the main show and it promises to be a bit of a treat. The brainwave of the renowned author and garden writer Tim Richardson, it is going to be a smorgasbord of events that will challenge, excite and thrill.

Tim was a theatre critic for many years and was very familiar with the fringe model and thought that its open-access principle was something that the horticultural world was crying out for. He has been proved right, and has been inundated with requests from people wanting to be involved. The news from the fringe is that there are some pretty interesting things out there for the rafts of people who see gardening not as something done in solitary in their own gardens, but as an apolitical movement, or a community- based activity.

Chelsea fringeFrom left to right: A literary garden from last year’s show; David Harber, Open Space; Daphne’s Indoor Tuscan Garden; Sydenham Gardens in Lewisham

Fringe events will be happening all over London and include projects that range from People Under One Sun, mainly run by volunteers at East Hale Allotments in Tottenham – the epicentre of last year’s riots – to the pothole gardener who makes tiny little oases of beauty in, well, potholes in London streets. Spitalfields City Farm will be hosting an Edible Olympics – as well as veggie sculpting, apple tossing, orange dribbling and all sorts; there’ll be a floating forest installation at Portobello Dock; The Garden of Disorientation will be created in an old slaughter house in Clerkenwell, and the 20-mile London Gardens Walking Tour covers 700 years of garden design.

The Bicycling Beer Garden will be travelling around fringe events and its creators will be handing out planted beer cans from their trailer of newly planted seeds. In addition there will be numerous events staged at community gardens across the city.

There will be workshops for adults and children, ranging from learning how to build a greenhouse from plastic bottles, wrapping a building in flowers, making 19th century-style wooden toys, to poetry. The possibilities are endless. Horticulture has burst out of the showground, done a triple somersault, a loop the loop and is now pogoing all over London.

And what is more, there has been no budget, so Tim has relied on people to volunteer their time and expertise to help him coordinate the whole thing. I think it is going to be a wonder. You will find a mixture of cutting-edge installations being created for the event and a shining of a light on to things that exist and happen that we just didn’t know about or could not comfortably access.

We will be welcomed into these amazing community projects that are quietly transforming people’s lives and see a side to garden festivals that hasn’t been apparent before. It is a side that is not about £400,000 designer gardens, but about people and places – and living and being together. I think it should be fun and open up our ideas of what a garden and gardening can actually mean.

The Chelsea Fringe runs from Saturday 19 May until Sunday 10 June. For a full schedule of events and a map, visit

For information about the RHS Chelsea Flower Show:

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