The petunias and irises are in full, creamy flower, the rhododendrons are blossoming, and the roses and phlox look splendid. However, the exhibitors, planters and designers putting final touches to their creations for the Chelsea flower show are split as seldom before. The traditionally humourless Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has temporarily lifted its ban on “brightly colored mythical creatures,” and war between the landscape snobs and the oiks who love them may be imminent.
“Pssst, want to see one?” Sue Robinson of Hillier nursery said, bringing out “Woodland Wilf,” a fluorescent pink, pointy-headed chappie with two lurid orange buckets.
Wilf, possibly the first garden gnome in 100 years to legitimately show his face at Chelsea, looked as if he wanted to hide in a display of delphiniums, but she was having none of it.
“We haven’t decided where Wilf will sit. Probably beneath that tree,” she said.
Next week, the RHS will unveil more than 100 gnomes, painted for charity by celebrities. Elton John has reportedly garnished his with glitter, but those of Dolly Parton, Dames Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, Rob Brydon and others will not be seen until the royal family and the garden grandees who have long opposed gnomes have had a look tomorrow, before the show opens on Tuesday.
Chelsea’s attempt to reflect the tastes of ordinary folk may prove popular. A wholly unscientific poll of 15 exhibitors and gardeners at Chelsea by the Guardian on Friday found strong approval for the presence of the little people.
“About time, too. What’s wrong with them? Yes, they’re naff, but I’ve secretly got three myself,” one eminent garden designer who asked not to be named said.
“I’m sitting on the gnomic fence,” said Jinny Blom, who has designed a garden of forget-me-nots and baby’s tears plants for Prince Harry’s Lesotho children’s charity, Sentebale. “Chelsea is quite divided. Some people here really, really hate them. Others think it’s all a bit of a laugh.”
She expects Harry to rappel down into her garden from the plane trees in the Royal Hospital grounds.
“I sent the design to Camp Bastion. He said he wanted to dig the garden, but he couldn’t get away,” Blom said.
“This is definitely a gnome-free garden,” said Steve Marsh of the Woodland Trust at the Food and Environment Research Agency garden, funded by the environment department, Forestry Commission and Welsh and Scottish governments, with the idea of not just stimulating the senses, but scaring the 200,000 people expected to visit the sold-out show next week.
An avenue of leafless willows stands above a sinister black pool to make the point that British woods and gardens face a host of new killer pests and diseases such as ash dieback. Fringed by horse chestnut, sycamore and maple trees — which conservationists say could succumb in future — the garden is dark and shocking amid the frivolous yellows and pinks of most of Chelsea’s other exhibits.
“We say they are not dead trees, but lifeless,” the ever-optimistic Marsh said. “The trees actually died naturally and were removed by the Forestry Commission. We want to tell people that if we don’t take notice of what is out there, there won’t be any gardens in future.”
In fact, half of Chelsea’s attractions this year are centered round very expensive bits of dead trees. The ￡6 billion (US$9.1 billion) garden industry sells plants, but also ￡20,000 wooden statues of horses, ￡10,000 gateposts and sheds, as well as beehives, bird boxes and driftwood sculptures.
“The plants are just a small part of the business these days. The money is in the objects,” said Rob Francis, a Dorset garden center manager in London this weekend in order to spot trends.
“It’s been a real struggle to grow the plants this year, what with the cold weather,” said Ruth Gooch of Thorncroft nursery in Norfolk, tying up a display of Polish-bred clematises. “We’ve been holding some back from flowering and encouraging others. The flowers are quite giddy — they have been brought inside and taken outside so many times to make sure they bloom on time.”
She shows how to stimulate the buds by gently rolling them between her fingers.
“Do it too early and they are distorted. The iris people are amazing. They use hair dryers, but we don’t,” she said.
Neither the Garden Gnome Liberation Front nor the supposedly less militant Garden Gnome Emancipation Movement — which take gnomes from gardens to “free them” from “enslavement” in flower beds, lawns, gardens and centers — could be contacted on Friday, but the RHS said the gnomes were safe and being well guarded in its offices.