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May 16, 2014 6:14 pm

Chelsea Flower Show: the pop-up gardens refreshing city centres

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The emergence of the Chelsea Fringe, the gardening world’s first alternative festival
The Edible Bus Stop, Chelsea Fringe 2012©Paul Debois/GAP

The Edible Bus Stop, Chelsea Fringe 2012

The gardening world’s first alternative festival, the Chelsea Fringe, opens this weekend. It is now in its third year. In 2013 projects across London included a public lavatory transformed into a garden, a new cocktail mixed by Sketch restaurant, and a performance by poet John Hegley. If a low-loader lorry with a garden on board drives into your street this summer it might be a moving Fringe installation.

The Fringe began as a salon des refuses for a group of artists, writers and environmental activists who felt that their ideas could not be expressed through the format of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show, the most successful and influential horticultural show in the world. Quickly, the Fringe has become an event with an energy of its own: a convergence of ideas about how plants, art and food can change the experience of the modern city. And not just in London: a second festival also opens today in Vienna where Fringe founder Tim Richardson is professor of landscape art at the Angewandte, (and where Zaha Hadid teaches architecture in the room next door).

The Edible Bus Stop, 2013©Debois/GAP

The Edible Bus Stop, 2013

This Fringe is not defined by its “open access”: there is no selection jury, there is no curator or judging panel, and you will not be tested for horticultural knowledge. There are no medals (but quite a few parties). You can do whatever you want so long as you register and as long as it is interesting, legal and about gardens, veg-growing or land use. The Fringe has no staff and the shared expenses of a website and promotion are met by the (modest) registration fees. It is a masterclass in what can be achieved by smoothly conducted volunteers.

For Deborah Nagan, the Fringe is where “people from vastly different spheres of design are united by their love of plants”. Nagan is a busy landscape architect, but her playfulness and purpose is visible to everyone looking out from a No. 3 bus from Brixton to London Bridge: hers is the only front garden which displays tomatoes entwined around elegant architectural structures. To her, the first Fringe was an opportunity to say something new about plants in the modern city. Her “Garden of Disorientation” was an indoor mint garden in a disused meatpacking warehouse in Smithfield.

The Office Garden, 2013©Debois/GAP

The Office Garden, 2013

The decision not to have an active curatorial agenda took the Fringe in a second direction: community gardening. Voluntary interventions in shared urban spaces – whether meadows on roundabouts, or vegetables growing at bus stops – might seem a very un-British phenomenon: this is the land of privet hedges and private Edens, after all.

Recently the Duchess of Cornwall toured “guerrilla gardens” in south London on a red Routemaster bus, stopping at a lavender field planted at a traffic junction by the movement’s leader, Richard Reynolds. Such gardens are planted on land which is not owned by the gardener. They are not intended to be subversive: to plant apple trees by cold moonlight or train passion flowers round lampposts is a statement of optimism about what it means to share the public experience of a city. It is also a statement of belief in an ethos in which gardening should not be driven by ornamental display but rather by the productive ethos of “from plot to plate”.

WC @ Vanguard Court, by Anna Rose Hughes, Chelsea Fringe 2011©GAP

WC @ Vanguard Court, by Anna Rose Hughes, Chelsea Fringe 2011

Fringe gardeners are a young generation. By contrast, the majority of traditional domestic gardeners begin in their late thirties or early forties, when they own their own home: why buy a prize plum tree if you have a six-month let?

It is this younger generation that has caught the eye of entrepreneurs such as GROW London. And property developers too. Last year the Fringe opened a temporary park at Battersea Power Station, the derelict hulk in the middle of London’s largest upmarket housing development. In the 1980s developers saw that artists made neighbourhoods sellable, and lofts and studios became a step in the journey from decay to duplex. Will rough-edged, pop-up gardens be added to the developer’s toolkit?

Christopher Woodward is director of the Garden Museum, whose Festival of Garden Literature is at Petworth House, Sussex, from June 21-22

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GROW London

GROW London is a new contemporary gardens fair taking place on Hampstead Heath over three-and-a-half days in June, writes Christopher Woodward. It is a concept by contemporary art entrepreneur Will Ramsay, who began the Affordable Art Fair in Battersea in 1999 with the declared aim of making art more accessible, selling works with a price ceiling of £4,000. Today it takes place in 14 cities around the world.

At the close of the art fair on Hampstead Heath – which generates income for the Corporation of London, which owns and maintains the 790 acres of land – floral designer Shane Connolly will transform the space into the setting for up to 100 exhibitors: niche nurseries such as Crug Farm and Derry Watkins but, importantly, products designed to appeal to design-conscious newcomers to gardening, whose focus is on small urban spaces. You will find chic floral gardening gloves and window boxes, but not walk away with a lawnmower or a flat-pack greenhouse.

Therese Lang, who curated the Westonbirt International Festival of conceptual gardens, has been recruited as a guide to the horticultural world. The newest development is the art fair team’s take on the horticultural scene after three years of market analysis. Romy Westwood, director of the Affordable Art Fair Hampstead, has visited flower shows across Britain. “They’re lovely, but they do get a bit similar. And there just isn’t much to buy if you just want something stylish for a tiny city garden. I couldn’t face seeing yet another illuminated dragonfly on sale.”

The Royal Horticultural Society is targeting the same audience with its new Secret Garden Sundays at its headquarters in Westminster, promising herbs and jams, beginners’ workshops and homegrown brunch.

As historian Nicola Shulman points out in her Fashion and Gardens, exhibition reviewed by Robin Lane Fox on February 14, in past centuries gardens were to the international rich what contemporary art is today. Dukes and nabobs travelled vast distances to watch a new breed of water lily open in a rival’s glass conservatory, in the same way as dozens of private jets touch down at Art Basel for the unveiling of a new sculpture by Takashi Murakami. Perhaps it is nature’s turn to be on top once again.

GROW London runs from June 20-22, growlondon.com

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