For many people, Chelsea Flower Show is the true herald of summer, the point at which gardening can begin in earnest. That does not mean balmy weather is guaranteed at the show, of course — notorious for downpours, it has been referred to as “Chelsea Shower Flow”. Difficulties in obtaining tickets, which sell out quickly and are partly reserved for members of the Royal Horticultural Society, means that many younger gardeners or less committed horticulturists feel that Chelsea Flower Show is not for them. That’s where the Chelsea Fringe Festival comes in.
Timed to coincide with the week of the flower show, the Fringe, which is now in its seventh year, is described as an “alternative gardening festival” offering a wide range of garden-related events across London and other cities, most of them free to attend. At this point I should declare an interest: I write as the founder-director of the Chelsea Fringe Festival. It’s not my day job — I am a garden journalist and historian — and like nearly everyone else involved with the event I am a volunteer, but this is something that is always at the top of my agenda at this time of the year.
Inspired by the ethos of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, in that nothing is curated or commissioned, the idea is that anyone can enter an event as long as it ticks three boxes: 1. It is on the topic of plants and gardens. 2. It is legal. 3. It is interesting. Community and “guerrilla” gardening are at the heart of the activity, but the Fringe also fosters events themed around music, art, poetry, science, ecology, food, beekeeping, herbal medicine, history, meditation, tea and cocktails (the botanical qualities of gin proving irresistible). This year’s festival comprises around 180 events.
Highlights of the past week include a royal wedding celebration day at Chelsea Physic Garden featuring a cocktail named the “Minty Markle”, an ambitious fête at the sumptuous and little-known garden of Inner Temple (one of the Inns of Court) and a host of local walks and other events which constitute the inaugural Urban Tree Festival. Some events are created especially for the Fringe, while others are opportunistically entered for publicity purposes — the organisers don’t mind either way.
The quirkier end of the festival has been reflected this year in events such as the Vegetable Protest Printmaking workshop held at the Beaconsfield Gallery in Vauxhall, and a street concert in Tottenham performed by the London Vegetable Orchestra. This ensemble is made up of professional musicians — mainly woodwind, with some percussion — who turn up with bags of vegetables which they then carve into serviceable instruments. The result is unexpectedly melodious.
One of the incidental pleasures of the festival is that it can open up London’s hidden horticultural corners. The South London Botanical Institute was founded in 1910 in a large villa in Tulse Hill, south London, by an ex-civil servant who had served in India. It continues to thrive in its own idiosyncratic way as a centre of research (fungi is a speciality), and earlier this week it opened its delightful garden, greenhouse and historic herbarium to visitors. On offer were food and “botanical cocktails” and the added bonus of a play about The Great Hedge of India, a customs barrier in the form of a living thorn hedge created in the 1840s, which at one point exceeded 2,000 miles in length (it was abandoned in 1879).
Another hidden garden belongs to the British Medical Association (BMA) in Bloomsbury: a lush courtyard with a large pool and mature trees, completely enclosed and hidden from the street. The BMA also opened its doors this week as a prelude to a panel discussion about the work of the 17th-century herbalist John Parkinson and the continued relevance of his work to modern medicine. The Chelsea Fringe tends to reflect themes and trends current in the world of gardening, and the link between horticulture and wellbeing is indeed strong at the moment. Another activity that is growing in popularity, especially among urban gardeners, is beekeeping and Borough Market held a day of apiaristic workshops and activities as part of the festival.
The Fringe receives no funding or sponsorship and survives entirely on its registration fees (£30 for most entrants). This goes to pay for a limited amount of technical, press and social-media support. Without the internet to act as a relatively low-cost platform, there is no way a festival such as the Fringe could exist, even with volunteers donating their valuable time.
There have been some changes along the way. In the early days we thought we would be much more dependent on outdoor installations requiring sponsorship. This is still an important part of the Fringe — for example the “Moments of Reflection” installation in Covent Garden and an exhibition of botanical sculpture at the new Walthamstow Wetlands — but a good Fringe event does not have to cost a lot of money. Walks and talks have proved extremely popular and now we encourage event organisers to make sure they have “a moment of intensity” — which might simply be a party — as a focal point for their activities. To encourage this kind of focus we have in recent years gradually reduced the length of the festival, from just over three weeks to nine days.
The Fringe is also blessedly free of the commercial imperative to continually expand and increase numbers. Nevertheless, the policy of allowing all-comers is pursued to the point where events outside London are always welcomed — in other parts of the UK and around the world. This year there are clusters of Chelsea Fringe events occurring in towns such as Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire and Cranbrook in Kent, and internationally in Japan and Italy.
On my own agenda for the last two days of the Fringe are a visit to the “herb boat” currently moored in Hackney and a tour of the street trees around my home area of Finsbury Park, north London. On the last day of the Fringe, the volunteers generally gather at one of the final events, and on Sunday we are meeting at a concert by Senegalese musician Kadialy Kouyate at Omved Gardens in Highgate village (2.30pm). The venue is a greenhouse in a pop-up arts centre on the bucolic site of a former plant nursery. Avant gardeners of all stripes are most welcome to attend.
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