Attendees at Monday’s preview included not only celebrity royalty, such as actress Helen Mirren — who won an Oscar for playing the queen — but also the actual queen. Prince Harry was reported to be so excited about his garden that he had the plans emailed to him during his military service in Afghanistan.
Like a New York Fashion Week of flowers, the Royal Horticultural Society show highlights the top talent of this garden-mad society and showcases the trends that, in a few years, may make their way to the garden aisle of B&Q, the British chain of home supply stores.
As any such high-profile event, the show imposes limits to keep creativity from crossing the line into chaos. One hard and fast rule in particular has fenced Chelsea’s gardens off from commoners’ plots: no gnomes!
Except this year. In honor of the centenary, the RHS has temporarily lifted its controversial ban on “brightly colored mythical creatures” — the euphemistic name for the cheerful, chubby characters more commonly known as garden gnomes.
Gnome fans — of which there are very many — are overjoyed.
“About time!” said Ann Atkin, founder of the Gnome Reserve in Devon. “They’re magical little creatures, aren’t they? I like to say to that fashions come and fashions go, but gnomes go on forever.”
Although gnomes will once again be personae non gratae at Chelsea next year, the symbolic embrace of the proudly tacky art form is a nod to democratization in a once-exclusive pastime that’s become a national obsession.
Leigh Hunt, principal horticultural adviser at the Royal Horticultural Society, admits Chelsea has long been associated with “a certain snobbishness.”
When the show began, attendance was for “the landed gentry. You had to have the resources to garden on a grand scale.”
Times have changed, however, and now “gnomes have their place.”
Despite the gnome amnesty, virtually the only examples to be found at the show’s venue at the Royal Chelsea Hospital Monday were celebrity-decorated plaster gnomes the RHS is auctioning off for its school gardening charity.
Elton John gave his gnome pink rhinestone-studded sunglasses. “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes went with traditional primary colors.
Admittedly, gnomes would look as out of place amid the reconstructed English huts and traditional Japanese houses of the main gardening displays as an embroidered “Bless This Mess” cushion in Architectural Digest.
Chelsea’s floral exhibits are breathtaking specimens: one-of-a-kind roses painstakingly coaxed into out-of-season bloom, exquisite bonsai trees, a pagoda built from orchids, tulips so perfectly delicate their dewdrops appear applied by hand.
Each display takes up to 15 months to plan and execute. The RHS’s list only of plants making their debuts at Chelsea runs to 15 pages.
No less rarified exhibitors offer the latest in gardening essentials, such as designer floral-print rubber boots, sculpted birdbaths, gardening tools imported from Japan and Switzerland and, handily, champagne carriers. (Booze also goes on sale at Chelsea from the moment the gates open. Last year’s visitors consumed more than 1,000 bottles of bubbly.)
More than 165,000 visitors are expected over the show’s five days. Monday’s preview for media and guests drew many tweed jackets and examples of the complicated millinery favored by British high society.
Others dressed in all-weather jackets and sensible rubber-soled shoes seemed like the type of people who don’t have special carriers for their champagne, but have nevertheless embraced the national pastime of mucking about in the garden.
“The English love gardening,” declared Susan Rushton of the rose breeder David Austin Roses. “It’s like a major passion for us. We don’t mind if there’s a patch of daisies in our lawn.”
“A lot of people would not put gnomes in their actual garden,” Rushton said diplomatically, then added, “A lot of people are extremely repressed about garden art.”
“It’s not a bad thing to be less repressed.”