Not strictly true, for me. For the last few years life’s responsibilities have conspired against me, mostly parent or teacher related. Last time I went to the Chelsea Flower Show – more moons ago than I care to remember – I was not teaching. Neither was I a parent. It started me thinking about the whole glorious horticultural circus and what, if anything, it has to offer young growers like our members and my own children. Chelsea has never marketed itself as a show for children, or, in fact one which is family-friendly in any way. I’m pretty sure there was a time when anyone under sixteen wasn’t allowed in. Now it’s just the under fives which are excluded. That’s not unreasonable. The site is relatively small, very crowded and few under fives would be engaged in any way.What’s more, it’s quite healthy for plant-loving parents of small children to have a day out without having to concentrate on the wellbeing, happiness and entertainment of little folk. There are other shows more suitable. What’s more we have never advocated ‘playing at gardening’ or child specific gardening. Our young growers understand the realities of growing – the highs, the lows, the hard work, the teamwork, what’s involved in running a garden related business, the pleasure that you can give by growing flowers and the environmental impact, both positive and negative gardening has. And all of this is to be found at Chelsea. There has been so much talk in recent months about the dearth of youngsters seeing horticulture as an aspirational or even a viable career and also the importance to children’s general health of getting their hands in the soil, learning how to nurture plants. When Wimbledon is on TV at the end of June the parks are full of children playing tennis; when Chelsea is on TV in mid May, shouldn’t there be children out in their gardens, sowing seeds and creating veg plots and flower patches? What, if anything, does Chelsea have to offer in the way of inspiration to get the ball rolling? Does it have a spark to ignite a passion for horticulture which will last a lifetime? This year nine-year-old George Hassall, young RHS gardener of the year was given a high profile, presenting the Queen with a posy of flowers he’d helped to arrange. We think there are plenty of ways a flower show which concentrates on cutting edge garden design, breakthrough trends and new plants could engage all gardeners of tomorrow. Here are ten ways. You may be able to think of more.
Creating inspiring spaces
Just one look at Dan Pearson’s 2015 Best in Show Chatsworth Garden will tell you all you need to know about how gardens can evoke, time, place and atmosphere. Sit in the middle of his trademark naturalistic planting, stone boulders and running beck and you could be anywhere other than a corner of a Chelsea park. People need inspiring outdoor spaces in which to relax and garden designers have the ability to make people happy and transform spaces. That’s something for young growers to aspire to. Study the story of how Dan Pearson has transformed his Chelsea triangle into a corner of Chatsworth House and they will begin to see how projects are managed, how teams come together to make things happen, just how many skills can be developed through the making of a garden and the impact your work can have. Even looking at a flower decorated chair or a planted up teacup on a stand in the pavilion can give them ideas about small design projects they can try out for themselves.
Creating links with the curriculum
Two of the most interesting gardens featured on Monday night’s BBC coverage from Chelsea were connected with historical events – The Battle of Waterloo and the 800 year anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta. Both events had been widely researched as part of the design process. For children who find the business of learning and retaining facts challenging, the opportunity to design a garden based on an historical event is an ideal way to delve into the people, places and events of the past in a tangible way. If you’ve planted a mini-meadow, you’ll remember that the Magna Carta was signed at Runnymede. What’s more you’ll have learned plenty about the importance of meadows stuffed with native wildflowers in these times of climate change and lack of bee friendly verges. The use of colours to represent the opposing sides in a battle and the inclusion of heraldic shields to represent the barons give strong images to children who learn in a visual way. Children like a project to get stuck into and learning for a reason. Designing a garden could be that project and all the hooks for all those facts, figures, motivations and characters they need to remember. Job done.
Celebrating an eye for design
The skills needed by designers are outlined in the national curriculum and what better way to explore them in practice than to view at first hand how the Chelsea gardens have been created. Here is an excellent opportunity to investigate practical maths, risk management, the ethical use of materials which are fit for purpose, how to fulfil a brief by asking questions, researching and showing initiative, time management, people management and the use of tools and equipment.
Meeting and learning from plant experts
So many experts gathered in one place at one time is a rich resource to plumb to find out how to grow certain plants, which combinations work well together and finding the right plant for the right conditions. What an opportunity for young growers.
Promoting campaigns – the use of peat free compost, the benefits of front gardens, the importance of growing british flowers
The RHS and others with an interest in promoting horticulture quite rightly take the opportunity of so much media and public attention focused on gardening during the week of the Chelsea Flower Show to highlight areas of concern and interest. This year attention has been on the negative effects of paving over front gardens to create more parking, in particular increased flooding and lack of biodiversity leading to a decline in pollinators. Other burning issues, in particular on social media have been the use of peat free compost and how best to convince commercial and home growers to avoid using peat. Then of course there is the resurgence of the British cut flower industry and renewed interest in growing traditional native blooms. Inevitably heated discussions have taken place. A balance needs to be struck and there is a commercial as well as an ethical side to the debate. Young growers are interested in environmental issues but also need to be educated in the realities of how people make a living in the world of horticulture and how differing needs must be addressed. It’s a rich resource for a teacher to explore.
Promoting the rewards of hard work
Ask anyone who has spent the last twelve months preparing for Chelsea and they will all tell you that it is very hard work. Twenty hour days in the final weeks leading up to the show and numerous sleepless nights is the order of the day. Many contributors swear that they will never take part again. And yet they do. Hard work pays dividends and young people should hear about the realities of what it takes to bring a project to fruition. They will also learn the harsh lessons of working hard and not quite obtaining the reward of a gold medal at the end of it. Life is tough sometimes.
Every exhibit, every garden at Chelsea is the result of a team of people working together to make a project happen. Youngsters need to understand and model the way people work together in teams. It’s a life skill which can be fostered on the sports field or in the classroom. And here is another opportunity to explore the art of teamwork. Ask any designer to talk about their garden and what comes up time and again is their determination to celebrate the team who helped make it happen. My daughter in particular was overjoyed to hear about Jo Thompson’s all female planting team on the beautiful M & G Garden she designed this year. Girl power at its best!
Thinking about sustainability
I’m sure that building so many gardens from scratch and having to nurture excessive numbers of plants into peak condition, especially out of season, many of which will be rejected has a huge environmental impact. Chelsea’s carbon footprint must be off the scale. However many of the gardens will be rebuilt,at least in part elsewhere after the show and plants will be sold off to the public at the end of the week. For example the Summer Solstice garden designed for Chelsea in 2008 by Tomasso del Buono and Paul Gazerwitzin has been rebuilt at Daylesford Organics in Stow on the Wold and now serves as a comfortable and inspirational workshop space for courses on growing food and raising livestock. This year’s Chatsworth garden is going back to the stately home in Derbyshire to be reconstructed in situ and Prince Harry’s charity Sentebale’s garden designed by Matt Keightley will be dismantled and some of it will be taken to the charity’s main centre in Lesotho. What happens to the gardens after the show is part of the application process required by the RHS. Thinking about the sustainability of the gardens, how to source plants and materials responsibly and how to use them to impact positively on the lives of others in the future is something young growers can see in practice at Chelsea.
Understanding how to harness the cult of celebrity and the power of social media
Like all industries the world of horticulture benefits from celebrity endorsement and personal recommendations to keep its practitioners in work. To be able to catch the eye of a celebrity and to engage with the public via social media to promote a business can lead to increased sales and a solid professional reputation. Young growers can use the Chelsea experience to reflect on this and develop an understanding of how successful marketing works and how professional reputations are built and potentially damaged.
Exploring how business works
Horticulture is a business as well as a vocation and a way of life. For young growers to aspire to a career in horticulture (or even to be ready for the world of work) they need to see how a business works, how it will provide opportunities for job satisfaction as well as a way to make a living. Observe the way gardeners, designers and nursery owners use Chelsea to build relationships, network with each other,celebrate success and innovation, make sales, communicate their passion for what they do and showcase the best they have to offer to the public and they will begin to understand that it’s a business which might be for them. Delve a little deeper into how Chelsea gardens are sponsored and funded , how a bid is put together, how the project is managed over time, how many people are involved and the variety of skills they bring with them and it begins to sound really interesting. Add in the time pressure, coping with the vagaries of the British weather, the potential rewards for being at the top of the game and the positive, transformational effect you can have on people and the environment and a career in horticulture sounds an exciting proposition.
Open up the world of Chelsea to young growers and you won’t regret it. Gardening with young people is so much more than sowing a few sunflower seeds – although that’s a good place to start.