LONDON — The weather in Britain is famously miserable. Unless you're an umbrella maker. Or a plant. As collectors found in the 18th and 19th centuries, the long growing season, temperate climate and easy access to water meant that no matter how exotic its provenance, pretty well anything would grow here.
Just as well then that Britons are garden-mad. "The British gardening tradition is our vernacular art form," said landscape critic Tim Richardson, gardening columnist for the Daily Telegraph. "It's a little bit like the French have cooking and the British have gardening. It's something people do in a very unself-conscious way."
The nation's love of all things green (as well as a good spectacle) is given a physical manifestation each year at perhaps the biggest event in horticulture: the Chelsea Flower Show. Around 20 show gardens, costing up to $1.3 million, compete for medals along with various smaller artisanal and urban gardens.
This year, there is a new kid vying for a share of the gardening spotlight. Organized by Richardson, the Chelsea Fringe aims to complement rather than compete with its more glamorous sister. "There's a whole spectrum of work in the world of gardens and landscape," he said, "and I just felt it wasn't being covered in the main show. There's a new generation of gardeners who look upon gardening not just as a backyard activity but as something communal."
The Chelsea Fringe has no funding, is volunteer-run and includes in its sites places in South and East London you wouldn't have any reason to visit otherwise. In true fringe fest fashion, the Chelsea Fringe is open access. "If people rang up and had an idea, as long as it's on the subject of plants, gardens, flowers or nature and it's interesting, then it's in," said Richardson.
There are nearly 100 events, tours, installations and happenings running through Sunday. Highlights include the Garden of Disorientation (a mint garden in an old slaughterhouse serving juleps), a community garden built on an old railway spur, a bus stop surrounded by vegetable gardens, a floating forest, edible church gardens and the delightfully bonkers beer bicycle garden (cycling, recycling, fun and beer!).
Because of its working class roots, East London has far less green space than the wealthier neighborhoods in the North and West, so finding a place to plant something, let alone bring kids to, is often impossible.
The Eastern Curve Garden in Dalston used to be an abandoned railway spur and is now a peaceful park/garden/clubhouse beloved by the locals and now doubling as Fringe HQ. There are raised beds, plenty of trees and, most importantly for the local schoolchildren, a clay pizza oven. Lynsey Daniels lives in a flat nearby with her 21/2-year-old son Joe and has come nearly every day for the past year. "It feels like it's our garden. We've got some plants growing in pots that are just ours, and Joe does a lot of helping. He gets to hang out with the men and do all sorts of man things like hammering and sawing and digging."
The Fringe took a giant step toward the mainstream when Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, visited some of the sights. A keen gardener, the Duchess spent time planting herbs with a group of Bangledeshi women and gave some seeds from the Duchy of Cornwall (land owned by her husband, Prince Charles) to schoolchildren at Spitalfields Farm, a popular working farm in East London.
The appeal of gardening may seem simple, but brush back the topsoil and you'll find a minefield of politics, aesthetics, land rights, ethics, resource management and, because this is Britain, social class.
Another Fringe organizer, Richard Reynolds, is a guerrilla gardener, which means he plants herbs and flowers in roundabouts, medians and other neglected public spaces without first getting council approval. The movement started in the 17th century when an English radical encouraged people to plant fruit and vegetables on common land.
In the 21st century, guerrilla gardening has become a worldwide phenomenon. "For me, gardening is a way of connecting with people," Reynolds said. "[There is] something rather special about it that makes it approachable as a streetside activity."
Most of the sites at the Fringe don't look like much at first glance. It's only when you start talking to people that the significance of a few straggly plants around a South London bus stop becomes clear. It's the absence of their absence rather than their presence that seems to provide comfort, beauty and something to talk about.
"It would leave a massive hole if this wasn't here," says Daniels of the Eastern Curve Garden. "There are a couple of small parks around here, but nowhere else where you can stay for a while."