Spurred on by our recent burst of unseasonally summer weather – and an email from from Laura Antebi who is coming to stay while she exhibits her wonderful horses, my mind has turned once more the Chelsea Flower Show.
Every year I set off on press day with my good friend Anne Davies who advises the RHS, among many others, on disabilty access, hoping that I am going to find at least one allergen free garden – and every year, I am disappointed.
Given that at a very conservative estimate, 25% of the population suffers from hay fever, not to mention allergic asthmatics and those who suffer from contact allergies triggered by plants – and given that there are loads of low-allergen plant options – why are there no low-allergen show gardens at Chelsea? Or, indeed, at any of the other RHS and local gardens shows around the country?
Several years ago, after yet another frustrated visit to Chelsea, I decided to try and do something about it. So I contacted the RHS. They were very friendly, and agreed that it would be a really good idea, but – the design of the show gardens, both large and small, was entirely up to the individual designers so it was entirely out of their hands.
So then I emailed all the designers who had been at that year’s show asking them if they might be interested in doing an allergy-free or low-allergen garden. I got about three responses, all from relatively small designers who said that possibly they could be, but… Unless I already had a sponsor they didn’t really think that they would be interested as they didn’t think anyone else would be…
I remember one particular conversation during which the designer admitted that he suffered from hay fever himself and that Chelsea was absolute torture as the pollen was dreadful. ‘So why not design an allergen-free garden?’ I said…… ‘Oh well, I just take lots of antihistamines and put up with it – that’s what everyone else does…… I don’t think that anyone would be interested in an allergy-free garden – it would be so boring….’
How negative can you be – and what rubbish anyhow! Anyone who takes antihistamines regularly knows that they may stop you sniffling but at the cost of feeling at the best dopey, at the worst, depressed, miserable and ill. And as for low-allergen gardens being boring…
OK, you may have to give up on swathes of grasses (which must surely have run their fashion course by now anyhow) but your garden could scarcely be dull if filled with aquilegias, azaleas, fuschias, heuchara, bizzy lizzies, Japanese quince, lobelia, narcissus, nasturtiums and wallflowers, not to mention glorious displays of begonias and clematis – and that is only a small selection of the low allergen plants that you could grow.
Come on, garden designers – and come on Royal Horticultural Society! Climb outside of your box and show some leadership here! We really do not need yet another sea-of-waving-grass-wild-flower-meadow show garden. Give us something that will allow allergic gardeners to enjoy their gardens without having to dope themselves up to the eyeballs or spend the whole summer with weeping eyes, blocked noses and itching hands!
If you need inspiration, there are a clutch of informative articles on the Foods Matter website including several by my good friend Tom Ogren who knows most of what there is to know about low-allergen gardening. Check his website or even go one further and buy one of his excellent books – Allergen-free Gardening, or Safe Sex in the Garden, both available from the site.
PS. I have just been reading about the Chelsea Fringe Festival – ‘a brand new initiative, entirely volunteer-run – entirely independent of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, though acting with its support…… The idea is to give people the freedom and opportunity to express themselves through the medium of plants and gardens. It will range from grassroots community garden projects to avant-garde art installations. Our open-access principle means that just about anything goes – as long as it’s interesting and on the subject of gardens, flowers, veg-growing or landscape.’ I can’t wait! the festival runs in May – both before and after Chelsea – but to find out more, log into their website.