Chelsea fringe: events and themes

by Helen Babbs

Heavy Plant Crossing credit: Progress Image

Edinburgh has had one for years, Glastonbury is getting one this summer and from tomorrow, Chelsea Flower Show will also have its own Fringe. The brand new festival of gardens and gardening coincides with the famous show, but aims to attract a much wider audience with an eclectic mix of events, many of which are free.

“The plan was always to encourage as many people as possible to get involved and I’ve been struck by the range that have – from performance artists to community gardeners,” says Festival Director Tim Richardson. “There are some visionary individuals on board, people who are pioneers of new thinking about how we should interact with public spaces.”

From planted interventions to virtual projects that exist purely online, the events on offer during the three-week-long Chelsea Fringe are wide-ranging and impressive. At the same time that a floating forest designed by Canadian landscape architects will transform the Grand Union Canal out west, an award-winning community garden in Tottenham will throw open its gates to curious visitors.

Edible urban landscapes

More than 80 Fringe events will take place between the 19th May and 10th June but, within the growing sprawl, distinct themes are emerging. An explosion of excitement about urban food growing is reflected in a host of projects, including the Edible High Road which will turn the main shopping street in Chiswick into an orchard.

Karen Liebreich, one of the brains behind the Edible High Road, has noticed a strong emphasis on food emerging across the festival. “There’s a desire to create productivity from little scraps of earth,” she says.

“There’s also a desire to use gardens to strengthen communities and to provide a focus for education and communal activities.”

EAT OUT at the Inner City Allotment

Other edible projects include a pop-up restaurant in a community growing space in Islington and front garden allotments in Finsbury Park. Gardening trainees in Peckham are creating a living dining table that will overflow with edible flowers, while Spitalfields City Farm is hosting a family-friendly Edible Olympics with sports like vegetable sculpting and orange dribbling. Down the road, St. Leonard’s Church is to be draped with citrus fruit and turned into an Oranges and Lemons Garden.

Herbs are also a frequent feature – there’s an aromatic mobile sculpture at the Geffrye Museum and a medieval herber at The Idler Academy. The Garden of Disorientation will see an empty slaughterhouse in Smithfield temporarily transformed into an indoor mint garden, complete with mojito bar. Deborah Nagan is the project designer.

“As the festival approaches I think an emerging trend is that, in general, we rather despise supermarkets and would all keep chickens in window boxes and pick lemons from bus stops if we could. The festival is highlighting that gardening is a great social and political leveller – and one of the best ways of being human in the city.”

Mapping and moving

Many of the Fringe projects and events invite visitors to experience the city in new ways. Travel is a strong theme expressed through everything from garden tours to portable plots.

Guerilla Gardening with Richard Reynolds

Mobile projects include the boozy Bicycling Beer Garden, which will see a collection of planted-up beer cans towed around town; and Heavy Plant Crossing, a horticultural happening involving a mechanical plant that travels around the city in a bid to become ‘Best in Show’ at Chelsea.

Walks, routes and maps are also popular – one project seeks to identify all the pimped pavements in London in a bid to highlight the strength of London’s guerrilla gardening movement, while another offers a self-guided tour around some of the capital’s most historic green spaces via an interactive map.

River of Flowers has mapped walks around Islington and Kingston-upon-Thames’ newly-planted street meadows and the Edible Bus Stop project is engaging local people in an attempt to transform an entire bus route in south London into something productive and beautiful.

London’s wild side

A desire to seek out nature is another trend, with many projects focusing on wildflowers and wildlife. The Big Buzz and Flutter in Archbishop’s Park will teach people about the benefit of birds, bees and butterflies in the urban environment.

Dinner to Dye For credit: Roman Skyva

Out east, Katelyn Toth-Fejel’s Dinner to Dye For will invite guests to discover wild plants’ hidden depths – as both natural dyes and food stuffs. “For me, the Fringe is about being a nature lover in the city,” she says.

The I Love Vanessa project aims to celebrate the Red Admiral and Painted Lady butterflies and the native plants they feed on. During the Fringe, huge images of these species will be jet-washed on to dirty city walls. What does Project Co-ordinator Jackie Herald want people to get from I Love Vanessa?

“Hopefully they’ll be inspired to notice the details of flora and fauna that are everywhere in the city, provided you don’t over-weed or over-pave. Personally, having been involved with the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, I thought it would be fun and interesting to experience the flipside – grassroots up, rather than catwalk down.”

Get involved

Another strong Fringe theme is participation. The Canning Town Caravanserai is actively inviting people to help them design and make a garden for their site, while Leighton House is hosting a communal outdoor sculpture project.

Canning Town Caravanserai

There are also various workshops planned throughout the festival. You could learn how to build a living roof at a two-day workshop in Forest Hill or help to construct a greenhouse out of plastic bottles at Fern Street Community Garden.

So what else will visitors to Fringe events take away from the experience? “There are the usual things – seeing interesting plants, successful combinations and new ways of growing things,” says Karen Liebreich from the Edible High Road.

“But visitors will also see that gardening doesn’t need to be a high-end, high-cost endeavour, and that they too could improve their own part of town. People might also discover there are some interesting gardens nearby that they could get involved in.”

Tim Richardson is keen for the Fringe to challenge visitors to see gardening from a different perspective. “There are some projects that are specifically about teaching people new skills, but overall the Fringe will inspire people by example,” says Tim. “The festival offers people a day out that will expand their horizons about what gardens can be. It should be a challenging thing – in a good way.”

The Chelsea Fringe starts tomorrow and runs until 10th June. Find out more at




One Response to “Chelsea fringe: events and themes”

  1. Storm

    It’s great to be part of Chelsea Fringe as part of the Edible High Road in Chiswick. My shop sponsored an Apple Tree which is currently residing outside London Zu in Devonshire Road. Much to the delight of the local children taking part in the accompanying quiz who squeal with delight when they find it.
    Also really happy to see the mini meadow on waste ground at Hogarth Roundabout, hope it stays for good. Thanks Chelsea Fringe.

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