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Top Twenty (or so) to Watch at this Year’s Chelsea Fringe

by Abigail Willis

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Seeds for the Desert

At only two years old the Chelsea Fringe is a mere stripling compared to the 100-year-old Chelsea Flower Show but the young upstart festival is already one to watch.  Last year’s Fringe (which coincides and overlaps with the RHS Chelsea Flower Show but is independent of it) featured more than 100 events but as founder and director Tim Richardson reveals, this year is set to be bigger and better:

‘We are thrilled that the Fringe is doubling in size in this, our second year, with a wide spread of events that should cater to all tastes. The bulk of the Fringe is in London but a real innovation is the advent of Fringe satellite cities and areas — Brighton, Bristol, Kent and Vienna.”

But never mind the volume, the variety is what really makes the Fringe special.  Events range from a horticulturally-themed dog show at Inner Temple Garden (It’s a Dog’s Life in the Garden) to a recital of garden-inspired harpsichord music by Pawel Siwczak (An Evening of Baroque Music), and there are open gardens of every stripe to admire, from private squares to community spaces, via gardens medicinal, edible and ephemeral.  There are walks and talks, happenings and exhibitions, installations and jubilations (the Grand Opening of the revamped Edible Bus Stop in Stockwell springs to mind).

With such riches on offer it’s hard to know where to start – unless you’re lucky enough to have a well-primed Oyster card and three spare weeks at your disposal (and perhaps some handy air-miles, given Vienna’s satellite Fringe).  Here are a few to look out for in London at least – for the full listings, go to www.chelseafringe.com or download the Chelsea Fringe app which is designed to help people navigate and create their own Fringe trails.

Start Here

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Planting Ideas

If you’d like a trip to an iconic London landmark thrown into your itinerary for nowt (and most things in the Fringe won’t cost you a penny to enter), then you might want to make Battersea Power Station your first port of call.  The newly-opened temporary park there is the most high profile of the Fringe’s hubs this year and will be home to about 20 projects.  A sort of Chelsea Fringe in microcosm, the eclectic programme of events embraces everything from The Pop-Up Foundation’s Planting Ideas (a mass human planting exploring ideas around sustainability) to a conveyor belt plant swap (Green Movement) via art installations and film premieres. The surreal Teatime Wonder Game by the FIGMENTATION Art Collective sounds fun, as does Veg Out, the drop in ‘veg-knit-a-long’ workshops being offered by the quarter’s funky new garden centre, the aptly named Battersea Flower Station.

Just across the river, a good hub for combining retail therapy and gardening is the Brompton Design District. Design company Squint  will be showcasing ‘A Museum of Terrariums’ in their basement courtyard in conjunction with The Balcony Gardener online shop while Jonathan Adler and Clifton Nurseries will be showing how to pair houseplants with statement pottery. Down the road, Lush Spa will be showcasing its kitchen garden and asking How Does Your Bathroom Grow? Look out too for The Exhibition Road Greening Project, an installation of canvas planters on Lower Exhibition Road.

Horti-culture

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The Pop Up Poetry Garden

Some Fringe happenings are peripatetic. The Pop Up Poetry Garden follows in the footsteps of the troubadours, those nomadic poets of old, with performances of garden-inspired poetry in a sequence of green spaces, starting at Canterbury Cathedral and finishing in Potters Fields Park by Tower Bridge.  The project is a collaboration between Marian Boswall Landscape Architects and The Poetry Society.

E- gardening

Somewhat counter-intuitively for a festival about something as tangible as gardening, some Fringe events this year exist only in the virtual venue of the Internet. Poet and novelist Sarah Salway will be taking online Fringers on A Virtual Literary Tour of London’s Gardens, accompanied by new poetry, extracts from classic garden writing and some intriguing sounding ‘creative writing prompts’Wild about London – Dawn Chorus takes place as the sun rises on the 9thJune, the final day of the Fringe.  It’s a group piece by 7 writers stationed at National Trust properties across London who will collaboratively create a chorus of writing from 2.45am to 5am using Twitter as their collective performance space.  Anyone can follow at #dawn chorus or join in by tweeting about the sights, sounds and smells of their back garden at daybreak to @NTlovesLondon.

Fringe Benefits – getting into the party spirit

Night owls are well catered for at this year’s Fringe too with a raft of post-meridian activities, a significant number of which involve some delicious-sounding ‘botanic’ cocktails.  The Floral Themed Cocktails at The Athenaeum Hotel have been inspired by the Hotel’s Patrick Blanc designed vertical garden, while the bartenders at sketch’s Glade bar have created the ‘Fennel Fringe’ which promises to capture an English summer garden in a glass. The Gin Garden will bepopping up’ at The Chelsea Physic Garden, with a ‘living botanical bar’ which will showcase the garden as nature’s medicine cabinet – a herbalist will also be on hand to proffer advice. Meanwhile, over at the Brunel Museum Roof Garden botanical mixologist, The Cocktail Gardener, (aka Lottie Muir) will be serving up her specially created ‘Chelsea Fringe’ cocktail with helpings of wild food from gourmet chefs, The Foragers.

Grow your own Fringe

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The GrowUp Box

As with last year’s Fringe, food-growing is well represented.  Edible High Roads are being unrolled at Chiswick, Forest Hill, Queen’s Park (Salusbury Road) and Ravenscourt Park (Askew Road) and there will mouth-watering displays of edible and medicinal plants at the inimitable Petersham Nurseries.   Foraging is another distinct strand – book yourself into a Dinner to Dye For to taste local foraged produce and make colourful dyes from it at the same time.   In Hither Green, Theresa Webb will be leading two Green Salad Foraging Walks with a nutritional and medicinal focus.  Two separate projects explore the science of aquaponic growing, The GrowUp Box is an urban farm that uses aquaponic technology to grow fish and vegetables while The Aquaponicist is a social enterprise exploring the use of invasive fresh water fish in aquaponics. On a lighter note, Can you dig it? offers an evening of comedy songs about growing your own vegetables, starring musical comedians (and real-life allotment holders) Jo Stephenson and Dan Woods.

Infringements – gnome incursions

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Gnome Invasion

And finally, the garden ornament that, until recently, dared not speak its name in polite gardening circles has successfully infiltrated the Fringe.  It can’t be ignored – gnomes are everywhere this year (even the hallowed grounds of Chelsea Flower Show), despite Ikea’s gnomist advertising campaign.  You’ll need binoculars to spot the ‘Greenbelly Greenbelt Gnomes’ on A Walk in Paradise (through Letchworth, the world’s first Garden City) while the Gnome Invasion on Ockendon Road, N1 will be impossible not to see, with an eccentric collection of hand-painted (by the street’s residents) creatures populating all 35 of the street’s beautifully planted tree pit gardens and window ledges.  Unmissable.

Abigail Willis is an author and the Fringe’s website editor. She will be talking about her latest book The London Gardening Book A-Z at the Idler Academy, W2 on 23rd May at 6:30pm, tickets are £15.

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