Chelsea Fringe | trend setters

Starting this Saturday and running at venues across London for three weeks, the Chelsea Fringe is a brand new festival of gardens and gardening.  It coincides with the famous Chelsea Flower Show, but is completely independent of it and runs on well after the more traditional show ends.  It 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 Fringe-long planted interventions to virtual projects that exist purely online, the events on offer during London’s first Chelsea Fringe are wide ranging and impressive.  At the same time a floating forest designed by Canadian artists will transform the Grand Union Canal out west, a community garden in Tottenham will throw open its gates to welcome curious visitors up north.

Edible urban landscapes

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

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 out of little scraps of earth” she says.

“There’s also a desire to use gardens to strengthen communities, and provide a focus for education and communal activities in a tough big town.  All the gardens and gardeners will be aiming towards some kind of beauty and artistic statement, because that’s what gardening is about.”

Other edible projects include pop-up veg gardens in Islington and front garden allotments in Finsbury Park.  Gardening students in Peckham are creating a living salad bowl 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 feature a lot – including an aromatic herb mobile sculpture at the Geffrye Museum, a medieval herb garden at the Idler Academy and wandering Wild Thyme events run by the Herb Society in South Kensington.

The Garden of Disorientation will see an empty slaughterhouse in Clerkenwell temporarily transformed into an indoor mint garden, complete with cocktail 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 leveler – 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, ranging from projects that map city green spaces to portable gardens.

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 travelling about the city in a bid to become ‘best in show’ at Chelsea Flower Show.

Walks are also popular – one project seeks to map out all the Pimped Pavements in London in a bid to highlight the strength of London’s Guerilla Gardening movement, while another offers a self-guided tour around some of the capital’s most historical green spaces via an interactive Google map.

The Meadow Up Your Street project has mapped walks around Islington and Kingston’s newly planted street meadows.  While Edible Bus Stop Gardens are 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 role and benefit of birds, bees and butterflies in the urban environment.

Out east, Katelyn Toth-Fejel’s Dinner to Dye For will invite guests to see plant’s hidden depths as both natural dyes and as food stuffs.  “I’m not a city person” she says.  “For me, the Fringe is about being a nature lover in the city.”

The I Love Vanessa project aims to highlight the importance and plight of the Red Admiral and Painted Lady, and the weeds these two butterflies rely on.  During the Fringe, huge images of invertebrate life will be jet-washed onto dirty city walls. What does project coordinator 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 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, with various workshops planned throughout the festival.  You could learn how to build a living roof in a two day workshop in Sydenham or help construct a greenhouse out of plastic bottles at Fern Street Community Garden.

The Canning Town Caravanserai is actively inviting people to help them design and build a garden for their site, while the Dock Garden Festival is encouraging people to create their own urban allotments with a series of inspiring talks, menus and markets.

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 also that gardening doesn’t need to be a high end, high cost endeavour, and you too can improve your own part of town and maybe next year do a Fringe garden.  People will discover there are some interesting gardens in their part of town that they could get involved in. Or just check out some unfamiliar parts of London.”

Tim Richardson is keen for the Fringe to challenge visitors to rethink gardening, as well as have fun.  “There are some projects that are specifically about teaching people new skills, but overall the Fringe will inspire people by example” says Tim Richardson.  “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 runs from 19th May to 10th June. Find out more at www.chelseafringe.com.  This feature was written for City Planter.

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