Former Chelsea medal winner says gardening showcase needs to go native to for the sake of biodiversity

Wexford-based Mary Reynolds won a coveted Chelsea Gold Medal 22 years ago but believes the world-famous flower show, which runs next week, could do more to help stem biodiversity collapse

Chelsea Gold Medal winner Mary Reynolds. (Claire Leadbitter)

The theatre that is the Chelsea Flower Show is once again about to fill our screens with extravagant gardens and flamboyant designers competing to maintain their position at the top. I have fond memories of winning a gold medal at this show in 2002, and in a large part it was the reason for my career taking off.

It’s a game changer for many in this industry, creating careers and profits from manufactured fashions. Whether it is the latest avant-garde patio furniture or a new shade of hybrid aster or violet from South Africa, never seen before but soon to fill your garden centre tables.

It is a consumer show after all, though it is cleverly dressed up as a kind of fluffy, Pimm’s drinking, strawberry eating, feel-good day. And in fairness, it is a great day out, something to do, something to reach for.

Creativity is a vital part of our lives as human beings, but we have got to learn how to be creative without causing damage to the earth, to learn how to share this planet with the tapestry of life that allows us to survive here.

Nature is collapsing around our ears, but like the proverbial frogs in a pot of water, we are slowly boiling and have not seemed to notice, or perhaps people feel powerless to make a difference and so business as usual continues.

Gardens are part of the destructive force we have become as humans, and to say so offends people hugely. People love their gardens and logically they are protective and possessive of them; it is an extension of their home, their family and their hearts. I completely understand that it feels like an attack when someone questions the narrative that we are all happy to embrace, that gardens are natural and supportive to nature.

Crowds during the RHS Chelsea Flower Show last year
Crowds during the RHS Chelsea Flower Show last year (James Manning/PA)

However, the reality is that gardens are part of an old imbalanced world, they are in a large part still collections of non-native plants, built on the current fashions extolled in showcases such as Chelsea, which dictate and direct the general public’s concept of beauty. Non-native plants are not part of the local food web in our native ecosystems.

Furthermore, many plants, brought in by the globalised garden industry have escaped their garden enclosures and are running riot causing ecosystem collapses everywhere. I often hear people say, “Sure nature will be grand if humans get wiped out”, but this is not the case. Our legacy of imported non-native invasive plants, without our presence and efforts to remove them, would soon lead to a complete takeover and collapse of ecosystems.

Nurseries and garden centres are also among the largest sellers of chemicals and pesticides. Using 10 times more toxic chemicals in volume per acre than industrial agriculture, gardening has been washed green. It is now a behemoth of an industry.

Gardens are part of the destructive force we have become as humans, and to say so offends people hugely... the reality is that gardens are part of an old imbalanced world, they are in a large part still collections of non-native plants, built on the current fashions extolled in showcases such as Chelsea

The RHS has made real efforts in recent years at their flower shows, with actions like using certified timber, recycling and rebuilding all the gardens, banning peat products and taking pesticides off the shelves in their retail outlets. However, most of the efforts to become a greener show are aimed at reducing carbon footprint in a nod towards climate change.

The loss of biodiversity is more threatening (though completely interlinked) than climate change because it is rapidly reducing the ability of the Earth to maintain clean air and water and to provide food and habitat for all her creatures – including us. Biodiversity collapse is where gardens could become an important part of the solution, turning people from gardeners into empowered activists.

In the last few years I have been heartened to see the inclusion of wonderful native plant gardens and wildlife friendly supports, and that is to be highly commended and supported.

But the reality is that the show is supported by corporate ideologies that are part of the systems responsible for the collapse of nature, and that cannot be wiped out by alignment with a flower show, no matter how green the garden is.

The Chelsea Flower Show is in a unique position to truly provide leadership by driving home the necessary future of gardening, the restoration of native plant communities patch by patch, because native plant communities are the foundation stone of all life on earth. It could be showcasing how we could be creating spaces which are still beautiful and useable to humans, but also wildlife friendly and supportive.

Adapting to the impact of climate change is influencing gardening trends for the coming year
One of the award-winning gardens from last year's Chelsea Flower Show (Alamy/PA)

There is a further challenge in that native plants have evolved local traits and differences alongside their local insect partners and bringing in native plants, grown far away, causes problems for our insects who cannot keep up with the speed of change we are forcing upon them, not able to adapt quickly enough. Importing native plants from abroad has also resulted in many diseases such as ash dieback or fireblight threatening our remaining, fragile native plant communities.

Another hidden cost of garden fashions, is the destruction of nature by sourcing our ‘hardscaping’ elements from somewhere out of sight, far across the world, in order for us to have ‘beautiful’ gardens and patios here.

I have a lot of respect for the RHS and I am watching them change little by little, in a positive way every year. However, I feel they are lacking the understanding of our position in history.

We are on a cliff edge, and a perfect storm from all angles is heading our way. It is already here for many of our kin. Is it really just too hard to hold up the scales of balance and decide what do we want? A courageous and much needed showcase of solutions leaning towards supporting a liveable planet? Or a high profit margin, filled with pretty but impossibly fake versions of the natural world that we have almost wiped out?

There are huge opportunities in this industry to become part of the solution. Native plant nurseries could be set up in every region and the RHS Chelsea Flower Show could become a centre for the re-education of people on why native plants matter. The wonderful homegrown national park concept set up by the entomologist Doug Tallemy in the United States is a great blueprint to start from.

Also, there are many opportunites lying in the food growing section of the solution. Food security and the availability of nutrient dense, chemical-free food will be more and more important each year, and garden grown food is one local solution stepping us out of the horror which is industrial agriculture. Communities will be built around growing food, and Chelsea could be driving this revolution. I know change is happening in the RHS, but the transformation is not in line with the timeline of the crisis we are all facing.

My dream is that the concept of treating your patch of this planet as an outdoor room will soon become a thing of the past, and that all of us who are awake and aware of the problems we are facing, will turn our gardens into Arks, ‘Acts of Restorative Kindness’, to the Earth. These are ecosystem restoration projects on the smallest to the largest scale, supporting a native community of plants and creatures to re-establish with our help.

It’s past time to restore our place as the most important creatures at the centre of the web of life and reweave it all back together. It is time to become guardians, not gardeners. Chelsea could lead the way.