The Chelsea Fringe: the alternative flower show

It's the launch year of the Chelsea Fringe with shows across London - most of them free
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Chelsea Fringe
The Bicycle Beer Garden has been spreading the word about the Chelsea Fringe all over London, with the team dispensing not just leaflets but planted beer cans

You may not have a ticket for Chelsea Flower Show but the hottest show in town is on the streets of London — and for the most part, it’s free.

Start by joining a Chelsea In Bloom tour, every 30 minutes from Sloane Square, though try not to get lost in its 100-yard laurel maze. Or hire a rickshaw to view the fantastic floral art show that has rippled out from the Chelsea showground to the surrounding 20-plus shops, with a theme of Diamond Jubilee-greets-English eccentricity.

Hackett sentry
© Graham Hussey
A sentry, with a uniform of roses and bearskin of black reeds, stands guard at Hackett for this week's Chelsea in Bloom
Tiffany’s doorway is framed with a giant white-trellised diamond ring, the Brilliant Jewellery shop greets its customers with a life-sized cut-out of the Queen, complete with corgis, while Hackett has installed sentries by its doors (right), made of red and white roses and black reeds. Choose your favourite and vote in the People’s Champion Award at

However, it’s not just the streets of SW3 that are blooming. The Chelsea Fringe, backed by the Mayor and with no funding but plenty of volunteers, kicked off on Monday with a disco at Lambeth’s Garden Museum, DJ’d by guerrilla gardener Richard Reynolds, and will end on June 10 with conductor Charles Hazlewood presenting a woodwind octet at a pleasure-gardens picnic on the South Bank.

The brainchild of anarchic garden journalist Tim Richardson, London’s street-level alternative to Chelsea Flower Show is open to anyone with an idea and enthusiasm, and so far, more than 90 diverse horticultural happenings are scheduled for the next three weeks all around the city and suburbs.

“I can hardly believe that what started as a three-in-the-morning moment is now up and running with a core of about 40 committed volunteers,” says Richardson. “We’re approaching the 100-project mark when I imagined we might get 30 if we were lucky. The Chelsea Fringe has hit a nerve.”

Fringe festivals have been springing up like weeds: the Dock Garden Festival, for instance, gathers farmers, beekeepers, lumberjacks and carpenters for a pop-up market by the Grand Union Canal at Portobello Dock; the Dock Kitchen offers a spring menu starring nettles and wild garlic; while this Saturday Tom Moggach, author of The Urban Kitchen Gardener, will show how to grow and cook with shiso, mouse melons and other offbeat edibles — £10 includes a fresh herb cocktail, nibbles, seeds to sow and recipes.

While you’re there, gaze into the still waters of the dock and see an incredible floating forest: six hundred suspended slices of wood in a patterned grid, an installation by Montreal designers NIPpaysage.

Dalston’s first flower festival, transforming streets, shops and gardens, includes a Blossom and Beans tour of independent coffee shops, perked up with plant displays: find the map at the inspiring Dalston Eastern Curve community garden.

The Fringe celebrates plot-to-plate in grand style with a lunch, tea and evening banquet among the 72 growbags and water tower of N1’s hip Vacant Lot allotment, on June 9; book now. The Dinner to Dye For on June 2 first involves a forage for dye plants around Hackney City Farm, followed by a dye plants workshop and a tinted, fragrant meal of gathered edibles along the lines of acorn bread with sorrel butter, fennel quiche and lemon pots with blackberry brandy.

Vacant Lot allotment in Chart Street, N1
Visitors to the Vacant Lot allotment in Chart Street, N1, check out the greenery to be served at dinner on June 9

Meanwhile, if you find salad tossing more fun than salad growing, join in the Edible Olympics over the coming half-term at Spitalfields City Farm: enter the apples-versus-strawberries relay, fruit archery, an orange dribbling race or even the fruitathlon; veg sculpting is laid on for sideliners. The Duchess of Cornwall is visiting the warm-up heats on May 30, the opening ceremony is on June 2 and prize-giving, presented by Richardson, is on June 9.

This Sunday is Cake Sunday in Finsbury Park, with more than 100 front gardens in Finsbury Park showcasing their street veg plots; Ambler Road is where to start. At 3.40pm a 10-minute play in one garden, called Pumpkin Patch, shows passions pushed to the edge in a battle over pumpkins at a community garden.

Even Kew Gardens is getting on board, with a 90-minute behind-the-scenes tour of the Stable Yard, so you can see compost being made on a giant scale, on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings.

And at the Geffrye Museum, east London, you can stimulate your senses with a fantasy mobile of biodegradable vases holding aromatic plants, by Michela Pasquali for Linaria, who will have a mint mobile at the Garden of Disorientation. The garden of what? Picture a former Smithfield slaughterhouse packed from floor to ceiling with pallets of fragrant mint instead of meat, along with a Cuban mint mojito bar, art salon and series of debates on minty topics. Perhaps it’s the mojitos more than the mint that disorientates…

Edible plants
Oranges and lemons: (left) St Leonard's Church, known for its Bells of Shoreditch nursery rhyme, has been transformed; while (right) Dalson has signed up to present a three-week plant festival, including a blossom-and-beans tour

Eat your bus stop

Pop-up plantings are everywhere in London this week: at edible bus stops — ride on London’s first green bus route, the 322; in Chiswick, with an orchard right down the high road, courtesy of 50 shops; in wildflower street meadows rolled out in Kingston and Islington.

Like Birnam Wood, mobile gardens are advancing from Battersea Park tomorrow and Saturday, with Hampshire students pushing their pimped and planted wheelbarrows over Battersea Bridge and along the Embankment. Even pavement cracks are planted, courtesy of the Fringe’s Pothole Gardener, who flits around the city, filling holes in roads and paving stones with mini plantings, signing off with dolls-house deckchairs. This is street, not show gardening, and all the more refreshing for that.

The Chelsea Fringe’s full programme and details of each event is at, which has a week-by-week guide.

Pictures by Paul Debois

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