Gnomes Descend on Chelsea

Long banished from the highbrow Chelsea Flower Show, the gnomes crash the party this year.

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lawn-mowing gnomes

Mowing Gnomes

An army of garden gnomes cheerfully mow the lawn at the Gnome Reserve in southern England.

Photo by: Image courtesy of Felder Rushing

Image courtesy of Felder Rushing

An army of garden gnomes cheerfully mow the lawn at the Gnome Reserve in southern England.

News flash from the 2013 Chelsea Flower Show, London: The haughty “old school” members of the Royal Horticultural Society have lost their minds, by allowing something into their hallowed show which for a century has been held at an arm’s length: Garden gnomes.

It’s as if Prince Charles set out a flock of pink flamingos on the Queen’s front lawn. 

Not that I mind, of course. I have several gnomes in my own cottage garden, including a prized hand-painted one which I hand-carried across Europe. And, traveling as I do around England (where I live part of the year), I have visited the odd but celebrated Gnome Reserve, which has over a thousand of the little statues living out every imaginable scene, from sunbathing and fishing to pushing little lawn mowers. By the way, I am one who agrees that, with the exception of true antiques, modern-day “real” garden gnomes should be about six or eight inches high, counting their pointy hats; oversized or miniature versions are considered "unrealistic," or as unrealistic as imaginary men can be.

Anyway, there has always been whimsy at the usually-staid Chelsea show, as innovative designers work in subtle horticultural puns and unusual materials. The range of garden ornaments has been astounding at this year's show, from the creative use of recycled stuff to every imaginable form of statuary in every conceivable material. But for years a jovial group of costumed gnome lovers have protested outside the show gates against the discrimination.

It’s nothing new; for as long as anyone can remember, in the RHS rules for Chelsea, gnomes are lumped in a wide-ranging ban on anything too garish, including balloons and flags. All interesting omissions for a show that has always allowed elf figurines and naked goddesses. But twenty years ago a treasured gnome dating from the 1840s and insured for £1 million (nearly two million dollars) was allowed in as a valuable antique. And four years ago a respected award-winning designer managed to discreetly sneak a gnome into her garden without a rebuke.

So this year, on the show’s 100th anniversary, the RHS relented and allowed some gnomes to be placed in display gardens, though some British writers sniffed that the shift was “gruesome bonhomie” and that “like cuddly bears on a grown-up’s bed, they are frankly rather creepy.” 

But no one can complain too loudly because the move is for a good cause. A hundred of the little fellows were decorated by celebrities including actors Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren, and even Elton John, and are being auctioned off as a fundraiser for school gardening programs. Plus, as the society’s director general said: “It’s important for people to realize we have got a sense of humor and we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”

Indeed. Traditionalists will see it as evidence that British standards are declining. But I think it is a great move forward. At least for this year, in the world’s horticultural showcase, garden snobbery is dead. Kitsch is king. And it’s all for a good cause.

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