New Rules Get Thorny Reception At U.K. Flower Show

The 99th Chelsea Flower Show opens in London on Tuesday. It's the horticultural event of the year, and its roots go even deeper than those 99 years — British horticultural shows have been part of the gardening calendar since the 1870s. Trendspotters at this year's show can expect lots of water-logged foliage after the wettest April in the U.K. record books, and a wary acceptance of a new judging system set to take effect after this year's show.

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In London tomorrow, the 99th Annual Chelsea Flower Show opens to the public. The five-day exhibition sold out weeks ago. For landscape architects and gardeners worldwide, it is the event of the year. But as Vicki Barker reports from London, all is not well for this hallowed horticultural institution.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLIPPING SHEARS)

VICKI BARKER, BYLINE: James Crebbin Bailey puts the final touches on a piece of topiary bound for the Chelsea Flower Show.

JAMES CREBBIN BAILEY: But really, what you're trying to do is just stop it looking too - it's got to look tidy.

BARKER: His suburban backyard is bristling with boxwoods clipped, pruned and groomed into the shape of teddy bears, angels, birds, spirals.

BAILEY: It drives you mad. It's in your head all year and you're always thinking, well, I did this last year, so what's the progression from that?

BARKER: When the former hairdresser first switched careers from clipping hair to clipping hedges, he says Chelsea felt like an old boys network where the same faces kept bagging medals. It's much more democratic now, he says, but it seems some old habits die hard.

THOMAS MAXWELL: Oh, now, this shows the early people who are involved in it all, so you're talking about...

BARKER: Botanist and horticultural historian Tom Maxwell leafs through sepia photographs of Chelsea's eminent and bewhiskered founders.

MAXWELL: The people who run it have always been very, very grand, you know, and they're all pretty fierce, these people.

BARKER: To this day, garden gnomes are absolutely forbidden, but in recent years the televising of the show brought a whole new audience to Chelsea, Maxwell says, and new scrutiny of the judging process.

MAXWELL: They were saying last year that they felt that the criteria were a bit peculiar. They were using that as an excuse for why the public thought this should have got a gold and it got the silver gilt or something like that.

BARKER: In fact, some disappointed exhibitors openly questioned the secretive scoring system by anonymous jury. So, the Royal Horticultural Society, which runs Chelsea, enlisted a high court judge to review its processes, but that led to a backlash from the old guard. Witnesses say, an open meeting to send it into heckling from the rival camps. In the end, the society opted for reform.

It's the final countdown, but no one's rushing at Royal Horticultural Society headquarters in London. Chelsea is just one of a dozen horticultural events it runs each year. Head of shows, Bob Sweet, admits the process needed updating.

BOB SWEET: All the judges used to get in a huddle. They used to look at an exhibit and they used to murmur amongst themselves and miraculously come out with some result. And I think in this day and age that that type of activity is no longer relevant.

BARKER: Under the new system, an expanded panel of named judges will vote in public, but the Royal Horticultural Society isn't rolling out the new system until just after Chelsea, so that it will have a full year to, in Bob Sweet's words, bed in before the 100th Annual Chelsea Flower Show in May 2013.

For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London.

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