Page 9, 30th May 2008

30th May 2008
Page 9
Page 9, 30th May 2008 — Losing faith in Chelsea

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People: Gertrude Jekyll
Locations: Jerusalem, London, Rome


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Losing faith in Chelsea

Jill, Duchess of Hamilton, asks where all the Catholic gardeners are famed for embody ing everything tradi ional and all that is English, this year the Chelsea Flower Show displayed the latest developments in international design. Modernism was the dominant theme.

It was a reverse from a decade ago when many were inspired by the great Edwardian schools of British gardening. All signs of nostalgia for Gertrude Jekyll were missing.

Another feature which was absent from the 600 exhibits was a garden with a strong Christian theme. But there was nothing new in this. In the 140 years that the show has been running, church gardens have been very few indeed.

One of the exceptions was seen last year the multi-faith garden which opened to the sound of Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Hindu prayers. In 2004 the Salvation Army used flowers and dark-leaved shrubs to illustrate the transition from dark to light, representing humanity's "potential to find light even in the darkest of times".

Perhaps, in 2009, some priestly gardeners will break the show's new trend towards modernism and take the initiative to exhibit a prototype church garden for the 21st century.

With over 2,627 Catholic churches in England and Wales, Catholic churchyards collectively cover huge areas. Almost all have some open space around them. Of course, churches in urban areas will often have to rely on potted plants, but something can still be grown.

As Chelsea is for gardeners what Wimbledon is to tennis, many people are intimidated at the idea of participating in a worldfamous event. But they do not have to be distinguished. As a former exhibitor myself — with a collection of medals from five gardens between 1994 and 1999 — I can assure readers that anyone can submit an application form.

Perhaps, though, before there is a Catholic Church garden at Chelsea, an association of priestly gardeners should be initiated. Priests would surely have been among the earliest members of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners, one of the oldest livery companies of the City of London.

This medieval craft guild began in the middle of the 14th century and coincided with the era when monastic gardens were in their prime. It has remained a powerful organisation ever since it received its Royal Charter in 1605.

But despite the continuing interest in the history of monastic gardens, there are no guidelines, let alone official policy, for Catholic Church gardens and Catholic schools in England, Wales, Italy, the Holy Land or most countries. Nothing distinguishes them collectively.

Today thousands of priestly gardeners have autonomy over the layout and content of the land they control. Although parishioners often help as well, the personal preferences of superiors and priests have affected the content and care — or neglect — of each area. The lack of guidelines for church gardens results in the appearance of each garden altering according to the inclinations of the priest in charge. They inevitably come with different priorities on what should be grown. Some have been passionate about gardening while others have seen it as another of their many daily duties.

A framework of gardening principles could also advance church environmental policy and help schoolchildren as well as reducing food bills and the Church's carbon footprint.

The concept of improving the green spaces around churches could possibly be supported by the establishment. For example, the Campaign for School Gardening now has 4,000 primary schools which receive free seeds and online advice. It is helped by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) as well as the Government.

Priestly gardeners can obtain inspiration from the Summer Solstice garden, an "agrarian garden" which won a silver gilt medal at Chelsea this year. Created for Daylesford Organic, which is run by Lady Bamford, herself a Catholic, it featured pollarded willow trees, masses of other local native flora, an organic kitchen garden with an outdoor fireplace for barbecues, solar panels, a wormery, a waterbutt and compost system. To symbolise its spirituality the green-roofed modem building was dominated by a large window in the shape of a cross. Lady Bamford explained: "A gardener who grows what he eats has a feeling of belonging, which is precious and irreplaceable."

Lady Bamford's passion for sustainable gardens with the right balance between plants grown for ornament and those for food was shared by other exhibitors at Chelsea, including the Edible Playground which grew prize beetroot and lettuce.

Let us hope that next year we see a church garden at . Chelsea and the beginning of a church gardening society which will issue guidelines and principles for church lands. Will this start in Rome, Jerusalem or London?

A suitable name for an association might be the Catholic Church Association of Gardeners — CCAG — or, to revive its monastic origins, the Guild of Catholic Church Gardeners.

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