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The Globe and Mail

How garden gnomes are causing an uproar at one of Britain's most prestigious events

Decorated garden gnomes designed by celebrities are seen at the Chelsea Flower Show in London May 20, 2013. The annual show opens to the public on Tuesday.


In the serious world of British competitive gardening, an issue has cropped up ahead of the Royal Horticultural Society's annual Chelsea Flower Show and divided green thumbs across the country: Should garden gnomes be allowed at the historic competition?

The ban on the cheap and cheerful figurines – "creatures commonly associated with the landscapes of the unrich, the unfamous and the untasteful," according to the New York Times – has been lifted for this year's show, resulting in furious debate over whether the gnomes are charming or cheap-looking.

The Chelsea Flower Show, considered the most prestigious event for British gardeners, regularly attracts the country's top horticultural enthusiasts and visitors such as the Queen and the rest of the royal family. The gnomes, meanwhile, with their rumpled pointy hats and unkempt beards, haven't exactly fit in with the manicured aesthetic.

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"Such as people all but fleeing in horror when the word was mentioned," a Times reporter at the Chelsea show wrote. ' "Gnomes?' said one exhibitor on Monday, when the show opened in preview. 'I can't comment on gnomes.' "

Another exhibitor, who had originally hid a gnome in his display, apparently lost his nerve and took the figurine out before judging. "I don't know where he went," he told the Times.

But despite some snobbish attitudes, others who had been campaigning for the move cheered. In recent years, pro-gnome rebels had taken to smuggling the figurines into their displays, according to the Daily Mail. Others had even staged protests outside of the show, demanding "equal rights for gnomes" and bearing signs reading "Gnomes have feelings too!" and "Gnomebody Loves Us!"

Ann Atkin, who runs the Gnome Reserve, a garden that is home to over 1,000 gnomes in North Devon, told the Guardian that the RHS' decision was a good one. "I'm sure that quite a lot of visitors who go to Chelsea do have gnomes in their gardens and the fact they don't show them casts a little shadow over it," she said.

Garden gnomes have been prevalent throughout history, writes Twigs Way, author of Garden Gnomes: A History. During the Renaissance period, wealthy villa owners placed stone "grotesques" (garishly painted figures) on their properties. The German tradition of placing "little folk" around the home or garden – believed to bring an owner luck – moved to England, where they were renamed as "gnomes." And though in the early 20th century garden gnomes were seen as signs of wealth and status, Way writes, their cachet plummeted in the 1970s.

"It's good to confront the received wisdom that all gnomes are nasty," British television presenter Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen said to the Times at the Chelsea show. "Also, Jackie," he said, referring to his wife, "has had to overcome her poshness and confront her gnomophobia."

"I've learned there's no place for gnomism in my life," she replied.

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