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Despite the change in policy, some gardens maintained a more traditional appearance this year, such as the East Village display. (AFP/Getty Images)

Gnomes Crash Distinguished Garden Show In England

by Dana Farrington
May 25, 2013 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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Gnomes marched their way into one of England's most prestigious gardening events this year. The 100th annual Chelsea Flower Show, which ends Saturday, opened its gates to the flower-friendly creatures for the first time.

Gnomes decorated by celebrities made their debut at the show and are now up for auction on eBay to raise money for a campaign that encourages school gardening. The highest bid for the seedling gnome decorated by Elton John tops 2,000 pounds. The figurines are available until Sunday at midnight.

"Alternately loved and loathed, the gnome epitomises the social divisiveness of garden design," garden historian Dr. Twigs Way wrote for the BBC.

That divisiveness has been playing out among the show participants, The New York Times reports:

"Some exhibitors went proud and loud, putting gnomes in places they would not be missed, like in the middle of the grass. Others seemed to feel that gnomes may be fine for other people, but certainly not any people they know, or want to know. One renowned landscape architect, Robert Myers, hid a gnome in a tree in his display, lost his nerve and took it out again before the judges could see it."

Way, author of Garden Gnomes: A History, tells NPR's Scott Simon that gnomes were brought to England from Germany, where it was believed that the "mythical folk" helped in the garden and on the farm. When they first arrived in England during the Victorian period, gnomes were all the rage — and expensive.

"But the link with Germany, I'm afraid, was their undoing," she says, "because, of course, as soon as the first world war broke out, not only could you not get German gnomes anymore, but of course people didn't really want German gnomes anymore."

Then, in the 1940s and '50s, garden gnomes were back in style. Way says the animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs helped give them a boost.

Whether to include gnomes in the Chelsea Flower Show has been under debate for some time, she says.

"When the [Royal Horticultural Society] started having the show [in 1913], they put a blanket ban not just on gnomes, but on any colorful, mythical creature," Way says.

"For about the last decade or so, there's always been somebody that tries to sneak in a garden gnome because what they want to do, really, is say, 'Who is this garden show for? Is it for the suburban gardeners who may love their gnomes? Or is it just an exclusive show at the high end?' "

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