No money, no office, no staffwhat it really means to ‘work’ for the world’s BEST grassroots gardening festival and here’s how you can get involved too.

A little light photocopying, answering the phone prettily, making coffee. That’s what I had in mind when I emailed Tim Richardson, founder of the brand new Chelsea Fringe Festival, to see if I could help with the launch. Something between a work experience kid (I was way too old for that) and Mad Men-style secretary (alas no shorthand).

I heard about the Fringe when I was putting together a 2012 almanac for the Daily Telegraph and felt an immediate ring-ding-a-ding of excitement. What a fabulous idea! Also, getting involved would be an obvious way to make new contacts and find stories, and to build my ‘personal brand’, as I know to call it now. (Of course I didn’t reveal my impure careerist motives.)

Tim said yes.

Would I like to be a ‘project co-ordinator’?

It was the first time in my working life I’d sounded as if I ought to have a business card. Although, with no funding, there was never going to be one of those. Nor, I discovered, any photocopying. And certainly not a phone, unless it was mine. That’s part of the reason for Orwellian job titles — they’re reassuringly solid.

By then, people had already begun getting in touch, wanting to take part. My job was to shepherd my allotted projects through to signing up. There was the man who wanted to race remote-controlled monster trucks carrying pot plants, possibly in Victoria Park in Hackney. Somebody else needed a spot to put their installation, which involved a tree that looked as though it had erupted up through the pavement.

Curiously, neither of these made it past the concept stage. It was year one so that happened a lot. But 100 or more great ideas did blossom and bloom and come to fruition, to mangle metaphors. That was five times what our glorious leader had decided spelled success. (He hadn’t told us that, his committee of helpers meeting monthly in the bowels of the London Assembly building). We even had a royal visit, by the Duchess of Cornwall, to three of the projects. I shook her hand — a big moment, unrecorded by any snaparazzi.

So what is the Chelsea Fringe?

Tim is a journalist, author and all-round guru on gardens and gardening. He writes about the RHS Chelsea Flower Show for The Daily Telegraph — as I used to about the shopping at the show. I was deputy gardening editor, then freelanced for the paper.

The story, which has probably improved in the last seven years, is that Tim had the idea in bed. With the main gardens at Chelsea costing a quarter of a million pounds, and ticket prices in line with West End shows, he felt it was time to spread the green glow generated by this superb event to the wider community. Chelsea needed a fringe.

The idea was to celebrate all the community and guerilla gardening going on, and also to encourage links between gardens and art, literature, music, cookery, history, crafts, and ecology. The Chelsea Fringe is a true fringe festival based on the Edinburgh model. Nothing is commissioned or curated: if it’s on topic, legal and interesting, it can go in the festival, no matter how outlandish or odd it may seem — Tim Richardson

The Chelsea Fringe has grown and, unlike Edinburgh, sprouted mini-mes elsewhere. Past participants have included: Vienna; Nagoya and Fukuoka in Japan; Brescia, Bergamo, Florence, Milan and Etna in Italy; Ljubljana in Slovenia; Melbourne, Australia; as well as Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge and Aberdeenshire. Kent is a stalwart. And it still only costs £30 for a community garden to take part.

Why get involved?

I know what I get out of volunteering. I love helping people take good ideas and either make them fringe-ier or sell them better in their listing. Did I mention stories are my thing? There is also the excitement of watching momentum grow anew, from nothing, every year. Just like gardening.

But what about the people who take part — the community gardens and gardeners, the artists, performers, designers, shops, museums, even the virtual participants with their online projects? Well, the Fringe is a public platform which amplifies their voice. So it’s a chance to show off what they do to appreciative new audiences, while also getting more local people interested and involved — which is often one of their remits. The Fringe also forges connections between participants. And it’s bloody good fun!

Tempted?

Please do get in touch because we’d really love to hear from you. The festival is nothing without the people who take part (and the behind-the-scenes volunteers, if you’d like to do that). Here are some tips I put together for the website. The earlier you sign up, the earlier Team Chelsea Fringe can help you promote your project.

Everything you wanted to know about putting on a Fringe event but were afraid to ask…

What kind of projects is the Fringe looking for? The Chelsea Fringe manifesto, if that doesn’t sound too up-the-revolution, is fantastically inclusive. We celebrate anything to do with gardens and gardening as long as it’s legal.

The basic ingredient is plants but that could be growing them — in allotments, on roundabouts, behind private front doors, up posh hotel walls; turning them into art or high fashion; serenading them, writing odes, telling stories; putting them on the menu and even into cocktail shakers. In fact, it’s probably easier to say what we’re not looking for (that would be burger vans; thanks for getting in touch but we’re not that kind of festival!).

What makes a good Fringe project? The best ones really engage their audiences, non-gardeners as well as the green-fingered. We’ve had tomato festivals, vegetable orchestras, a new medicinal garden where visitors could learn how to brew up potions, a celebration of sci-fi author John Wyndham with a triffid-making workshop, and a mobile ice-cream machine using community-grown plants to create crazy flavours. I know that if I get a tingle from the first email enquiry, so will our visitors when they read the listing.

The other ingredient is more practical. While we can help projects discover their inner Fringe-y-ness, in the end they have to be well organised and self-propelled.

What happens once my project is approved? We don’t have paid staff (or an office). Instead the Fringe operates a kind of buddy system. Once we think your project is suitable, we hook you up with a volunteer who will help you sign up. You’ll need to have the listing finalised first, with nitty-gritty like health and safety assessments, and a picture ready. What you put into the form is what goes online; “TBA” is not OK.

There is a 10% early-bird discount on the fee until March 31. That is also the deadline to be on the printed map. Registration gives projects access to tips on marketing and using social media, and the Fringe publicity campaign, bolstering your own.

There are two public meetings. The first, on February 6, is a chance to pick the brains of fellow Fringers (Fringies? Fringe-istas?), both co-ordinators and veteran project organisers. The second is nearer the start of the festival, for the final update and to discuss any issues you may have. That is on May 8.

Is it possible to set up a project outside London? Absolutely. We generally say you need five or six things in one place to qualify as a satellite fringe. But there are also lone events. And other projects only exist online.

Is there any funding or sponsorship available? Not unless you raise it yourself. To say we operate on a shoestring is to flatter the Fringe bank balance. That’s why we have so many different registration rates, so that lone artists and garden designers, underfunded community groups and primary schools, and every size of charity can take part. This is a grassroots festival.

Snapshot of the Chelsea Fringe Facebook page (link below): images gratefully received from people taking part in and visiting festival events.

Chelsea Fringe 2018 runs from 19 to 27 May. Keep watching the website to find out more or email us your idea with as much detail as possible. You can follow the festival on Facebook and Instagram, and see lots of past projects. We are also on Twitter.

The Fringe complements the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and operates with the support and endorsement of the Royal Horticultural Society. But the two organisations are entirely independent.

Thank you for reading this. You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. And on Medium of course!

Harriot Lane Fox