OPAL at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, May 2015

At first glance the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Chelsea Flower Show and OPAL might appear unlikely bedfellows: the Chelsea Flower Show being the unofficial start of the summer social season and OPAL being the project which aims to bring environmental citizen science to everyone, including the most disadvantaged in society. However, I see it differently.  Gardens are a great way to inspire an interest in nature.  Many people’s first contact with nature is through gardens either their own or perhaps their local park.  As a member of the RHS’s Science Committee, I am very lucky to receive an invitation to attend the Monday of the show.  In addition to viewing all the amazing plants and gardens, it also provides me with a great opportunity to further the work of OPAL.  Let me explain. 

This year the show coincided with launch of the revised OPAL surveys across the whole of the UK.  Alys Fowler, a correspondent on The Guardian and former presenter of BBC Gardeners’ World, very generously leant her support to the launch of the surveys across the UK. It was a real joy to meet her at Chelsea, not only to thank her personally but to discuss how we can continue to work together to inspire people to get involved in nature through the OPAL surveys.  By working with Alys, we are able to bring OPAL to the attention of many more people. In addition, OPAL has been working closely with the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) and its agencies including Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera) and Forest Research. Concerned about the risks of pests and diseases to our trees, Defra sought the help of citizens to get involved with monitoring tree health, by looking out for pests and diseases.  OPAL answered this call by creating the OPAL Tree Health Survey.  

At this year’s show, APHA continued their tree health public engagement work through a fresh garden entitled “Beyond Our Borders”.  The garden gave an eye-catching and innovative display featuring three climatic zones (Australasia, Arid and Tropical) divided by water features representing oceans. Each zone contained an iconic English oak tree standing ‘sentinel’ among plants native to each area. It also included coiled springs and pulsing lights to represent pests and diseases and their movement both within countries and across borders.  The core message was for people to monitor these sentinels for pests and diseases that can potentially attack our native species.  So where does OPAL fit in?  Well, how better for a member of the public to get started than by completing the OPAL tree health survey which was a specific recommendation made by APHA  . The icing on the cake was the garden romping home with a richly-deserved and highly-coveted RHS gold medal! “Well done” to APHA and to Sarah Eberle who designed the garden.

Increasingly, other environmental organisations are recognising the potential benefits from engaging with the Chelsea audience and the massive international media exposure generated by the show.  Meeting and talking with people from these organisations, particularly to explore potential collaborations, helps OPAL towards our specific aim to develop stronger partnerships between the community, voluntary and statutory sectors.  In addition to the RHS itself and the Government organisations mentioned earlier, here are few organisation present this year covering conservation, education, health and well-being and local authorities: British Ecological Society, Wildlife Trusts, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, RSPB, Sparsholt College, John Moores University, Hadlow College, Roseheath College, Royal College of Pathologists, Capel Manor College, Plant School, Doncaster Deaf School, Breast Cancer Haven, Motor Neurone Disease Association, Thrive, Birmingham City Council, Chorley Council and even The UK Space Agency.

Any regrets?  A better umbrella would have been useful in the morning and, of course, more time to see and take in all gardens and exhibits.  More seriously, I did wonder if all of us with an interest in nature could make even more of the opportunity provided by the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.  The show also attracts great interest from big corporate businesses and so could act as a catalyst to bring together businesses and environment organisations to work more closely to develop solutions to meet the environmental challenges facing society.  Now there’s a mission for next year.


Dr David Slawson
Director of Open Air Laboratories (OPAL), Imperial College London