Chelsea represents the peculiarly British love affair with horticulture

ONLY in Britain could Alan Titchmarsh become a sex symbol. There is something in the psyche of the people on this small, rainy island that means that a short man in dungarees wielding a trowel sends ladies of a certain age all a-flutter. In some way, a gardener&rsquo;s earthiness equates to sexual allure. Maybe it&rsquo;s something to do with taming nature&rsquo;s wildness, or maybe it&rsquo;s just that we like the idea of somebody with rough hands and a nice voice. Think of Monty Don and &ndash; if you must &ndash; Charlie Dimmock.<br /><br />There is something unique in the British relationship to gardens, gardening and gardeners, and it reaches its zenith at the Chelsea Flower Show, which begins tomorrow. Visited by 157,000 flower-lovers a year, the 11-acre space is filled with countless pavilions, an enormous greenhouse with exotica from far-flung corners of the world and &ndash; of course &ndash; the corporate complexes in which the great and the good down Laurent Perrier and posh canapes. There&rsquo;s nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world.<br /><br />Yes, we Brits do love a good garden. A recent study by Yorkshire Bank showed that UK homeowners who do not have a garden would be willing to pay about a third of their annual income in order to add a green space to their home. The recession has inspired Britons to storm garden centres for vegetable seeds and sales have risen by 60 per cent in the last year.<br /><br />That&rsquo;s on the home-front. Consider London&rsquo;s 5,000 acres of Royal Parks &ndash; an expanse unrivalled by any other city. Then there are botanical superstars such as Kew, while the gardens at Hampton Court and other English Heritage and National Trust properties are often the main attraction.<br /><br />But where did our love affair with horticulture come from? Cambridge University historian Tom Stammers says: &ldquo;The big take off point is the 18th century when you start getting the great British garden: unaffected, free and natural. There was competition with French and Italian gardens which were always more geometric and formal.&rdquo;<br /><br /><strong>IDEOLOGICAL STATEMENT</strong><br />Gardens became far more than just pretty outdoor spaces &ndash; they became political, ideological statements. &ldquo;The quintessentially British garden style became a symbol of the nation&rsquo;s belief in freedom &ndash; it was a place where design was subordinate to nature, not the other way round as in Europe,&rdquo; says Stammers. &ldquo;By the Victorian period, the garden had become a way of manifesting Anglomania &ndash; the wild garden is trumped up hugely at this time.&rdquo;<br /><br />From the industrial revolution, green space became ever more coveted, reflected in the birth of the garden suburb. Indeed, the national parks were founded in the 1890s: &ldquo;As Britain became more modern and scientific, the love affair with mountains, hills and green space grew,&rdquo; says Stammers. &ldquo;The garden became such a symbol of respectability, it was about having access to land, living in communion with nature.&rdquo;<br /><br />More recently, national enthusiasm for greenery stepped up in the 1970s alongside growing interest in conservation issues, causing National Trust membership to go through the roof. Now, of course, there&rsquo;s the organic movement and the obsession with all things natural to bolster botanical interest. And programmes such as the BBC&rsquo;s Ground Force and Gardener&rsquo;s Question Time on Radio Four have made gardening a celebrity-endorsed media phenomenon.<br /><br />In fact, maybe they tell us all we need to know about gardening&rsquo;s appeal. &ldquo;Garden programmes are united by a spirit of amateurism,&rdquo; says Stammers. &ldquo;This is quintessentially and uniquely British.&rdquo;