For some it’s the first cuckoo, for others it’s the evenings drawing out but for many the real harbinger of summer is the Chelsea Flower Show. Every May this well-heeled corner of London goes gardening mad as the RHS’s premier show takes over the grounds of the Royal Hospital, transforming them beyond recognition with stunning ‘instant’ gardens, floral marquees and retail opportunities by the barrow load. Even the shops on Sloane Street and the King’s Road get into the spirit of things with extravagant floral themed store fronts .
The show gardens and the famous Floral Pavilion are the big crowd pleasers here, showcasing the skills of designers and plantspeople from Britain and around the world. The horticultural equivalent of an haute couture catwalk, Chelsea is the place to spot the hottest trends, from eco-chic to vertical planting, before they filter down to the mass market.
The show gardens are the work of some of the biggest names in international garden design and the mega-bucks fantasy gardens they create for Chelsea seem to spring up as if from nowhere, belying months, if not years, of preparation. Incredibly, most of them look as if they’ve been in-situ forever. Newly introduced in 2012, the Fresh show garden category replaced the Urban Gardens of previous years and promises innovative, cutting-edge gardens, with designers being freed from some of Chelsea’s usual judging restrictions. By contrast, the Artisan Garden category puts the emphasis on natural, sustainably sourced materials and traditional craftsmanship.
Whatever the category of show garden (and these are subject to change from time to time), the free planting plans that are dished out at every turn are worth picking up for their take-home design ideas and plant lists. And for those whose idea of gardening is more spectator than contact sport, there are always of plenty of inviting ‘garden structures’, from humble shed to trendy ‘pod’.
Heavily covered on television by the BBC, Chelsea is insanely popular – be prepared to wade your way through heavy crowds with a holiday atmosphere. Some 157,000 visitors come to the CFS every year, so expect to queue, or stand on tip-toe, to see some exhibits. Like the Wimbledon tennis tournament, you probably actually get to see more of the show gardens on the box than you do in real life, but it’s a different story inside the Great Pavilion. This wonderfully scented arena is the place to admire expertly staged plants at close quarters, many of them blooming unseasonably early, and to meet some of the nurserymen and women who coax perfection from flora as various as pelargoniums, dahlias, sweet peas and roses. Some well-known nurseries such as Kelways, Notcutts and Avon Bulbs have been coming to Chelsea for years and the floral pavilion is a testament to their horticultural prowess. Exhibitors are usually very approachable and happy to answer questions. The talent is not all home-grown, and displays from further afield – the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, South Africa – overflow with exotic plants. Here, as with the show gardens, exhibitors vie with each other for a coveted RHS medal (either bronze, silver, silver-gilt or gold), awarded by a panel of eagle-eyed judges.
Although on a smaller scale to the Great Pavilion, the Floral Design Marquee can be an equally intense experience. Over 150 NAFAS (National Association of Flower Arranging Societies), individuals and groups compete to create the ultimate floral arrangement. The resulting inventive, intricate floral creations are always worth seeing, as the queues suggest, and are likely to make those whose normal approach to floristry is plonking a bunch of blooms in a vase of water feel rather inadequate.
Retail opportunities, needless to say, are never far away. If you haven’t blown the budget on a Pimms and a sandwich (quite possible at Chelsea), then head for the stalls ranged in the shade of the London plane trees on Eastern Avenue. This is your opportunity to stock up on all manner of goodies, from upmarket gardening attire to the latest pruning gizmo or all-singing-and-dancing water features, or even a work of art. The legendary plant sell-off at the end of the last day has something of the Harrods’ sale about it, but there are some amazing specimens to be had if you can beat off the competition and find a way to transport your prize home safely.
Chelsea Flower Show Royal Hospital Road, SW3