In the month of May every year the London Season gets into swing with the sparkling event that is The Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show. Chelsea is the biggest show of its kind in the world and it was first staged in the year of 1913! Isn’t it incredible that 103 years later it is still going strong and is as eagerly anticipated as ever.
Over the course of its history the show has naturally undergone tremendous changes and developments in a continual attempt to showcase the brightest gardening talent that the country has. Increasingly the show is also attracting international design talent with competitors travelling from as far afield as Japan and Thailand.
I have been very fortunate indeed to have had two designs accepted for participation in the show and have experienced at first hand the incredibly arduous efforts required to build a show garden fit for Chelsea.
The build-up period is truly manic with tradesmen, gardeners and designers all vying for space to offload materials, take delivery of plants and organise their plots into something that is truly, truly special to behold. Everyone’s efforts have one thing in mind and that is to put on a show that will enthrall and entertain the public.
To quote the RHS, for five days in May the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea will be transformed into the world’s greatest flower show; this is true but of course it takes 18 months of forward planning and 28 days of construction to produce the show. Afterwards it takes at least another 10 days to dismantle everything and restore it back to the parkland and gardens of the Royal Hospital.
The fact that awards are made on merit by The Royal Horticultural Society goes a long way to establishing the camaraderie and helpfulness of fellow exhibitors and kindred spirits. The show is not a competition as awards are gained by each exhibit being meticulously marked against a strict set of criteria laid down by the RHS judges and it is within their gift to decide how many Gold, Silver Gilt, Silver and Bronze medals are awarded each year.
Chelsea is such a wonderful event and I look forward to it every year. It is an opportunity to pick up on gardening trends and developments and to share your design ideas with fellow professionals in the trade.
For the nurseries it is a chance to show off new varieties of plants that have been painstakingly developed and nurtured in preceding years and, of course, take orders for them too.
This year should prove as interesting as ever. Diarmuid Gavin is back at Chelsea with The British Eccentrics Garden apparently featuring bizarre garden gadgetry that comes to life every 15 minutes! There will also be an acoustic garden inspired by world-leading percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, which will play musical notes to visitors. These themes certainly sound unusual maybe, but at least we have designers who are constantly pushing the boundaries.
The main avenue seems to be the most important place to be at Chelsea, but away from these large show gardens are many much smaller gardens. This is where many garden designers start at Chelsea, and even to design, enter and build a small garden is quite a feat.
Back in 2005 I entered a category called ‘Courtyard Gardens’ along with 1980s pop icon Kim Wilde. We were both amazed and delighted that the RHS judges awarded us a Gold Medal and also ‘Best in Category’. We also went on to win the BBC’s ‘People’s Award’ voted for by the public who had watched the daily television coverage over the period of the show. Nowadays the ‘Courtyard Garden’ category doesn’t exist but I like the fact that the RHS is constantly developing its own ideas about how best to showcase new talent.
New categories for the smaller garden are ‘The Artisan Gardens’ which pay homage to traditional and contemporary artisan skills, and the ‘Fresh Gardens’ category which incorporate innovative materials and challenging ideas.
The Great Pavilion is a wonderland of stunning floral and horticultural exhibits with more than 100 specialist plant breeders, nurseries and societies all taking part to create breathtaking floral exhibits with plants at the peak of perfection. This is where you will find new plant varieties proudly exhibited, and possibly discover some old ones too that you just haven’t come across before.
It is impossible not to be impressed by the dedication, energy, creativeness and application that every participant puts into the show. They have worked tirelessly to create perfect plots to please our senses and they deserve our gratitude for giving us the chance to look, dream and wonder, just how we could use their inspired ideas in our own gardens at home.
If you haven’t been to Chelsea, I would suggest that you go. I know there are crowds and at the end of the day your feet are aching, but the sense of occasion and the sheer Englishness of it all somehow makes it worthwhile. Even if you are not an avid gardener, the show provides a great opportunity to entertain and socialise and you won’t fail to be impressed with what’s on offer.
I have had the pleasure of attending Chelsea for many years now and it is an experience that I wish to repeat just as long as I can. Roll on May, and let me look forward to Chelsea once again. I just can’t wait.