Chelsea Flower Show History
A veteran of many flower shows in the U.S., I was excited to attend my first ever Chelsea Flower Show in London, a rite of passage for any serious garden lover. On a hot sunny day, not English-like at all!, and not knowing what to expect, I was surprised to find that a good part of this prestigious show is held outside on the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea for WWII war veterans in central London. Bigger than any garden show in America, it encompasses over 11 acres of displays, garden landscapes, rare plants, sculpture, food courts, floral arrangements, vendors selling garden paraphernalia, music and much, much more. Tickets for a full day goes for 100 pounds ($128) and sell out months before opening. Hosting a group of 29 other garden enthusiasts on a trip from the U.S., I bought all our tickets by January. Scalpers were selling tickets for 500 pounds or more. After entering, my group of gardening friends quickly scattered and hit the ground running to see everything.
Only about a third of the show is undercover, held in the “Great Pavilion” and the floral arrangement competitions are also staged in a studio building, held there since 1913.
The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) puts on the show and on their website; “The RHS Chelsea Flower Show, sponsored by M&G Investments, is the place to see cutting-edge garden design, new plants and find ideas to take home”. It is very English and brilliantly garden mad! Gardening displays are over the top and crowds of people wanted to see it all and pushed and shoved like I have never experienced at a garden show before. Disappointed that gnomes were frowned upon, I learned that they were allowed for the first time in 2013, and could only make an appearance for that one year. The RHS site claims “gnomes detract from the presentation of the plants or products on display, and from the general appearance of the show”.
After entering and being bombarded with plants, people, and booths selling Pimms everywhere, the one flower that shouted out to me was lupins. The English are mad for lupins and they were in almost every show garden. If only we could grow them here! I get a few blooms but nothing like the towering vibrant blooms that I saw at the show.
As a garden designer, I wasn’t impressed with the show garden designs except for one (Sarah Raven’s) and was fascinated with the stellar new and not so new plants that were on display in the Great Pavilion. Purple Alliums, bronze Verbascums, red Lysimachias, Geums, Iris, Dahlias, Lilies, and Lupin in every hue were on display everywhere and the predominant color palette was gold to bronzey orange, wine red, and purples. In Sarah Raven’s garden, these colors took center stage to create a winning combination of textures and cottage style abundance. Overflowing with exuberance, this was the kind of garden that I came to see!
Sarah Raven is an English garden celebrity who is also a cook, writer and television presenter and I really admired her garden sponsored by The Anneka Rice Colour Cutting Garden. According to the Chelsea website, “Every square inch of space will give you flowers, flowers and more flowers. The garden is inspired by Tricia Guild’s renowned use of colour in her designs. It is a profusion of colour that will be an amazing sight and concentrates on plants that cut and come out again. Gold, the colour for 50th Wedding Anniversaries, features in this garden to celebrate 50 years of BBC Radio 2″. Adjectives used in the publicity were “zingy colours” “patchwork of flowers”, “diaphanous planting”, “textural planting”, and “cornucopia of colour”. I agreed! It was stunning. A sighting of Sarah at her booth thrilled me and she graciously allowed me to enter the garden to take her picture.
For more information about Sarah and the creation of the garden go to her website. Next trip to England, I plan on going to her garden at Perch Hill!
One of my predictions for upcoming gardening trends was the color gold and I saw it everywhere at Chelsea. My favorite was the gold Verbascum ‘Clementine’, used in Sarah’s garden.
The Potato Story
Potatoes???? One of the most unusual exhibits in the Great Pavilion was Thompson & Morgan Seed company’s potato exhibit which won a gold award in 2015, 2016, and 2017! Displaying 154 varieties, the exhibit highlighted the diversity of one of England’s favorite vegetables. Most varieties came from designers Morrice’s and Ann’s personal collection of over 500 varieties, including a historical European one which was taken to New Zealand by Captain James Cook in the 1770s. In the collection are also modern varieties like the high-yielding salad potato, Jazzy. Morrice and Ann of Aberdeen Scotland worked with Thompson & Morgan potato expert Colin Randel to bring home the gold spud this year!
A shortage of high-profile show gardens (8 from the usual dozen) attributed to lack of corporate funding, meant that there were more trade booths or nurseries in the Great Pavilion and outdoors which actively encourage people to enter, touch and feel. An improvement in my view, because you are kept at arm’s length for the big show gardens, trying to muscle your way in front to catch a brief glimpse. I loved Pennard Plants exhibit which exhibited how to grow veggies in small spaces. They actually sell Burpee to the English market. Merlin cucumber was awesome!
Alliums were everywhere in abundance. Virtually every garden I visited on my trip had drifts of Alliums and we can grow them just fine! I know what will be on my bulb order list for next year.
Featuring monumental blocks of limestone planted with grasses, evergreens, and perennials unique to Malta, I was underwhelmed by the main M & G show garden. Malta’s ecological sustainability principles were the intent but I moved on to more interesting pieces. Featuring large show gardens on the main drag of Royal Hospital Way, these drew crowds of excited jostling people. My favorite was the Silk Road Garden, Chengdu, China. Inspired by Kyoto emperors of Japan, colors and textures abounded and overflowed in this garden.
The show’s Great Pavilion, a 12,000 sq meter enclosure, featuring more than 100 exhibits from the world’s best nurseries, growers and florists was the most interesting feature of the show for me.
Displaying the newest plants and products, the RHS Chelsea Garden Product of the Year and the RHS Chelsea Plant of the Year, I spent a lot of time browsing the aisles. PURE Greenhouse was the top product of the year. A beautiful seamless glass greenhouse that would elegantly fit into any garden.
My personal favorite product which I brought home with me was Burgon & Ball Ltd’s Hip Trug that clips to your belt for hands free picking of produce.
The RHS Plant of the Year was given to a dwarf Mulberry ‘Charlotte Russe Matsunaga’, which has taken over 40 years for Japanese breeder Mr Matsunaga to create. A dwarf unique Mulberry Bush that is compact with tasty berries, fruiting over a long season. Coming in second was Salvia ‘Crystal Blue’ which I grow and love, and third was Hibiscus ‘Petit Orange’, a floriferous dwarf hibiscus with orange flowers with a red eye.
On the woodsy serpentine walk outside, nine smaller innovative gardens were featured which I feel would appeal more to a serious but less experienced gardener. Showing just how creative it is possible to be in a smaller space, the artisan gardens were more interesting than most of the larger show gardens. The Poetry Lover’s Garden and The Gosho No Niwa No Wall, No War were my favorite. For the Poetry Lover’s Garden, a creation of a tranquil retreat to read poetry to the sound of water was striking. The plant materials selected were a mix of traditional and modern with a relaxed feel. Based on Coleridge’s poem This Lime Tree Bower My Prison, lime trees tower over abundant flowers in pale hues.
The Kyoto residence of Japanese Emperors inspired the Gosho No Niwa garden and displays the beauty and peaceful march of history of two millennia of the imperial family. Moss which looked so soft and touchable was a great feature.
Floral Design Studio
To view the best amateur flower arranger’s work, the studio is full of stunning floral designs which are open to National Association of Flower Arranging Society clubs and individuals from all over the world. Jane Belcher won the gold for her category “In Suspense” based on a piece of literature called The Birds.
Spending 10 hours exploring, snapping pictures, and shopping the latest garden products in the artisan studios was exhausting. To rest up, I stopped at the Wedgewood Tea Conservatory for a refreshing spot of tea, a quintessentially British tea experience. Trying different and exotic tea pairings, I browsed through the many offerings of tea selections curated by Wedgwood’s expert tea sommelier Bernadine Tay.