I have only visited the RHS Chelsea Flower Show twice. Considering I have been interested in gardening for decades and lived in London for many years this seems hard to believe and even a bit embarrassing. But somehow, and I can’t quite piece together how, I had dismissed the Chelsea Flower Show thinking it couldn’t possibly be as great as it was said to be. I could not have been more wrong.
When I arrived at my first Chelsea Flower Show on a Wednesday in May 2018, I had to adjust to all the other visitors around me. The show ground seemed ridiculously small for so many people and plants. But everyone was pleasantly well behaved and so I slowly moved with the crowds towards the first show garden, designed by Sarah Price.
It looked like a disused plot that had serendipitously – and perfectly – been colonised by a wide variety of plants. Pale terracotta coloured soil covered the ground. Free standing walls, maybe the remains of buildings, were made of the same material. Together they formed the muted background for a vibrant combination of turquoise and acid green foliage with splashes of purple and red flowers.
For all its everyday location reference, the scene had the inviting air of an idyllic refuge somewhere in the Mediterranean. The plants lacked classic perfection. They might even have looked weedy had they not been perfectly selected and placed. It looked like each plant was in the exact spot where it had chosen to grow. This was spectacular show garden design with a foundation of quietly sophisticated botanical excellence.
This first impression was confirmed throughout my visit. Everything at the Chelsea Flower Show radiated expertise, craftsmanship and attention to detail. This was justifiably the foremost garden show in the world.
The show gardens were located along the side of the Great Pavilion, the exhibition space for nurseries. I knew the marquee was big, but I had not imagined it quite so enormous, two football fields full of plants and their growers. There was a stand offering the most exquisite varieties of narcissi, all displayed in immaculate arrangements in front of a perfectly contrasting sky blue backdrop. A black clad table was full of hostas, but only the delicate very small leaved varieties.
Even more breathtaking than the quantity was the quality of the displays. Every leaf and every petal was perfect in shape, size, colour, everything. There were numerous specialised growers offering auriculas, ferns, grasses, acer palmatums, fuchsias and dozens more plant species. It was wonderful to walk around this ‘dream-nursery’ although the comparison is misleading because nothing is for sale here until just before the show ends. But one can order plants for delivery and to my amazement one can easily approach the nurserymen and nurserywomen to ask them questions about plants in one’s own garden.
Despite the impressive display of professional expertise the Chelsea Flower Show doesn’t feel like a trade show, more like a glamorous garden party where the marquee on the lawn turned out a bit too big. Pimm’s and champagne are readily available. The ladies wear cocktail dresses, the men jacket and panama hat and each year the Queen comes to open the show. The Chelsea Flower Show is an important event in the social calendar and there are definitely people here for whom gardens are only a backdrop, like horserace tracks and tennis courts later in the season. But the vast majority come for the flowers.
There is a seriousness about the way, plants and gardens are viewed. In front of show gardens I overheard several conversations revealing deep botanical knowledge. Most people come every year, have their own gardens at home and can easily distinguish a lacecap from a mophead hydrangea. Plant enthusiasm is the common denominator. Predictably the demographic is older. Yet in the light of house plant mania and a continuing scramble for allotments I predict large numbers of millennials will soon begin to lower the average age at the Chelsea Flower Show.
Outside the marquee it was a bit less crowded now and I could get a look at the show garden designed by Chris Beardshaw. The front part of the garden was a sea of shade loving plants with a path leading to a building further back, a very solid building. Even a closer look revealed nothing but exquisite materials and construction that looked like it was made to last.
There were buildings as solid as this one in most large show gardens. I had expected them to be more like stage sets because I knew that all of this was just here for 6 days of the flower show. The rest of the year the show ground by the Thames is a quiet park for the pensioners of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. Beyond the obvious wastefulness, I was amazed by the logistics and above all the cost involved. This was like building a house on your lawn only to remove it after a week, foundations and all – and repeat the process every year.
Throughout the Chelsea Flower Show expense seems to be no obstacle. The Show is organised by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) but mostly financed by sponsors. Apparently spending 300,000 to a million pounds on a show garden is money well spent for a bank or an investment firm. Beyond many hours of TV coverage, including the daily prime-time shows on the BBC, the main draw is to use the gardens as a grand stage on which to entertain business partners. Even on my first visit to the show I was aware of an afternoon influx of suited City employees, being handed champagne flutes and discretely shown to the seating areas inside the show gardens’ lavish buildings. I know now that what I saw in 2018 was only the watered-down version of this symbiosis between the financial industry and the Chelsea Flower Show. The financial crisis was an obvious blow to sponsorship, but apparently subsequent government regulations designed to curb bribery through extravagant corporate hospitality had an even greater impact. The number of large show gardens fell from 21 in 2008 to 8 in 2018.
Since the Wednesday in May 2018 Chelsea Flower Show has become one of the highlights of my year. I enjoyed my visit in 2019 even more than the previous year and bought my ticket for the 2020 show as soon as the RHS offered it to me as a member. But then the coronavirus arrived and the Chelsea Flower Show 2020 had to be cancelled. The RHS will present a virtual show online. Of course I will follow it, but it won’t be the same. I wonder if I have experienced the last two years of what will be known as the old Chelsea Flower Show before it changes dramatically along with the rest of the world.