The Amazing Chelsea Flower Show

I am squeezed around a picnic table with strangers — a woman from Sweden, another from Australia, and a pair from Italy. Communication should have been a challenge, except we shared varying degrees of English and the lingua franca of plants and gardens.

We are fellow pilgrims who have at last reached our goal, attending the amazing Chelsea Flower and Garden Show in London, England. We’re sharing a moment to grab a bite and summon the energy to plunge back into the surrounding crowd of beaming faces. This was in 2013 and my seventh visit to the show. You would think I’d seen enough, but each visit manages to eclipse the previous one, such is the magic of Chelsea.

It’s been said that gardening is to Britain as cooking is to France, although there are rumours that Britain now rivals France in the culinary stakes. The Chelsea Flower show, however, is incomparable. It takes place each year in late May, has been running for over a hundred years, and exemplifies Britain’s passion for plants.

Presented by the Royal Horticultural Society, this international horticultural exhibition is the Olympics of gardening where leading designers and plant producers compete for gold medals. Winning gold can result in an exceptionally successful garden career and likely retirement to a villa in Tuscany.

It’s also the first event each year of the London social calendar, attended on the first day — media day — by The Queen, who is Patron of the Society. On that day, other members of the Royal family frequently appear along with every celebrity with an interest in gardening — or an interest in being seen at this prestigious event. Actresses Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith are regulars, as is former Beatle, Ringo Starr.

The show is then open to the public for the following five days. It takes place on four and a half hectares in the grounds of the Royal Chelsea Hospital, a retirement home for former soldiers. Chelsea Pensioners, as they are called, are revered by the British public and seen around the show, resplendent in their distinctive scarlet uniforms.

Total attendance is capped for the duration at 157,000 otherwise it would be mayhem. Unlike many garden shows, visitors at Chelsea are not allowed to stroll at will through the gardens. Rather, the large show gardens are designed to be viewed from up to three sides, making it a better experience — no people-cluttered images for the photographer. This means, however, that everyone follows the typically British queuing protocol as they politely jostle their way to the front.

My first of many visits was in 2005, which happened to be the 60th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day and when award-winning garden designer Julian Dowle was tasked with creating a garden that would capture a soldier’s nostalgic vision of home at the close of the Second World War.

After chatting over a pint with a group of Chelsea Pensioners, the result was A Soldier's Dream of Blighty, an authentic thatched country pub with rhubarb and roses in the front yard and red poppies lining the pathway. The Chelsea pensioner sitting on the garden bench quaffing a pint of beer perfected the emotive setting, bringing tears to the eyes of admiring well-wishers. This is an example of how a talented designer can create a space that extends beyond plants and flowers to make a deeply emotional connection.

Perfection is the rule at Chelsea, both in the garden designs and the plants. Take those poppies, which volunteers had spent the night warming with heat lamps to ensure they would be open in time.
Each year, fifteen to twenty of these large show gardens are meticulously assembled over three weeks of intense activity as crews toil to create flawlessness, yet temporary gardens that appear to have been in place for ever. Each one is easily the size of our typical suburban backyard and all are sponsored as they require wheelbarrows of cash, averaging over half a million dollars or more.

For this the finest of garden designers are summoned, someone like Cleve West, winner of numerous medals. In 2011 I was in awe of his sunken garden, inspired by a visit he made to Roman ruins in Libya. From a cream-coloured wall, water flowed from multiple pipes, the sound perfected by days of testing to ensure the exact rate of flow would produce the precise sound he wanted as it flowed into the pool below. Sculpted columns, one toppled and artfully overgrown by sprawling flowers, captured the sense of antiquity.

Plants are provided by specialist nurseries around the country while many rare trees and shrubs are imported from warmer climes. All are held in precisely controlled conditions to ensure they are immaculate at show time.

This was never more evident than in a garden designed in 2008 by Tom Stuart-Smith which, besides winning a gold medal, won the prestigious Best in Show, a coveted award bestowed based on votes from show visitors and TV viewers. The show receives wide coverage on TV and is reviewed each evening by Britain’s gardening luminaries, almost in the manner of Coach’s Corner with Don Cherry and Ron McLean.

I found viewing Stuart-Smith’s masterpiece a peaceful, sublime experience. No massed plantings of colourful flowers, but simply shades of green with a few clusters of white peonies and Astrantia. Among the layers of foliage plants, perfectly positioned zinc tanks of still water reflected clouds formed above by the careful pruning of Hornbeam trees, six metres high. It was like discovering a dreamy secret within a forest.

For a startling jolt of colour, a lively crew from Australia frequently wins gold medals with their designs featuring antipodean plants with hardscaping in bright reds reminiscent of an outback landscape. No kangaroos, but their 2011 garden did manage a water feature in the form of a boomerang.

These large gardens range in concept from traditional through contemporary, avant-garde, even radical. Diarmuid Gavin of Ireland, a regular at the show, likes to shock and surprise. Hugely popular in 2011, his Avatar-inspired sky garden floated above the show suspended by a crane. I would have loved a ride, but only lucky VIPs were allowed aboard.

Gavin’s unusual concept for a garden attracted plenty of criticism, but still managed to win gold. Just don’t remind the principal sponsor, Cork city council in Ireland and its taxpayers. The final bill was said to be around $3,000,000. That would purchase quite a chunk of ION track. Regardless, Gavin’s wildly unique concept gardens are one of the show’s delights.

Among my especially memorable large show gardens is another from 2008 that told the story of former Beatle George Harrison. His life was commemorated at Chelsea in a garden designed by his widow Olivia Harrison and landscape designer Yvonne Innes.

Along a meandering pathway, George’s life unfolded, beginning in his father’s garden plot in Arnold Grove, Liverpool. The path continued, becoming a mosaic of the explosively psychedelic colours of ‘60s culture, past a glass wall bearing an image of a contemplative George in his garden inscribed with his song lyrics, “Floating down the stream of time, from life to life with me.” The journey ended at a white gazebo in a peaceful garden of white flowers representing his spiritual arrival in Nirvana. With one of his songs running through my head, this evocative illustration of his life captivated me.

Perhaps less emotive are the artisan and urban gardens. Around 30 of these small gardens, only five or six metres square, are grouped side by side along a wooded laneway to be viewed as though peering over a fence into someone’s front yard. They are whimsical, filled with novelty, unique concepts, and countless ideas for the visitor to try at home.

I’m always impressed by the unsurpassed attention to detail in these modest gardens. Moss-covered rocks slump in place as though they were born there. Rambling roses cling to drystone walls and wooden fences like long-lost lovers, despite having only just met. Laburnum trees, their rich yellow blossoms droop gracefully over a trickling stream. It would be difficult to replicate these perfect gardens in the real world, subjected to the vagaries of weather, but for a while at least, they spark the imaginations of all who view them.

Plants are precisely placed according to colour, form, and texture, not a fallen petal or a yellow leaf. It’s not hard to imagine an army of garden gnomes working furiously overnight to ensure everything is flawless — except. Except garden gnomes have been historically banned from the Chelsea Flower Show, deemed unworthy, too kitschy. At least they were until the 100th anniversary in 2013 when the ban was lifted and gnomes made their appearance in all shapes and forms, even gnomish effigies of Will and Kate were represented.

Plenty of garden kitsch is available from the 600 exhibitors in the market area, and throughout the rest of the show where only high-end kitsch is on display. Would you pay $50,000 for a bronze snail the size of a smart car? Maybe not, but for the discerning shopper, plenty of fine art statuary can be found.

Time for shopping is essential for many show visitors as every possible garden-related product is available, from the latest elixir for plants to gazebos furnished in decadent style. The man from Dubarry of Ireland is always there, standing in a pail of water to demonstrate the waterproof nature of their exclusive leather boots. “Worn by country squires everywhere, he tells me.” Each time I’m tempted to trade in my old rubber wellies, but I always relent and settle for a packet of rare seeds, hoping customs don’t impound them.

Rather than shop, I prefer to spend my limited time in the Grand Pavilion; a mind-boggling 1.2 hectare temporary structure impossibly jammed to the walls with the most amazing array of plants on earth, a symphony for the senses of colour and form. This is it, the plant lover’s fantasy world where superlatives are redundant. Your local paint store would be challenged to match all the hues, and that’s just the sweet pea display. All the specialist nurseries in the country are represented, competing for a gold medal, but not against each other. As in garden design, each medal is awarded based on meeting the highest of standards set by Chelsea judges — all or none might win.

Foxgloves, which I struggle to grow in my own garden, tower above me over two metres high, while a massed collection of David Austin roses infuses the air. Leading lupin breeder, Sarah Conibear of Westcountry Nurseries in Devon, stops the traffic flow, having diced and sliced the rainbow even further in her quest for yet another gold medal.

If you have a clematis clambering a wall in your garden, there’s a good chance it was bred by Raymond Evison, the clematis king winner of 27 gold medals. At his nursery on the Channel Island of Guernsey, Evison, one of the world’s largest producers of clematis plants, has bred over 100 new varieties. Every year he arrives at the show with at least one new cultivar. In 2005, he introduced Franziska Marie, a rich-blue, double-flowered variety named after his daughter.

I immediately wanted to buy one to bring home, but alas, plant smuggling is frowned upon. I considered begging for a cutting that I could slip in a sandwich at the airport and pretend was lettuce, but instead I waited until the plant eventually became available in Canada.

Even the British public are unable to purchase plants and immediately carry them away. Purchase they can, but they must wait until the close of the show to collect them, which happens precisely at 4:00 p.m. on the final day. A bell is rung to signal the end of the show and the start of the grand sell-off, the fastest way to clear the grounds of The Royal Military Hospital so that it can be restored to its original condition.

Over the following five days, the beautiful gardens are dismantled. It’s rare that a complete garden is sold and relocated to a permanent site. In the 1950s, however, former King Edward VIII, the Duke of Windsor, is said to have enthusiastically helped move a complete rock garden to his private estate. More recently, the 2008 garden by Cleve West was moved to Meadbank Care Home in Battersea owned by the international healthcare group, Bupa, West’s sponsor.

Otherwise, about 400 of tonnes of material has to be removed from the site. Large trees and shrubs are returned to the growers to be rehabilitated, smaller plants are sold off on site, while gravel, stone, concrete, and waste is recycled. Statuary will be returned or auctioned off for charity; meanwhile everything else is up for grabs.

At the ringing of the bell, the garden gloves come off and the previously genteel patrons of the Chelsea Flower Show become avaricious rivals in a gigantic botanical Boxing Day-like sale.
This is a feature of the show that I’ve not been present for, but it’s been described as a river-like flow of plants, shrubs and even trees filling the streets and sidewalks outside the grounds. There, pedi cabs and taxis are summoned and buses become greenhouses on wheels as thousands of plants are dispersed throughout the gardens of London and beyond to grow on as a living reminder of the gardener’s amazing day at the show.

Visitors from afar like me and my picnic table friends, unable to transport plants through customs, have to be content with inanimate souvenirs (surely not a gnome). Our memories and our memory cards, however, are jammed with images of thousands of plants singing in tune to concepts never imagined. This elevation of gardening as an art form will become inspiration for garden makeovers, or at least a new flowerbed with perhaps a hint of Tom Stuart-Smith or Cleve West in the design.

In my own garden I barely have room for more plants, and my aspirations as a designer are limited to attempts at the perfect groupings and colour combinations I’ve seen. Often I fail, but each summer when my Franziska Marie first blooms on the arbour, I share with gardeners around the world the same excitement and joy we experienced at the Chelsea Flower Show.

For some, one visit to the show may be enough, but for many, including me, the allure of rare plants, the sheer artistry of the gardens, the novelty and nostalgia, will always conspire to entice a return visit — at least one more time. See images from shows here:

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