Chelsea Flower Show – where do I begin?

It was a whirlwind two-day trip to London. Day one was Westminster Abbey, a walk by Buckingham Palace and through Hyde Park. And then there was the never-ending Victoria & Albert Museum. The evening was topped off with the most popular food in England – Indian! Indian food eclipsed Fish & Chips years ago as the most-sold food in the country.

Crowds, along the vendor boothswhich
formed the main “avenue” of Chelsea.

But the real reason we were there was the Chelsea Flower Show. Tickets were a birthday gift from my wife. I’m not really sure where to begin with describing the gardens, or the production of the show itself. We were fortunate to meet up with Kathy and Mike Shadrack, of hosta book-writing fame. They were there “working” the show for Bowden Hostas, the owner is a friend of theirs.

But here’s a few things I learned about the show, much from Kathy & Mike:

  • The show just reeks of quality. Quality in plant material, quality in display, quality in design and quality plantsmanship & knowledge.
  • The show is only a week-long event, taking place in a soccer field/sports facilities and also a public park behind a “pensioners” hospital (or what we would call a retirement home/hospital for veterans here in the states – if we had something like that!).
  • The Pensioners (veterans) walk around the Show wearing bright red longcoats standing out in the crowd being recognized, acknowledged and appreciated. By the way, happy Memorial Day to those here in the states.
  • All buildings and facilities are brought in and built for the week, including many restaurants (one was two stories) and an immense auditorium that held all the flower displays.
  • The display gardens have roughly three weeks to set up. They have more time to GET everything there, but only have around three weeks to build buildings, dig pools, plant trees, create fountains, or do any of the sordid things designers can come up with.
  • On Monday, the show is open only to the Queen and visiting royals. 
  • Bowden Hostas supplies Prince Charles with hostas, and as such, they have been issued a “Royal Warrant.” Because of this, they were given a piece of William & Catherine’s wedding cake, nicely wrapped and offered up in a commemorative tin. If you ordered hostas from them, Mike’d let you sniff the cake.
  • On Tuesdays, only members of the Royal Horticultural Society were invited in. The RHS puts on the show, as well as other horticultural education/events around the country.
  • The plant venders make all their money on orders on Monday and Tuesday. From Wednesday to Saturday afternoon it is open to the general public (that can afford tickets). Commoners, like myself, are there to gawk, ogle, stalk and fantasize. We don’t buy so many plants. Mike laments that the only thing you can’t buy and take home that day, is the plants. Gloves, tools, stakes, dog statues, fried sausages? Yes. Plants? No.
  • This is a BIG deal in England. The London Telegraph prints a special section to kick off the week. The BBC is ever-present and broadcasts shows from Chelsea during the day and one hour every evening, during prime time, throughout the week. They take their gardening seriously in England.
  • Garden celebrities – like designers and TV personalities – are treated like rock stars, complete with screaming, by normally reserved, middle-aged ladies.
  • Every display and every garden is able to get a gold, they do not compete against each other. They are judged on their own merits on certain criteria by a panel of judges you either think are brilliant if you do well, or know nothing about gardening if you don’t.
  • There is a “Best in Show” for each category, whether it be plant display, large garden design, artisan’s garden or vendor booth.
  • And yes, there are vendors – lots of them – from sculptors to seed-sellers to boot makers to oil painters to cabana makers. There’s also music and food – festival-type food stands to sit-down exclusive restaurants.
  • It’s kinda freaky to see daffodils, clematis, iris, poinsettias, cactus, roses and delphinium all in  bloom at the same time. Not to mention all vegetables were also at peak. Forcing bloom is an art form here.

This is only some of what we learned. Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll share some photos and commentary of the specific gardens we saw and enjoyed. Photo at the top is one of my favorite of the display gardens. I had dozens of favorites.

Kathy & Mike Shadrack at the Bowden Hostas Display.
Adoring crowds surround the “Artisan’s” display gardens –
intimate, exquisitely-designed gardens, not done on a grand scale.
Even the vendor booths were beautiful and contained great displays of plants.
Plant displays in the Flower Hall were major design feats in and among of themselves.
One of the small Artisan’s Gardens. I’ll show ’em all in the future.
The building is just a facade, beat up, aged and constructed a week before.
Vendor displays offered up as many ideas as the concept gardens.
I need this. Someplace.
Clematis tunnel. I need this too.
Heuchera now come in so many colors, who needs flowers?

An “indoor” display. All creeks, pools and rivers have to revert back to a soccer field by this week.
Japanese maple display was as colorful as any flower display.
GREAT outdoor over-sized lights.

The backdrop was a little bit cheesy, but did help set the mood for this impressive display of flowering desert blooms.

Grasses, and, corn? Yup. That’s corn in the back.

Daffodils in every flavor.
These actually ARE in bloom where I live now.

I have a long-time garden blog, a popular garden on America's largest garden tour, and have co-written a book on garden design titled, "Buffalo-Style Gardens: Create a Quirky, One-of-a-Kind Private Garden with Eye-Catching Designs" When I'm not doing all that, I am an advertising designer always out looking to design things to promote your business. Look me up at #jcharlier.

0 comments on “Chelsea Flower Show – where do I begin?

  1. Anonymous

    What wonderful “bullet points” and photos. I've been following the show for years, but learned a great deal from what you've distilled here. P.S. I need one, too 😉


  2. Anonymous

    I really enjoyed your description of your visit. What a treat to go to Chelsea. So much to see and do, it is every gardeners dream destination. I wonder how many locals get tickets compared to tourists?


  3. Wow, wow, and wow. Can't wait to see more pics. And I have to agree with you on that stacked slate circular thingy. That is just too cool.


  4. Thanks for the free admission to Chelsea Gardens. I think a table top stone circle would be fun! Love the lights that resemble ground cherries in the spring. It's great to see everything through your eyes and not be jet lagged from the trip!


  5. What a fabulous gift! The heuchera and Japanese maple displays are my faves from your pix.Thanks for the tour!


  6. I believe this is a case where OMG is the only appropriate comment. Can't wait to read more. And thanks for the tip about gold medals; explains a lot. As big as gardening is here, it is almost impossible to picture those crowds and the press attention. Dare I say that Buffalo has the only event approaching this kind of scale, creativity and press.


  7. Patricia,I haven't been a follower — I was previously only vaguely aware about it until we were IN london during the show a few years ago and couldn't get in because tickets were sold out (as it turns out, months in advance). I new it was something big because we watched an hour-long documentary on it every evening on TV for the week non the BBC. That's not normal behavior for the garden culture I'm familiar with.GWGT,No idea on locals vs. visitors, but I heard just about every language being spoke there, other than that African clicking language from National Geographic specials.rdbgreen,I'm sure you could put that stacked-rock circular thingy on your front porch.Becky,I'm still jet lagged and it's been a week! Chelsea was free for me too. Still not 100% sure how much tickets were. With birthday gifts, I think it's best not to pry.Cameron,I married well. I'm now inclined to do an all huchera bed.Ms.Wiz,Thank you for the Garden Walk compliment. We do okay with press coverage. I'll know we're a huge success when we get the media attention of Chelsea — in just Buffalo, let alone an entire country.!


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