The Chelsea Flower Show

It’s about this time of year when I start planning my spring travels to visit breeders and growers, and to attend some of the top shows in Europe. At the top of my list is always the Chelsea Flower Show. I thought I’d give you all a sneak preview of what to expect. If you’ve never been, and have plans to be in England at the end of May, you should absolutely include this in your plans.

The show, organized by the Royal Horticultural Society, has been held on the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea since 1913.  It’s a wonderful location on the banks of the Thames, not far from Westminster. Last year, I managed to dodge the rain. It poured down the day before and the day after my visit, but on the day I visited it was a beautiful spring day.

Chelsea usually sells out a few weeks in advance, so it’s important to purchase your tickets as soon as possible to get the day of your choice. You can buy full day or afternoon tickets. If you spring for the full day tickets, I really recommend arriving as the gates open at 8 a.m. to enjoy the extra space before the show starts to fill up. Although the show is set amongst eleven acres, it tends to get very crowded by about 11 a.m. Four hours is generally enough time to see most of the exhibits, and it’s a great way of working up an appetite for a pub lunch or dinner.

The show is a huge event for tourists and Londoners alike. Walking towards the grounds from the tube station, you will notice that many of the local stores get in on the act, bedecking their storefronts with flowers and related accessories. I especially liked the display of a real estate office that had used Wellington Boots as flower planters!

Living in Philadelphia as I do, I regularly attend the Philadelphia Flower Show, the largest indoor flower show in the United States, so I always tend to compare Chelsea to Philadelphia. Both have large landscape presentation displays, both have retail areas for visitors to purchase everything from wind chimes, to candles and gardening gloves and boots. At the center of the Chelsea show is the Great Pavilion, a large two-acre tent that provides a venue for growers and suppliers of plants as well as welcome refuge from inclement weather. In nicer weather, many enjoy relaxing on the lawn in front of the main stage. I enjoyed a dish of strawberries and cream whilst listening to a Vera Lynn look-a-like … sorry an old World War II reference for the older ex-pat readers!

Last year, the big trend at Chelsea was the heavy use of perennials in the landscape displays. Perhaps I’m tuned into this more because I’m involved in perennial breeding, but it was a joy to see.  The outdoor landscape displays are about half the size of a tennis court, and are called ‘Show Gardens’. They are each sponsored by a mixture of companies, institutions and municipalities. My favorite was sponsored by the City of Stoke-on-Trent. Their landscaper assembled a highly textured collection of reds and deep purples. This included red roses, purple delphiniums and various other red and purple perennials. I don’t recall seeing a single annual.

Most displays included some fairly sophisticated uses of colors and forms.  In addition to the large Show Gardens, make sure you check out the smaller Artisan Gardens, just behind the main Stage. My favorite was a Japanese garden called Togenkyo – A Paradise on Earth.  The design was inspired by the fable of an ethereal utopia, which despite the throngs, captured the concept well.

Just like the Philadelphia Flower Show, the Chelsea Flower Show makes gold, silver and bronze awards across numerous categories, including the Show Gardens, Artisan Gardens and the RHS Chelsea Plant of the Year. The latter is a highly competitive award given to a new plant variety displayed in the indoor or outdoor displays. This year the Plant of the Year was awarded to a Hydrangea displayed by Hillier’s in the Grand Pavilion called Miss Saori.

I purchased some of these online as Christmas presents for my brothers in England.  Providing them with neighborly bragging rights to point out that a plant in their yard won top prize at Chelsea! A word of caution, do not plan on purchasing plants or seed at the show to bring back into the USA – it will be confiscated at immigration – you have been warned! As an alternative, many of the new varieties are, or do become available in the USA in garden centers and online.

That said, if you want a souvenir of Chelsea there is ample opportunity to purchase gardening tools, books and paraphernalia from the dozens of small vendors in the retail section of the show. Finally, if you can’t make the show, you can get a sneak preview of what to expect at the RHS web site. I took a quick glance, and learned that the 2015 show will include a perfume garden portraying the history of the perfume industry and the role of Grasse in the South of France in today’s perfume industry. Sounds very interesting!

Tips for attending

Buy your tickets in advance at

Check the weather before you leave, and dress accordingly. It was once called the Chelsea Shower Flow!

Early morning is best, to avoid the crowds.

If you miss the Chelsea Show in May, you may want to consider attending the Hampton Court Show in July. This is located further west along the banks of the Thames in the former royal palace.  In recent years, this show has out-grown the Chelsea show in terms of size.

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