My Love/Hate Thing
with the Chelsea Flower Show


just what kind of people can pull off these stunningly perfect garden
exhibits? People with at least $50,000 to spare – and that’s the bare
minimum required to avoid embarrassment; it’ll cost a lot more to
really dazzle. (One Shah famously spent millions – of pounds Sterling.)
Not that they typically own up to the cost, mind you. That might spoil
the illusion! Because it’s pure fantasy, of course.  While the RHS
folks claim that there are lots of great ideas at Chelsea
for the public, the reality is more like: "Don’t try this at home!"

But back to the love/hate thing.  Okay, ‘hate" may be an editorial exaggeration, but I do have some quibbles.

remember one garden that had every sod of earth, every plant totally
infected with vine weevil. It  still got Gold and the rules say no vine
Many start out with a design and change it as they go along – not allowed except under exceptional circumstances.

competition can be so intense that some exhibitors argue with the
judges wanting a better medal – shame on them – shall I name and shame?

thing about these exhibits, they can only be “gardens” at a single
moment in time (okay, 10 days), not real gardens that evolve over the
months and years.  How many
Chelsea gardens would actually suThe_boreal_forest_gardenrvive
without major maintenance, if at all?  What’s that garden of lavender
and puffballs of boxwood going to look like in two years? So the
question that comes to mind is should show gardens be more realistic?
You know, for us normal gardeners.

another gripe. There’s this big “sell-off” on the last day, but it’s
really a con. The plants are vastly overpriced, not in the best
condition and guess what; the plants I really want, the nurserymen take home with them.  I’ll have to bankrupt myself at Hampton Court
, I guess, where they really do sell plants.  The Hampton Court Palace Flower RHS Show
is just as famous and actually preferred by some to Chelsea.  In
addition to the great plant sell-off, the setting is stupendous,
there’s plenty of room to walk around and even room to park your car.
It’s coming up July 3-8 and I’ll be there, even though it’s farther and
will take me several hours more to get there.

IS CHELSEA A TThe_ecover_chelsea_pensioners_gardeHREAT TO BIODIVERSITY?
unresolved controversy within the RHS is about whether plants should be
collected from the wild, as some nurseries are still doing, which is
downright plundering of our planet’s natural resources.  The
exquisitely beautiful plants from South East Asia, Nepal and the
are particularly vulnerable. The RHS "deplores the
uprooting of wild plants" but there is the problem of putting this into
practise.  Prolific author and Chelsea insider Dr Christopher Grey-Wilson
urged them in 2001 to "take a responsible and pro-active stance on the
illegal importation, sale and showing of wild-collected plants,
particularly at its shows." Now it’s 2007 and have things changed? 

But I know it’s not that easy to prove where plants come from, so I empathize with the judges. Here’s a short discussion on the subject with Chelsea judge Graham Rice in comments on his blog.

do the RHS allow the use of moss? To strip moss from our woodlands and
moorlands is not acceptable – some moss clumps take years to form.
Wouldn’t it be easier to just ban the use of moss than to have to
figure out whether the mosses used come from sustainable sources?  And
what’s wrong with wood chip for decoration?  Peat is another problem,
although fortunately one that’s being solved this year with the use of
peat-free composts by many exhibitors.  I expect the RHS shows will
soon be completely peat-free.

is supposed to be the "in thing" this year so I’m hoping to see less
concrete, more wood from sustainable sources, water saving, less use of
pesticides and herbicides, and organic gardening.  But looking at the
big picture, would anyone like to calculate the carbon footprint for
the whole show?  Oh, never mind.

is an amazing experience and honestly, all my "hates" pale into
insignificance. I will catch the closest train to me at 2 a.m., arrive
in London at 7:30 and be at the gates of the show at 8 a.m. I
anticipate a day of utter bliss – seeing some old friends, taking
photographs before the crowds really start – wonderful! You must go if
you ever have the chance.

the dim and distant past I was a botanical taxonomist (classifying
plants). I went off the rails and became a biology teacher, teaching
11- to 18-year-olds and latterly running a course giving adults a
second chance to go to University. I have worked very part-time in the
gardens at Portmeirion and Crug Farm Plants (a specialist plant
nursery). Now I am looking after my father (92) and messing about in my
garden every day! I have always been keen on gardening, an unapologetic
plantsman (especially ferns).  Design – what’s that?!   

Check back next week for a guest post by Chelsea Judge Graham Rice.  William has promised to leave a nice long comment with his own take, or just to mix things up a bit.


  1. I had the good fortune to attend the Chelsea Flower Show a few years ago. Utter fantasy? Yes, but that is expected! In order to provide the most blooms it is necessary to take artistic license with bloom combinations. This is what most of the public wants. I was amazed at this show as it is so totally different from those, such as the Philadelphia Flower Show, in the US. It is outside, at the appropriate gardening time and quite impressive. I can’t wait to hear the review of this year’s show.

  2. This is fantastic! Please, keep those reports coming. One thing I’ve always wondered: how big are the display gardens, and what kind of setting are they in? The garden shows I’ve been to are all inside convention centers, usually with bad lighting, and the display gardens have a very “staged” feeling as a result. I’d love to see a photo that gives an overview of the setting.

  3. Interesting question,Susan. The Show Gardens (the big gardens)are Corporations, Charities, Banks, sponsors with plenty of money but usually designed by famous names or in some cases some of the up and coming designers. I am just looking at this years catalogue and all the sponsors for these gardens. You can understand why the RHS insists on sponsors that can make sure that the exhibits succeed and don’t fail due to lack of money. The RHS just will not allow an exhibit to get off the ground without backing. Diarmuid Gavin a couple of years ago caused the RHS considerable consternation when he designed his garden with his ceramic ‘Balls’ – he broke practically every rule in the book, the following year he behaved with his ‘teletubbies’ of lavender and box – but the BBC was making a film about his garden so that is why he probably misbehaved so badly just to get publicity, but the RHS does not like it and you can understand why. If there is no sponsor as in a few of the City and Courtyard Gardens, you will still have to prove you have the money and the RHS monitors this closely. There is even a Russian ‘City’ Garden this year – interesting! The nurseries don’t have sponsors so their exhibits tend to be ‘free style’ and designed by themselves to show off the best of their plants and of course one thing one looks forward to are the new introductions which you can’t buy there and then, but you can order them!

  4. Amy – one way I can attempt to answer some of your questions is to suggest you look at the two webcams run by the RHS, live as it happens –
    worth looking at to get an overview and finally to ‘see’ the completed versions. We have a digital channel which gives excellent coverage in this country – every evening – and if I remember I usually record it!!
    gives a good taste of what is on offer – quite staggering and I have not mentioned the tools, green houses, books………..

  5. Yet again, in truth I could have written pages and then you could have seen that my ‘hates’ are really more like niggles. Have a look at the BBC gardening site over the next week – it is excellent
    If you are in London and want to go, beware you cannot buy tickets at the gates – look at the RHS site for details –
    Tuesday and Wednesday are for RHS members and friends, Wednesday onwards, the general public can buy tickets. The Show isn’t so busy first thing in the morning 8-12am and last thing at night – 5-8pm. Numbers are now limited and full day tickets for Tuesday/Wednesday get sold months before the show – I see tickets for these days, but be careful! What is outlined here for the Show Gardens applies to all the other RHS Shows across the country – are they so expensive to host in these other shows – I don’t know. What I would like to know is how all this compares to major garden Shows held in America?

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