May is my favourite month – the zingy green foliage unfurling everywhere, the froth of cow parsley and clouds of hawthorn blossom; it’s a magical time. It’s also when the Royal Horticulture Society’s Chelsea Flower Show takes place. This wonderful week-long event takes place in late May when the best garden designers, nursery owners and landscapers come together to create a spectacular celebration of horticulture.
The first show took place in 1913, lasted for three days and had a single marquee. Today the show lasts for five days, takes four weeks to build and each show takes around 15 months to plan. There are around 500 exhibitors and gardens, about 30,000 people visit on each of the five days and the Great Pavilion covers 2.9 acres – that’s quite a big tent! Often there are plants in the Great Pavilion that wouldn’t ordinarily be in flower, but the growers have performed horticultural miracles using ingenious ways to either delay flowering or bring on early blooms.
I’ve always watched the TV coverage and I have been lucky enough to attend the show several times on Press Day, the day before the show opens to the public when judging of the show gardens and exhibits in the Great Pavilion takes place and journalists, photographers and broadcasters are allowed a sneaky peak at the botanical wonders on offer that year. Celebrities are invited along too, and at 3pm the royal family visit. It’s a very glamourous day for those visiting, but by this point all those who have been involved in putting the show together are no doubt exhausted.
It’s hard to pick what I enjoy most on my visits to Chelsea. The show gardens are works of art and mesmerising in their detail. I love the artisan gardens, particularly the ones created by the Japanese designer Kazuyuki Ishihara, which are intricate worlds inspired by nature with sculptural acers and mossy mounds. I always make a beeline for the Gabriel Ash greenhouse stand where I love to see the imaginative container planting and use of vintage finds. In the Great Pavilion I’ll come across nurseries and plants I’ve never heard of before that make me wish I had a bigger garden and more time to actually garden. And I’m always keen to spot what will be the star plant that year.
Chelsea always manages to grab the headlines. In recent years there are those who have complained that the gardens are too wild and too naturalistic to be called gardens, and it’s easy to think what you see at the show isn’t really relevant to the average gardener. But Chelsea is about opening up debates about what a garden can be or how we interact with nature, it stimulates creativity and ideas, showcases talent and is an opportunity for experimentation, and all of this filters down to the plants we buy and the materials we use to build our gardens. The plant Silene fimbriata, a frilly white campion, popped up on gardens at last year’s Chelsea and I loved it so much I’ve now planted several in my own garden. It’s that kind of inspiration that grabs my attention every year, and if you can’t make it to the actual show – this year’s show takes place from 22-27 May – there are hours of TV coverage and lots of fab information at the RHS website.
Remember also, that you can also win tickets for the Chelsea Flower Show in May 2024 in connection with Juliana’s 60-year anniversary.
Here you can learn more about the anniversary competition and participate.
Om Louise Curley
Louise is a horticulturalist, garden writer and author of the award-winning book The Cut Flower Patch. She’s passionate about the power of plants to make us feel happy and is an advocate for organic gardening and encouraging wildlife into gardens.Get to know Louise Curley
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