The Chelsea Flower show, garden event of the year!
If there’s one flower show that most people around the world are aware of, it’s probably the Chelsea Flower Show. Chelsea is, after all, where you go to see garden designs by world-famous designers, inspiring displays of plants as well as new plant introductions, and to take away inspiration for your own garden.
As well as being an important horticultural event, Chelsea is an important feature in many people’s social calendars and people come from all over the world to see it. It is attended by thousands of people each year, including royalty, well-known people from the media and other VIP’s and it is televised each day during the week when it takes place by the BBC.
Chelsea Flower Show 2010
Chelsea Flower Show crowds 2010
History of the Chelsea Flower Show
The Chelsea Flower Show (or, to give it its correct title, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Chelsea Flower Show) will be 110 years old next year. That is, it has been taking place (apart from a few years when it was interrupted) in the grounds of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea since 1913. Before that it had been held at the RHS garden in Kensington for 26 years and then subsequently at the Temple Gardens in central London, where it was known as the Great Spring Show.
Royal Hospital, Chelsea
Chelsea usually takes place during six days at the end of May, but in 2020, because of COVID, a virtual flower show was held, and in 2021, not only was there a virtual show, but a later show was held in September when restrictions had eased a little.
After a successful beginning in 1913 the Chelsea Flower Show carried on (with smaller revenues) during the First World War but closed for six years during the Second World War. Each Flower Show has tended to reflect the conditions of the time. Thus, after the First World War, costly plants, which grew only in heated greenhouses, and which required considerable gardening skill fell out of favour because of the shortage of labour. During the Depression in the 1930’s edible plants such as vegetables and herbs were popular.
Association with Royalty
Queen Elizabeth II at the Chelsea Flower Show, 2010
Chelsea’s association with royalty goes back to its earliest days. Queen Alexandra and Princess Victoria paid a visit on the first day of the first show in 1913. In 1920 the royal visits were moved from the days when the public had access to Press Day on the Monday in order to avoid the crowds. These visits included not only members of the British royalty, but often the royalty of other countries as well.
Some royals have been keener gardeners than others. Queen Mary, the wife of King George V, was a keen gardener and enthusiastic visitor to Chelsea, but her husband wasn’t – although he did eventually develop an interest in vegetables! In 1947 King George VI exhibited a display of schizanthus from the royal greenhouses.
More recently, in 2019 HRH the Duchess of Cambridge collaborated in designing a “Back to Nature” garden for the Chelsea Flower Show aimed at children and families which promoted the benefits of gardening and outdoor activities as a means of improving mental and physical health. The themes of wellbeing and sustainability have been important features of recent Chelsea Flower Shows ever since.
Bedding Plant display by the Parish of St. Helier, Jersey, for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012m for which they won a silver-gilt award.
The present queen, Queen Elizabeth II, has been patron of the Royal Horticultural Society since the beginning of her reign in 1952 and has been a regular visitor to the Chelsea Flower Show ever since.
For her Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2012 several floral displays were created in her honour and young people from around the country grew a selection of vegetables and flowers for their Jubilee themed Generation Gardens.
2022 marks the anniversary of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. The 2022 RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2022 will commemorate the occasion with several decorative floral and plant displays, including a sculptural portrait of Her Majesty made from flowers.
What happens at Chelsea?
Chelsea Flower Show 2010.Laurent Perrier Garden. Designed by Tom Stuart-Smith. Gold Medal Winner.
Although the Chelsea Flower Show goes on for less than a week, preparations for it begin months and even years beforehand. Plants are carefully coaxed into flowering at just the right time (late May), which is often a time when many of them would not normally be in flower. Then there is the preparation of the site and the erecting of the stands and the show gardens, all of which require meticulous planning and a lot of very hard work. Many of the exhibitors are quite small nurseries who have to carry on running their business as well as being present at Chelsea. Why do they do it?
David Austin Roses, Gold Medal Winner Chelsea Flower Show 2010
No financial prizes are awarded at Chelsea, but a medal from Chelsea is one of the most prestigious awards that an exhibitor can achieve.
The highest award is a Gold Medal. Below that come, in descending order, Silver-Gilt, Silver, Bronze and Best in Show Medal Awards. These are awarded across a number of categories, which include Show Gardens, Sanctuary Gardens and Artisan Gardens. In 2021 two new categories, Balcony and Container Gardens, were introduced. There is also a new category for House Plants.Top of Form
The show gardens and other displays are judges by a team of experts from across the horticultural industry. The judging of the show gardens takes place very early on the Monday morning and the rest of the show is judged during the afternoon.
The Press arrive on Monday, and the Royal Visit takes place later that day. The Charity Gala (for which tickets are allocated by ballot) takes place on Monday evening.
Exhibitors are informed early on Tuesday morning of their awards – obviously a tense moment for everyone!
The first official two days of the show (Tuesday and Wednesday) are reserved for RHS members. After that the show is open to the public and at 4pm on Saturday, the last day of the show, the plant sell-off usually takes place. This is when many of the exhibitors sell off the plants that they have brought to the show, and it is not unusual to see crowds of people leaving the show carrying very large plants which they then have to negotiate on their way home on the bus or on the Underground.
Visiting the Chelsea Flower Show
Anyone who would like to visit Chelsea will need to book a ticket in advance and there is a limit to the number of tickets that can be sold each day. 157,000 people attend each year, a number limited by the capacity of the 11-acre site. Tickets can be bought through the RHS website, although various companies offer day trips that include entry or packages that include accommodation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Caroline Bowman has been hooked on gardening ever since she grew some thyme from seed and planted it in a window box when she lived in a flat in London. Fifty years later she is still hooked on gardening, but now she lives in Lincolnshire in England where they have quite a big suburban garden as well as an allotment, where they grow fruit and vegetables. Caroline loves flowering plants, in particular, herbaceous perennials and she likes finding out about the more unusual varieties that will do well in the English climate and soil.
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