The Chelsea Flower Show bills itself as the Greatest Flower Show on Earth, and thatís not an exaggeration. Iíve attended the show twice and I was overwhelmed with the wide variety of garden ideas I came away with, as well with the quantity and quality of the exhibits. Here are some thoughts on my experience.
First, some background. The Royal Horticultural Society held the first show on the grounds of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea in 1913. It started as a venue for nurseries to promote their companies, but by the 1970ís designers started adding to the mix, and the show became a showcase for gardening trends.
The show takes place during five days in late May. The first two days are open only to members of the Royal Horticultural Society. Over 500 exhibitors participate in the show, which is tightly contained within eleven acres.
Itís roughly divided into three areas. Inside the Great Pavilion (a tent that covers one and a half acres) is where roughly 100 organizations present their wares in highly creative ways. Stunning displays of fruits, vegetables and flowers are everywhere. Winning a medal at Chelsea is a high badge of honor, and competition is fierce.
Outside youíll find the designer showcase where garden designers try to outdo each other with unusual gardens. This is where youíll get so many creative ideas for your own garden, that you wonít be able to wait to get home and get started.
Finally, youíll find over 300 booths selling everything the gardener needs, including tools, hats, books, garden accessories Ė both new and antique - and that British gardenerís essential: wellies.
The one thing you wonít find for sale at the Chelsea Flower Show is plants. This follows a long tradition of plants being forbidden to be sold at the show. Vendors can sell seeds and take orders for plants. However, one small concession has been made to this rule Ė you can pay and hold an item thatís on display at the show. You canít pick it up until two hours before the show closes. Then thereís a mad dash as everyone rushes to pick up their items from the display gardens. This helps the vendors in that they donít have to take as much home with them.
Some tips on attending the show
Go early in the day. The show gets really crowded in the afternoon, so you want to leave by then. The show starts at 8:00 am.
Do buy a show catalogue. Itís a great souvenir, plus has maps for helping you find the restrooms, restaurants, and all the vendors. Youíll also find DVDs of the show for sale late in the week. Be sure to ask if the DVD is for American or European DVD players.
Skip the fancy lunch at the restaurant Ė you donít want to waste your time sitting in a restaurant at the greatest flower show on earth, do you? Eat a big breakfast, take a small picnic lunch with you, or try one of the food vendors outside the busy lunchtime hours.
Visit the Great Pavilion first. It gets so crowded later in the day that you can hardly move, so you want to be out of there by then. And if it rains everyone herds into the Pavilion.
Umbrellas are forbidden Ė it's too crowded. Instead, take a waterproof jacket with a hood. Most gift shops and tourist spots in London have them for a pound or two.
Donít forget your camera. You'll want to record all the wonderful design ideas youíre going to see.
Pace yourself. Stop for a traditional Chelsea drink Ė Pimms. Itís very refreshing on a hot day, and 49,000 glasses of it are sold during Chelsea week.
You canít buy tickets at the gate, and quantities are limited, so do order them well in advance. Check the Related Links below for an article on my favorite London gardens. Consider visiting them when you're in London.