Chelsea Flower Show

I have been fortunate to visit RHS Chelsea in London, England on three different occasions.What is it? Chelsea is the Royal Horticultural Society’s largest flower show and in fact, it is the largest and most prestigious flower show in the world. It is held every May for five days and covers 11 acres of parkland with show gardens, balcony gardens, house plant displays, and at 2.9 acres, the world’s largest tent. The tent or Grand Pavilion houses floral displays as well as vendors showing off their plants that can range from roses, South African proteas, and daffodils.There is truly something for every gardener.

The garden designers and growers are all vying for the coveted Gold Medal and I had dinner with one of the judges and believe me when I say that they take their job very seriously. For the past few years garden designers have been matched up with a U.K charity. Their garden should somehow reflect the mission of that charity and when the show is over, the charity decides where the garden will have its permanent home. It is wonderful to know that the garden – flowers, benches, hardscape, etc. will have a home where it can be enjoyed by many people.

Each designer submits a brief about their mission and then the design must demonstrate the achievement of that goal. Also, new this year is that every garden plan is required to go through a “Green Audit” to make certain that the garden is sustainable and that materials can be repurposed. There was an extensive use of recycled materials such as old bricks, construction rubble, old wood, and gravel. Water retention and re-use was a big theme – how to capture and retain run off water. With our expensive water bills in the Lowcountry, that is something we need to practice. It can take the designers a year to come up with their plan and then they have three weeks to transform a blank area in a park into a show garden with trees, shrubs, pathways, walls, water features, and an abundance of plants.

As far as what was in “vogue” this year? I found it amusing that our tractor seat plant (Farfugium japonica) was a huge hit. People were asking me what it was! And hold on to your rakes – Spanish moss was much in evidence. I remember seeing Spanish moss for sale in the gift shop at the Edinburgh Royal Botanic Garden, but they were having a display of plants from the southeastern United States. At Chelsea, Spanish moss was used as a feature hanging from trees as well as on hanging plants in the House Plant studios. Maybe a good retirement job would be to ship Spanish moss to the U.K.

Speaking of house plants Since the pandemic, there has been a huge resurgence of interest in house plants. With so many people living in urban areas without a large space to garden, house plants have been a way to bring a bit of the garden inside. There was also an extensive display of balcony gardens using a small space. Some even had edibles grown in containers for fresh herbs and vegetables.

What can a home gardener take away from this year’s show? Orange and rust tones seemed to be the “in style” color this year. Moss was often used as a ground cover. Plant material was often planted into gravel rather than directly into compost. Gravel gardening seems to be taking off more and more. My own gravel garden is doing quite well this year and is weed free. Bagged compost in the U.K must be peat free by law and that was very much in evidence with educational displays. Their peat bogs are a valuable source for wildlife and the worry is that they cannot renew themselves quickly enough to be sustainable. There were also displays about not rototilling your garden as science is showing that this destroys the soil structure and soil microbes. Chelsea is set up to be beautiful and enjoyable, but also a learning experience for the visitors.

What was my favorite garden? I was blown away by a garden in the tent called “The Size of Wales” Garden. The term “The Size of Wales” is used in the U.K. to describe loss of natural habitat. This garden was the shape of Wales and contained 313 species of native plants. Waste stone was used from quarry and all materials except for the stone were biodegradable. Even fungi were used to show its value to the ecosystem. From soaring trees to delicate wildflowers, this garden had it all and won a welldeserved Gold Medal.

Chelsea is the ultimate experience for a gardener with something for everyone. It is also an event to relish the return of spring to England. The gates open at 8AM and by the time my daughter and I arrived at the tent a few minutes later people were drinking champagne. When my daughter remarked on it, a person next to her exclaimed “Well, Darling. It IS Chelsea!” Did we get champagne? Of course, we did.