About the Chelsea Flower Show and what you need to know to visit the renowned show in London, England along with highlights of the 2019 show
Update 2023: The 2023 Chelsea Flower Show takes place May 23 to May 27, 2023.
The RHS Chelsea Flower Show is the most famous flower and landscape show in the United Kingdom and perhaps in the world. It is held for five days every May in central London. It’s long been a dream of mine to attend the show. That dream finally came true in May 2019. The show was amazing. It was also a bit overwhelming. There was a lot to see and many interesting facets to the show. This post provides an overview and guide to the show.
Table of Contents
About The Chelsea Flower Show
About The Royal Horticultural Society
History Of The RHS Chelsea Flower Show
Gardens At The Chelsea Flower Show
The Chelsea Flower Show Great Pavilion
Chelsea Flower Show Artisan Studios and Exhibitors
Chelsea Flower Show Food, Drink, and Entertainment
BBC Coverage Of The Chelsea Flower Show
2019 Chelsea Flower Show Trends
Beyond The Flower Show
Buying Tickets For The Chelsea Flower Show
Visiting The Chelsea Flower Show
The Chelsea Flower Show is organized by the Royal Horticultural Society. It takes place on the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea in London. It was once Britain’s largest flower show, but that honour now belongs to the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. The RHS Chelsea Flower Show remains Britain’s most prestigious flower show. M&G Investments has been the exclusive headline sponsor since 2010.
The show features fully landscaped garden designs showcasing excellence and innovation. The Great Pavilion contains floral exhibits with nurseries showcasing specific plants and floral arrangements.
Staging of the show is quite a feat. Depending on the type of garden or display and its location in the show, participants have 1 ½ to 2 ½ weeks to construct the garden on site. That setup may include bringing in full-grown trees or constructing buildings that are part of the garden as well as assorted plantings. Of course, planning for the garden takes place much earlier than that – a year or two ahead of the show. Applications to enter a design garden in the show are made almost one year in advance of the show. After the show ends, participants have three to five days to dismantle and remove their gardens.
The Queen regularly attends the show and has only missed 2 shows since her coronation in 1953.
The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) is a UK charity established to share the best in gardening. In addition to the Chelsea Flower Show, the RHS organizes flower shows at Cardiff, Chatsworth, Hampton Court Palace, and Tatton Park, as well as seasonal shows at the RHS Gardens and the Society’s halls in London. They own four gardens across the United Kingdom: Wisley in Surrey, Harlow Carr in North Yorkshire, Hyde Hall in Essex, and Rosemoor in Devon. RHS provides education and offers a range of qualifications from the Level 1 Certificate to Master of Horticulture. It organizes the annual Britain in Bloom campaign, has a large collection of horticultural literature, and publishes a monthly magazine and two quarterlies.
Membership in the RHS offers unlimited entry to the RHS Gardens for the member and a guest, free member access to more than 200 RHS Partner Gardens, savings on tickets to RHS Shows, subscription to its monthly magazine, and personalized gardening advice.
The RHS Chelsea Flower Show has a long and interesting history, the highlights of which were showcased in the guide book I purchased at the show. The RHS Flower Show was originally called The Great Spring Show, which was originally staged in 1862 in a single, large tent at the RHS garden in Kensington. The show moved to the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea in 1913. By 1934, the show gardens had become increasingly sophisticated with design and landscaping as important as the planting. A photo in the guide book shows a crane lifting huge boulders into place.
The show stopped from 1940 to 1946 because of World War II. In 1947, there were a number of unoccupied spaces because exhibitors were still recovering from the war. To fill those spaces, part of the space was devoted to flower arranging. By 1956 flower arranging had been given its own tent. BBC television coverage of the show began in 1958. Traders began selling items at the show in 1976. In 2000, the Great Pavilion replaced a large canvas tent which was recycled into more than 7,000 handbags. The 2020 show was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2021 show took place in September instead of May, also due to the pandemic. In 2022, the show returns to its May timeframe.
The various gardens on display are designed by masters of their craft, created by landscapers, and planted by experts. Planning for the gardens begins well over a year before the show. Design proposals, which include layout plans, construction details and detailed information about excavation depths, height, costs and funding, as well as a preliminary planting plan, must be submitted over ten months in advance. Selection of gardens for the show occurs about seven months prior to the show.
A team of judges, who are highly experienced experts from across the horticultural industry, assess the gardens against a set of criteria that includes originality, overall impression, how well the garden works for the intended purpose, the quality of the build, and the colour, impact, composition, and health of the plants. The gardens are also marked against the designers’ brief, that is how well the designers did what they said they’d do. Gardens are awarded gold, silver, or bronze medals depending on how well they meet the criteria. There are also a number of “one of” awards – best garden and best construction by garden category.
Members of the design team staff the gardens and are available for questions during the show. Most gardens also distribute leaflets about the garden and its plantings.
Feature gardens, created by the RHS for the show, are not part of the gardens in the judging process. There were two feature gardens at the 2019 show: the RHS Garden Bridgewater and the RHS Back To Nature Garden.
The RHS Garden Bridgewater was sub-divided by walking paths and comprised an extensive perennial meadow. The garden heralded the Society’s new garden in Salford, due to open in July 2020.
The RHS Back to Nature Garden attracted a lot of attention, largely because Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, worked with designers Andre Davies and Adam White to create the garden. Although I may have needed to wait for a break in the crowd to get close to some of the other gardens, this was the only garden at the show that had an organized line-up and wait of approximately fifteen to twenty minutes. We were then able to walk through the garden. (Typically you view the gardens from the edges and don’t go inside them.) The woodland garden was inspired by childhood memories and with families in mind. It featured a tree house, a swing, a hollowed out rock, a stream, and cool, calm colours.
Show Gardens At The Chelsea Flower Show
Show gardens are the headliners at the Chelsea Flower Show. They are the largest of the gardens and feature beautiful and innovative spaces from leading designers.
There were 11 Show Gardens at the 2019 Chelsea Flower Show. Find out more about those gardens in the post Chelsea Flower Show 2019 Show Gardens.
Artisan And Space To Grow Gardens
Artisan gardens are set in smaller spaces than the Show Gardens. Space to Grow Gardens are specifically designed for smaller gardens and are full of trends and ideas visiting amateur gardeners may wish to incorporate into their own gardens. Some years this category of gardens is called Urban Gardens.
There were 6 Artisan Gardens and 9 Space to Grown Gardens at the 2019 Chelsea Flower Show. See my post about the Chelsea Flower Show 2019 Artisan and Space to Grow Gardens.
D-Day 75 Garden
With 2019 being the 75th anniversary of D-Day, a special garden was built on the grounds of the Royal Hospital to pay tribute to Normandy veterans. The D-Day 75 Garden was designed and built by John Everiss Design and volunteers. The garden was funded by the HM Government, supporting businesses, and the British public. After the show it was relocated to a permanent site in Arromanches, France.
The Great Pavilion contains displays from some of the best nurseries in Britain, science and education exhibits, and displays from some of the United Kingdom’s finest florists. The displays include floral arrangements, new plants and gardening techniques, groups of individual plant types, gardening issues, and groupings of plants.
In the key facts section of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show website, the Great Pavilion is identified as roughly 11,775 square metres or 2.90 acres in size, enough room to park 500 London buses. See more about the interesting and colourful displays in the post The Great Pavilion At The Chelsea Flower Show.
Contemporary artisans (there were five at the 2019 Chelsea Flower Show) exhibit their crafts in artisan studios, where you watch demonstrations or commission a piece. There are also a raft of other exhibitors displaying and offering products for sale that include accessories and footwear, garden structures, bird feeders, candles, ceramics, garden art, clothing, needlepoint, garden furniture, art, giftware, gardening tools, hats, jewellery, stationery, seeds, pots, and more.
There are a number of catering options where you can book in advance for a three-course meal or afternoon tea. I’m sure the meals and teas are excellent, but given how much there is to see at the Chelsea Flower Show, I would not recommend spending your time and money on these catered, pre-booked options unless you have the entire day to spend at the show. There are several other hot and cold food outlets throughout the site, as well as drink outlets offering a range of drinks from soft drinks to coffee and tea to Pimms, champagne, wine, beer and more. You are also welcome to bring your own picnic supplies.
The BBC broadcasts two to three television programmes a day about the Chelsea Flower Show for a total of 12.5 hours of programming during the week of the show. The programming includes background information on the gardens, interviews with designers and horticultural experts, highlights of the show, focuses on specific plants, and more. I watched a few of the television programmes during the week and appreciated the additional background about the show.
A commentator on one those BBC programmes said that what we see at Chelsea this year we will find in private gardens throughout the country in three years. Indeed, many people come to the Chelsea Flower Show looking to see what trends are showcased, what flowers are used, and what colour palette dominates.
In the New For Nineteen section of my 2019 Guide Book, four experts commented about what’s new at that year’s show. Show Manager Rose Gore Browne noted a stronger focus on trees and mentioned that meadow-style planting with swathes of wild flowers remains popular. Garden Designer Lilly Gomm talked about a shift in the way we think about and design our outdoor spaces to reflect our needs and lifestyles with less formality and more relaxed beds. Garden Landscaper Jody Lidgard talked about looking at outdoor spaces as outdoor rooms. Peter Clay, director of Crocus, one of the UK’s leading online nurseries, said “prairie style” planting is dominant at the moment.
I live on the Canadian prairies, but was unsure what was meant by a “prairie garden.” I investigated and learned that a prairie garden is an intermingled mixture of grasses and flowering perennials planted in drifts and blocks of varying proportions creating a relaxed, naturalistic feel.
Many businesses in the area around the show decorate with their own floral displays.
The Chelsea Flower Show runs for five days. It is open Tuesday through Friday from 8 am to 8 pm and Saturday from 8 am to 5:30 pm. Some plants are sold off starting at 4 pm on Saturday. Tuesday and Wednesday are member days. Only RHS members can purchase tickets for that day. The remaining 3 days are open to the general public. Note that the Queen visits on Monday, the day before the show officially opens.
There are several admittance times meaning you can get full-day, afternoon, or evening tickets (price varies accordingly). Note that once you enter, you cannot leave and re-enter. We had a 3:30 admission time and stayed until closing. We managed to see most of the gardens and all the displays in the Pavilion initially at a relaxed pace, but bit more hurried toward the end to see as much as possible. We took about a twenty-five minute break for a bite to eat. We had no time for any of the artisan studios or the exhibitor booths with assorted items for sale.
Tickets typically go on sale sometime in September and can sell out months in advance.
There is no particular dress code. You’ll feel comfortable in casual clothes, but there are also those who will dress up a bit in pretty garden party dresses. Dressed up or dressed down, wear comfortable shoes. You’ll be walking and on your feet a lot. Consider the weather. Bring a hat (not too wide a brim to get in the way) and sunglasses or an umbrella depending on the day.
Expect crowds, although as my friend says they are polite crowds. You may need to be patient and wait a few minutes to get close to some of the gardens for a good view. We went on a Tuesday (the friend I went with is a RHS member and she purchased our tickets). I thought there were substantial crowds, but the crowds in the background on one of the BBC programmes a couple of days later, on a public day, looked much larger. We toured the Great Pavilion in the evening and it didn’t feel crowded at all. Some people advocate coming first thing in the morning to avoid the larger crowds.
Sloane Square is the closest tube (subway) station. It is a 10-minute walk from there to the show. Victoria Station is the nearest train station. It is about a 20-minute walk from Victoria Station. Transport London operates a paid shuttle service from Victoria Station. For the best bus to take from wherever you are coming from, use Transport for London’s Plan a Journey page.
On its website the RHS Chelsea Flower Show says this about itself, “world-renowned, glamorous and quintessentially British, RHS Chelsea is a truly unique and unforgettable day out.” I agree that is unique and unforgettable. If you have an opportunity to attend, take it. I was glad I visited with friends who had been to shows in the past. Their experience helped us make better use of our time. If you don’t have a friend to guide you through your first show, I recommend reading something about the show in advance (the show website, this blog, other articles). Show guides are available for purchase when you enter. Consider purchasing one both as a souvenir and as a guide to navigating the show. If you are a systematic type of person, you may want to start your visit sitting down with the book (and maybe a glass of Pimms) to map out a strategy. You can have an equally enjoyable time just wandering around without a plan and seeing what you see.
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