RHS Chelsea Flower Show Centenary

On May 21, at 8:00 a.m. GMT, the greatest and grandest flower show will open to the public, the Royal Horticultural Society's¹ Chelsea Flower Show, lovingly referred to as Chelsea. RHS Chelsea is an international gathering of plant people and a showcase for plants, inspiring people everywhere to garden better. It is one of the hottest tickets to obtain in the horticultural world. This year, Chelsea includes 15 outdoor show gardens, with 8 artisan and 11 fresh gardens with over a few hundred exhibits in the Great Pavilion. This year marks the centennial, or centenary, of the Great Spring Flower Show at Chelsea and is being royally celebrated.

Royal Horticultural Society Great Spring Show, as it was first called, started at 1862 at the RHS's new garden at in Kensington (1861 -1888). Floral shows had been held at Chiswick since 1833, when it was moved the to easier accessible Kensington site. The show was moved again in 1903 to Wisley in Surrey, but that venue only lasted a few years.

In 1912, the RHS planned a grand Royal International Flower Exhibition, which was held in May, 1913 at the grounds of the Royal Hospital at Chelsea, London. It turned out to be such a marvelous site, it has continued there since except for the war years of 1917 and during World War Two. And grand it was with several tents grouped together on the grounds to house the 17 show gardens and 244 exhibits visited by people exhibiting and attending from around the world.

The Grand Marque, said to be the largest tent ever constructed covering three and a half acres, opened in 1951 and housed the flower, fruit and vegetable exhibits until 2000. The Great Pavilion, easier to assemble with better lighting, brought in with 40 lorries, was erected. All manner of plants and articles pertaining to gardening and horticulture are displayed within. Incredibly, three exhibitors participating since the first Chelsea in 1913 will exhibit at the centenary show.

Well, to just describe it as “displayed” is a mis-service to Chelsea. Only the best plants are presented in the prime, massed together in the most artful, appealing and attractive manner. Plants of every sort from around the globe. Just reading the list of vendors and the plant families they represent starts a gardeners glands to salivate. Categories begin at agapanthus, followed by alliums, four sub-categories of alpines, then a separate category for British grown alliums, aquatic plants (for all the water features, it is a rainy climate after all), bulbs of every description, bromeliads, cactus and succulents, three vendors of chrysanthemums, etc down to vegetables. I am sure I have never seen vegetables in the flesh the like that are displayed at Chelsea, nor ever will.

And that is the whole point, showcasing the level of perfection rarely attainable in any gardeners allotment, as they say. For plants are the real star of the show. At Chelsea, the plants have said to have a swagger, similar to horses as they line up at the derby, they know they are the best of the best. And the public simply revels in horticultural excellence, for it is a knowing public, by and large, a public whose main pastime is gardening. But not just gardening of a few tomatoes or herbs. But a nation obsessed with gardening. It is the gardening mecca, with Chelsea at the pinnacle.

One of the fascinating aspects of Chelsea is the way gardening fads, styles and trends vary through out the century, decade by decade. In the beginning, exhibits were either rock gardens or regimental, formal beds reflecting the times. But as the decades passed, gardens evolved, from the traditional rock gardens, to Beth Chatto's chalk gardens (grown in calcareous soil similar to ours), to the introduction of water features to the extent that it is nearly obligatory. Today, garden designs run the gamut from naturalized plantings, contrasting with contemporary, modernistic, minimalist design and back to wildlife gardens and native plant gardens. The biggest trend this decade is, of course, “green” and “healing” gardens sponsored by corporations and foundations. Statuary and art objects are normally not allowed, unless a special exemption is applied for and given, though “always displayed in the best tradition”. In a break with a long standing tradition, garden gnomes are allowed at Chelsea this year only, though not within the show gardens or exhibits themselves. Celebrities have been recruited to paint gnomes for a charity auction.

David Austen first display his now world famous David Austen roses with his first, 'Mary Rose' and 'Graham Thomas' roses. The concept of gardens as outdoor rooms began at Chelsea in 1961 with John Brooke's “Room Outside” garden. Water features began decades ago and their use and appeal only grow with the passing year. Nearly no garden is without a fountain, pond, rivulet, trill, waterfall or pool with every manner of building material used in hardscape construction.

What happens at Chelsea most certainly does not stay at Chelsea. For years, I've been enthralled with this greatest of all flower exhibitions, reading articles here and there in magazines as I could find them. With the advent of HGTV, I was able to see a few specials on the Chelsea Flower Show, but the last several years, garden shows and gardening has taken a way back seat to homes.

But, happily, with the advent of the Internet and now smartphones, Chelsea is just a tap away! The RHS website is a wealth of fun, and the free iPhone app became available on May 1st. I remember watching one of the Chelsea programs where a garden featured a Pot Man, similar to a scarecrow type garden ornament composed of clay pots, with trowels for hands, neck bandana and topped by a mop and hat. Yes, it was a fad I proudly copied. People take notice of Chelsea, even plain old gardeners in Amarillo, TX.

The outside show gardens have a scant 19 days to build on site at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, London, and 2-3 days for the stands and exhibits within the Great Pavilion. But don't be fooled. This is no made for television reality show where the participants have a day to whip up a trend starting garden design. Designers are vetted and chosen with care. I'm sure they must have designed for one or many of the other 8 RHS flower shows or other flower shows around the world before given an assignment as important as designer of a show garden at Chelsea. Some of the show gardens cost up to ₤250,000 for the 5 day display.

Nineteen days to construct in situ hardscape, buildings, water features, install forests, shrubbery and the showcase plants. But planning starts, in many cases, more than a year before, even before in application is approved. Designs are drafted, roughed out, improved, changed and finalized. The head designer may have as many as 40 to 50 people on their design team by May.

Choosing the plants is always of supreme importance. Nurseries and growers around the world are scrutinized for just the right plant, providing the exact height, shape, leaf, color effect for that one week in May. In fact, many visits are made to nurseries selected to provide the plants, watching their growth through the months.

The preceding 9 months to Chelsea is a time of anxiety, gnashing of teeth over British weather, some months experiencing terrible droughts, or untimely heat, or more recently, never-ending rain and sun-less days. Always the question, will this plant come into flower on the twentieth of May, the day of judging? The latest scientific techniques are employed to either delay or advance the bloom.

It is said, for every flower displayed at Chelsea, three are grown and reserved. Each element of the show, artisan, or fresh garden, indeed, each exhibit's design is weighed – does it contribute to and reflect the theme of the garden/display?

Chelsea flower show medals are rewarded for excellence. And with so many top drawer designers, it all comes down to the details. No speck of dust or fallen leaf is left unattended to. Gardens and gardens designers are not really in competition against each other, but with themselves.

Keeping with the overall theme of the show, flowers are king. For some time, the RHS has selected the Plant of the Year at Chelsea. The competition is open “to any flower on display that's never been exhibited at a show for gardeners before”. This year, gardeners have an opportunity to select a Plant of the Centenary by voting for one of the 10 plants nominated from each decade, a list narrowed from the many honored at Chelsea. In the selection of Plants of the Year, qualities under consideration are

Innovation, how different is the plant from what has been seen before?

Excellence and impact: what level of impact does the plant have? Is it horticulturally excellent? And

Appeal: is the plant likely to have a wide appeal?

Although the list of finalists was made primarily by RHS members, I'm familiar with four of the 10 plants, they are grown in gardens in the Texas Panhandle. If you have a favorite among them, join the thousands who will be casting their vote for Plant of the Centenary. As each plant was “born” in the same decade they were launched at Chelsea, reading through the list is like turning the pages of recent gardening history.

  • Rosa 'Iceberg' (1953-1962)
  • Erysimum 'Bowles's Mauve' (1973-1982)
  • Heuchera villosa 'Palace Purple' (1983-1992)
  • Geranium Rozanne (1993-2002)

I hope you will throw caution to the wind and immerse yourself for an hour or two and enjoy the show.

Angie Hanna, May 16, 2013

¹The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK's leading gardening charity dedicated to advancing horticulture and promoting good gardening. Their goal is to “help people share a passion for plants, to encourage excellence in horticulture and inspire all those with an interest in gardening.”