This article was written Stephanie Donaldson, blogger at The Enduring Gardener, contributing gardens editor of Country Living magazine and author of many gardening books.
For many gardeners a visit to London’s legendary Chelsea Flower Show is on their horticultural bucket list. It is a wonderful event and definitely in a league of its own – but to get the most out of it, it is useful to have some inside knowledge. Over the years I’ve attended at least 25 Chelsea Flower Shows, some more than once, so I have a pretty good idea of how to get the maximum enjoyment and inspiration from a visit and I’m happy to share this with you.
Book Early: Chelsea tickets go on sale months before the event, initially to members who have exclusive access to the show on the Tuesday and Wednesday, and then to the public who can attend from Thursday through to Saturday. Members tickets are released in November and public tickets in December. Tickets are only available from www.rhs.org.uk and www.theticketfactory.com and you should avoid tickets offered elsewhere.
All Day or Part Day? The Show is open from 8am-8pm Tuesday to Friday and 8am-5.30pm on Saturday. Gardeners are generally good at getting up early so it can be incredibly crowded first thing (and for much of the day) which means that getting a look at the main show gardens is a real test of stamina and determination – for each of the gardens. If you do go for the whole day, avoid these gardens until later and visit the Artisan Gardens (small, charming and rustic and tucked away down a wooded path), the Fresh Gardens (small, contemporary and urban), or the Grand Pavilion where nurseries display an extraordinary array of plants in a state of glorious perfection. I generally recommend that a first time visitor book a ticket for 3.30pm or even 5.30pm. By this time all the early risers have worn themselves out and are heading off, so there is a much better chance of seeing things without being reduced to a human pinball! It is a much more enjoyable experience and you will actually get more out of your visit. Even better, book late tickets for 2 days – it will cost pretty much the same as a full day ticket.
The Weather! The reason that we can grow so many lovely plants is we have a climate of infinite variety – just because a day starts bright and sunny doesn’t mean that it will stay that way. Equally, the saying ‘Rain before seven, fine by eleven’ is generally pretty accurate. In my experience Chelsea can be unseasonably hot, unseasonably cold, unremittingly wet and all points in between. You will be very lucky indeed to experience wall-to- wall sunshine.
What to Wear? Ignore the photos of women dressed to the nines and teetering on stiletto heels – they are either television presenters, photographic models appearing on one of the gardens, or someone up from the country who thinks everyone still dresses as the Queen does when she visits the show on the Monday.
Man or woman, wear your most comfortable – and preferably waterproof – shoes, no matter how tatty they are, layer your clothing and top with a jacket that is windproof and rainproof and has a hood. Umbrellas are a no-no – they are a bore to carry, difficult to put up in a crowd and will block other visitors view. Probably best to have a sunhat and some sunscreen in your jacket pocket too because some entirely different weather may blow through in the next hour! Oh, and don’t forget some gloves if the weather is anything but balmy. Add a small backpack to pack most of it into when the sun comes out and you will be well-equipped for the British climate. As far as we are concerned there is no such thing as bad weather – just the wrong clothes.
What to See: The Main Show Gardens are the highlight of the show, with sponsors spending hundreds of thousands of pounds to create exquisite gardens overflowing with their chosen palette of plants set in landscapes that tell a story. Make sure your phone or camera is fully charged so that you can capture the design details or plant combinations that you might want to recreate at home. The smaller Artisan and Fresh gardens are equally rich in detail and inspiration. In the Grand Pavilion you can talk to the nursery owners and get expert advice about their chosen plants.
What to Buy: Get yourself a show programme if you haven’t pre-bought one. It will help you navigate your way round and act as a useful reminder when you are back home. There are many stands selling horticultural sundries, tools, machinery, sculptures and furniture, some of which are small enough to take away with you. What you can’t buy are plants – although plants can be ordered at Chelsea, none are for sale until 4pm on the Saturday when the stands are dismantled and the plants from many of the gardens are sold off. It’s quite a sight to see an ambulatory herbaceous border leaving the showground and thinning out as happy buyers attempt to squeeze their purchases onto buses, or disappear into the Underground with their prize specimens – some of which may even reach home undamaged.
What to Eat & Drink: There are numerous food stalls and restaurants offering everything from quick snacks to champagne and smoked salmon, but personally I prefer to pick up something to bring in to the show, rather than hunting around for something I fancy and then spending time queuing for food. Amazingly, amongst all the hurly burly there are quiet corners to sit down and eat your lunch – my favorite is a wooded area that houses the Artisan Retreats and picnic area.
Take Time to watch the BBC show coverage on television before your visit – it starts on the Sunday and will set you up wonderfully with lots of interviews with the designers and knowledgeable discussion about the gardens and what to look for during your visit.
Outside the Showground: The Chelsea Fringe holds numerous horticulturally themed events around London from the 21st May to the 12th June, and is well worth checking out for an alternative view of what is happening in the world of gardening. And for some flower-bedecked window shopping you will find that many of the shops in Kings Road and Sloane Street have smothered their shop fronts and windows with some amazing floral creations. Even the entrance to Sloane Square underground station is decorated for the occasion. It is all very jolly and definitely worth experiencing at least once in your life.