Chelsea Flower Show blooms annually

Gardening is as much a part of British way of life as bangers and mash, a bobby on the beat or a red double-decker London bus. Only in England will you find Chelsea, the 90-year-old crown jewel of the Royal Horticultural Society and the world’s most prestigious flower show.It’s an eminently British event, for where else but in England would you find a shop stocked with 8,000 garden books?  Or would a flower show hold a strict lottery to determine which journalists will receive one of the much-sought-after press passes?

For four days in May, the quiet lawns of the Royal Hospital – all 11 acres of them – in London’s South End come alive with an explosion of flowers, fragrance, colour, plants and people.

New, special features
An inspiration for amateurs and a showcase for professionals, the Chelsea Flower Show features more than 20 themed display gardens by grand masters of garden design, a 3.2-acre Great Marquee housing breathtaking displays of flowers and plants by specialist nurseries and breeders, and stalls selling every conceivable garden accoutrement – and those 8,000 books.

More than 170,000 visitors from around Londoand around the world came to see what was new and what was special.

Judges pick the best
It’s mid-afternoon prior to opening day. After 18 months of planning, six weeks of on-site preparation, days spent forcing blooms or holding them back so they peak exactly on time, all that remains to be done is a final tweaking and spritzing.

Tension mounts, for Chelsea is also about winning. Teams of judges – women in flower frocks, garden hats and terribly sensible shoes, men in somber, serious dark suits, straw fedoras and equally sensible shoes – begin the daunting task of picking the best display gardens and the most glorious blooms. Even a seasoned exhibitor admits to a case of the jitters. 

Next page: Newcomers take gold

Newcomers take gold
Seasoned exhibitors are the ones who usually walk away with the prizes. In 2000, however, the two designers who won the coveted gold medal and best-of-show award were newcomers to Chelsea.

The entry of Gardens Illustrated magazine, entitled “Evolution,” grew out of a three-year collaboration between Dutch nurseryman-garden designer Piet Oudolf and British garden designer Arne Maynard.

“Winning a gold medal is unusual for designers new to Chelsea,” says Rosie Atkins, editor of Gardens Illustrated. “But to get the Best of Show was unprecedented.”

Oudolf and Maynard created a futuristic garden that had its roots in the past. Water jets that leapt from one stainless-steel bowl to another to another provided a novel twist on the 17th-century fascination with fountains, at the same time, signifying the passage of time.

Around a pool, they planted waving fronds of grass interspersed with euphorbia, Rodgersia and Amsonia. For a long border, they chose a profusion of perennials such as Astrantias, salvias, violas and Brooding Actaeas to produce a rich Persian carpet effect, then enclosed the entire garden in a dramatic cloud-like hedge of ancient, overgrown boxwood, which they imported from Holland.

Mixing nature with art
The most powerful theme coursing through the gardening world a few years ago was a renewed contract with nature. There was a surge of interest in native plants and wildlife gardening. The idea of a garden taking its design cue from nature and its immediate surroundings rather than fighting with them was very much in the spirit of the late ’90s. 

For many visitors, the spires of delphiniums are the blooms that most mean Chelsea. The effort it takes to get them there in all their magnificent beauty boggles the imagination.

It is the display to which avid Montreal gardener Joan Courtois heads first. Courtois joined the Royal Horticultural Society 35 years ago to get its magazine with its annual list of seeds for sale. She has attended Chelsea five times.

“For me, it’s like going to an art gallery,” she says. “You learn by looking and absorbing. I like to see what the great garden designers do and how to use plants in different ways. Everyone there is a wacky person like you, who simply loves to garden.”

Chelsea 2002
Chelsea 2002 will be held May 21 to 24th , with the first two days reserved for RHS members, the last two open to the general public. Ticket prices vary depending on the time of arrival – from £17 for the entire day (8 a.m. to 8 p.m.) to £10 from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Overseas visitors can call the ticket hotline: 011.44.1293.453781.

RHS membership costs £28 a year plus a one-time £7 enrolment fee. In addition to privileged tickets to 20 RHS flower shows, members receive a monthly copy of The Garden magazine. To join, contact Royal Horticultural Society, P.O. Box 313, London SW1P 2PE. Phone Monday to Friday 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. GMT, or check out the website at