Keeping Chelsea in Perspective

Reading time 9 minutes

Every year, in about the middle of May, my eyes, previously amused by any new flower or shoot as if it were a new-born baby, start to view my garden more critically. They spy dark, unplantable corners; leaf edges nibbled by unmentionable pests; jobs that I’ve put off for months; and design shortcomings consistent with years of rampant plantaholism. The reason for this sudden malaise? The Chelsea Flower Show.

It’s not that I have anything against Chelsea – it’s one of the highlights of my gardening year and an occasion which makes me proud to be British – but it leaves me feeling rather as I imagine women might after watching a Victoria’s Secret show: slightly inadequate. And so, I have developed a number of strategies which help me feel better about my own efforts and slightly less stupefied by the extraordinary excellence on display at the world’s greatest flower show.

Detail of A Trugmaker's Garden, Chelsea 2015
Detail of A Trugmaker’s Garden, Chelsea 2015


First of all, I take time out to get both of my gardens in good shape before the show kicks off. May is the most splendid month for being outside, whether in the garden or the wider landscape. Everything is fresh and new, birds are singing in the trees, the earth is warm and the days are long. What could be better? I remind myself that Chelsea gardens have been coaxed and cajoled into looking picture perfect for just 6 days, whilst those I have created will give me joy and satisfaction for weeks, months and years. I leave the house early on Tuesday morning knowing that my plots, which are in no way comparable to what I am about to witness, are the best they can be – the real deal. They are living, breathing, pulsating organisms with a past, a present and a future. A Chelsea garden is no more than a firework, blazing a trail and exploding into glittering, gobsmacking, gorgeous glory before disappearing again, without a trace.

Detail of Luciano Giubbilei's Laurent Perrier Garden, Chelsea 2014
Detail of Luciano Giubbilei’s Laurent Perrier Garden, Chelsea 2014


Getting down and dirty in my own garden also allows me to take stock of what I’ve got, and, more importantly, to remind myself that there’s little more I need. One of the great virtues of Chelsea is that plants are not available for sale, which makes for a much cheaper and more hassle free event than, say, Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. Sadly the RHS are slowly relaxing the rules to allow bulbs and now plug plants to be sold, which is a pity. Chelsea should be about admiring the staggering feats of the best designers and nurserymen in the land and must not be allowed to evolve into some kind of horticultural Bicester Village.

Secondly, I reassure myself that given a budget of £250,000, a team of experts, some talented tradesmen and access to the finest nurseries in the world I might also create a garden worthy of comment. I don’t underestimate in the least the skill and determination involved in creating a Chelsea show garden, but let’s not pretend they have been created on a shoestring (which is what many of us exist on), or be too lenient if they don’t quite come off. At that price they should be flawless and jaw-droppingly beautiful. Sponsors know what they are doing when they hire the big name garden designers and are looking for a return on their investment. Shipping the garden off to be “re-created” in the grounds of one hospice or another is a lovely gesture, but one calculated to further disguise what it is inherently a rather wasteful and vainglorious exercise. In real life £250,000 ought to go a very long way and last an awful lot longer. This may be why I often find the smaller, lower budget Artisan Gardens more appealing and easier to swallow.

Art or Abberation?
Floral Art or Faux Pas?


Thirdly, which is rather churlish, or maybe childish of me, is that I revel in the sport of spotting mistakes in Chelsea exhibits. These most often come in the form of errors in botanical nomenclature, but very occasionally extend to entire, ill-conceived exhibits which, I am sorry to say, can usually be attributed to our nation’s floral art societies. There is no circumstance when it’s acceptable for a big non-horticultural company to create a monumental Chelsea stand amounting to nothing more than an overblown advertisement for its wares or dubious corporate social responsibility. I shun such aberrations with all the vigour and pomposity that my inner Lynda Snell can muster. And then there are the charming boys and girls, most of which I assume are from PR agencies or taking time out from chugging, dishing out the leaflets. Some kind of rehearsal prepares them to quote a series of fascinating factets – “it’s an exciting new umbellifer called cow parsley“, or “the designer found his inspiration in the Chilean Andes”, or “the cork oaks were imported from Spain at eye-watering expense to have their butts frozen off by the River Thames for a week” – but ask anything too taxing and they fall apart like a corn poppy in a stiff breeze.

I hope my wry admissions don’t make you think badly of me. Like many gardeners I possess an inner inadequacy when faced with all that one might know about the world of plants, gardening and design. Chelsea lays this painfully bare. Despite all the cost and artifice The Chelsea Flower Show demonstrates to gardeners of the temperate world what we all might achieve given the skill, training and imagination of those brave plantsmen and garden designers prepared to stick their head above the parapet and go for gold.

... Gold! Gold!! Gold!!!
Ishihara Kazuyuki winning a gold medal in 2015


Categories: Chelsea flower show, Flower Shows, Flowers, Foliage, Garden Design, Landscape Design, London, Musings, Photography, Plants

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

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20 comments On "Keeping Chelsea in Perspective"

  1. Couldn’t agree more, Dan, and you’ve left out all the people who go not to see the plants, but to be seen, and those who ask totally fatuous questions.Still envy you being there though.

    1. I could have done that, but I have a tendency to start ranting on the subject of certain categories of visitor, for whom the show is either a) all about getting “that” photograph or b) seeing who can drink the most Pimms or c) buying a twirly metal plant support. There, I’ve said it!

  2. Well said Dan!! A horticultural Bicester Village…I like it!!! Chelsea is THEATRE and the sooner that people realise it the better…I have clients who want the Chelsea look and are disappointed when I explain that it really is not feasible given the plants don’t flower at the same time, and what would it look like in August!! I remember a few years back the crowd line at the rope were muttering that it was all colourless and a bit too green…I said didn’t they know that green was the new black and green is a colour too!! That said It is a great show and the atmosphere is brilliant and there is always something new to see and new plant combinations that could work well… But there’s no point beating yourself up if your own garden doesn’t look like a set on Main Avenue!

  3. Ah, very amusing description of the show, thank you Dan. It will be very interesting to read other peoples’ comments in other blogs on this years show.

  4. Good Lord… heaven help us if you feel inadequate! Where does that leave the rest of us mere mortals who not only struggle with the correct spelling of botanical names, but also have an inability to write the beautifully witty and entertaining prose that you do???? Maybe head to the Pimms tent, clutching something wirly and sparkly that has jut been purchased, along with a gaggle of girlfriends in our on trend dayware!

    Great summation Dan – it is a wonderful experience and there are so many beautiful plants to ogle and admire. I have Chelsea envy. Have a wonderful time.

  5. A very apt title Dan, and an eloquent appraisal of the artificiality of THE Show. I love your analogy of a Chelsea garden to a firework. But who doesn’t love fireworks? I shall enjoy reading your post(s) on the gorgeousness and glamour of the gardens, admire the skills and plantsmanship underpinning the displays from your fabulous photos and then go outside, happy and content to be in my own far-from-perfect space.

  6. Horticultural inadequacy–love it. Love that it isn’t just me. I don’t have a Chelsea to rub my shortcomings in my face every year, but I have had gardening tv (Ground Force was particularly bad when it was on–all that decking left me in a permanent state of hardscape envy. That and all the back gardens here orient the other way, so no idea quite cross-applied.) In the end, I quit watching any of it, and now have little transports of delight (my violas reseeded) rather than big landscap-y oooohs. I’m off to see if that orange flower in the trug maker garden is really geum (I can’t trust my plant spotting anymore); hope you had a good day at the garden show, and just enough Pimm’s.

    1. I think it might have been a geum. There are orange geums everywhere at Chelsea this year, so they must have caught on. In fact orange, copper, rust and bronze are “the” show shades, especially paired with purples and blues.

      I could never stand Ground Force and can’t abide cheap decking …. Even though I have a square metre in my own garden. The shame of it!

  7. Hope you’re having a wonderful time at the show. I’m thousands of miles away, so am counting on you for my vicarious pleasure (no pressure!). Chelsea does have minuses, but the pluses outweigh them all. The best thing is how the overall experience lingers in the memory and layers new sensations on top of those from all your previous visits.

    The distinction about selling isn’t clear cut: I don’t associate Chelsea with a cheap experience. Nurseries can take orders at the show for plants to be shipped by post, so at least some visitors will end up with lighter pockets.

    1. Ah yes. Some of the exhibitors border on the pushy, but most seem quite content to have a nice chat and peddle a few seeds. Nevertheless the consumers appetite for twirly plant supports never wains, especially when surmounted by a metal dragonfly or butterfly.

      I am sorry you will miss Chelsea as it looks to be a vintage year for the show, but I am delighted to have your high expectations to live up to. I like something to aim for!

  8. Hear, hear from me, too. My garden is still a work in progress so no way can I keep up with Chelsea Show Gardens. I went to Chelsea twice in the late 1990’s. At one of the show gardens the person in front of me enquired the name of a flower. One of the ‘Charming Girls’ consulted her notes. ‘It is Primula vialii, they are very new, you know’. To which I was able to respond ‘Well, they may be new to Chelsea, but they have been growing in my Yorkshire garden for years’. Perhaps a little childish. I do envy you being able to get there for 7am!

    You were right about my Geranium palmatum in the greenhouse, now flowering its socks off and the bees are in and out to it all day long.

    1. Lovely! It’s a cracking plant (the geranium and the primula). Two or three times yesterday I had to help the leafleteers. I was most chuffed with knowing Mukdenia rossii – poor woman didn’t stand a chance of trotting that one off!

  9. And I certainly would not have been able to say it either – just off to Google it and see what I have missed!

  10. Chelsea makes for a busy time of year for you!
    Rampant plantaholism? That describes me to a “T”! As a would-be garden designer, you’d think I should know better than to cram my little desires into any available space. After all, less is more, in the designers’ world. But what the heck! A garden should be what the owner wants it to be – a more important design criteria in my book!
    Chelsea is the highlight of the gardening calendar. Such inspiration all around! But you’ve helped to make us feel better about our humble, but much loved, perfect plots!

    1. Good. You can always practice restraint and minimalism in other people’s gardens! They will appreciate the cost saving. Meanwhile plant what you like in your own garden and make no apology for it. Have a lovely weekend 🤓

  11. Theyre ludicrous popinjays, all of them,…… lupins for god’s sake, frigging lupins!
    And as for titchmarsh, he should have ‘pergola’ tattooed across his forehead.

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