I had the absolute honour of being invited to RHS Chelsea Flower Show last month, and I have been processing the whirlwind it was for all this time!
I have never been able to afford to go to Chelsea, so to go for the first time on press day was the baptism of fire I think I really needed.
Personally, for me, the best part was seeing the familiar gardening faces we see all the times on our feeds, and catching up with them as real people. I believe we become detached from the fact that people on social media, are real human beings. Being on social media sometimes can be relentless, so to chat to other writers, influencers, podcasters etc, was a breath of fresh air. I cannot tell you just how hard this community is working, and all in different ways. Just to share experiences or even sharing how nervous I was, felt like such a relief. We were all there for our own reasons and our own views and that was something I came to appreciate so wholly. Everyone had a different background a different experience to gardening and these people blew me away with their persistence, consistency, and absolute passion for what they do.
Every time I go to events like this, I feel like I need to step up my game so here I am! I have left my job, started work as a gardener and have committed time to write and grow.
Walking into Chelsea was strange as on press day, your entrance is different from the grand main entrance which I saw on the way out, you sort of start at the bottom of Main Avenue.
As I was meandering around, aimlessly, with only a small map on my phone, I figured I would start looking at the gardens and start down Main Avenue…where I walked in on a WEDDING on a show garden (congratulations Manoj & Clive).
It was like being smacked with an emotions paddle in the gut. Okay, today was going to be one of THESE days was it? Bad time to start shedding tears as it was hard enough to put my make up on at 6am and I wasn’t redoing it. I’d come back to the garden after the ceremony.
Performers with giant bug suits, naked painted people, someone blowing giant bubbles (cruel, I can’t chase these ones like I do with my son), photographers with giant cameras working in hunting packs for the best pap, performers balancing on each other. WHERE WAS I? A fever dream perhaps? Pinch. Real, definitely real.
I couldn’t get to a lot of the gardens at first due to filming – I’d come back.
My thoughts went into imposter syndrome mode. What am I doing here? What do I add or contribute to this event? Well, they let me in so I must be doing something right. I kept walking until I could find spaces I could properly observe and turned the corner. Little did I know that I would bump into a friendly and familiar face @ViewFromThePottingBench. We have chatted in the past and briefly waved at each other at the Garden Press Event, but never really met. Sorry to name drop Adam but the event turned into something else after this moment, purely because I (we) now had a Chelsea buddy and I think we were both a bit overwhelmed. We agreed to get some coffee to boost our walk around the grounds.
Rather than relying on my own perspective of the show gardens, it was great to see things from another perspective which was a bonus.
Nature is back and with a bang. I see Chelsea this year as an ode to the cottage garden. Historically, our garden design has been heavily influenced on other countries, and wealth. A quintessentially English cottage style garden was frowned upon and seen to be too ‘English’ and associated with being of a poorer, working class due to the land being used for edibles, ornamentals and medicinal uses. Where as landscape design for estates, royals, and rich, was the height of money, power and extravagance. Labour was cheap.
I saw a celebration of spring, with the promise of summer. I welcomed the repetitive planting, especially of those plants that I use in my own growing space, and the use of so called ‘weeds’.
I really didn’t expect to relate to the designs and was thrown back by how much I enjoyed them.
Horatio’s Garden by Harri Bugg Studio, Charlotte Harris and Hugo Bugg
Best in Show
From the moment I arrived, there was a buzz about this space. People and cameras hoarded around this corner spot. It’s obvious why it attracted so much attention, being Chelsea’s first Main Avenue accessible garden.
As I try and catch a glimpse of the accessibility through the bustle of people and equipment, I’m drawn to just how woodland and cooling it feels as a space and felt drawn in despite being on the side lines. I wasn’t expecting a garden to draw me in and make me forget where I actually was.
The shade, the places for solitude and a terrazzo path, making them water permeable and require no cement, adding to the accessibility for wheelchairs and hospital beds.
Designed with patient priority in mind, also with patient feedback, it will be relocated to the Princess Royal Spinal Injuries Centre in Sheffield.
As wonderful as the hardy geraniums and dappled aquilegias were, it did have me wonder why this just hasn’t featured before in Main Avenue. There has been nothing really at the heart of accessibility at all and I found that disappointing. I admire that someone finally had the gumption to do this, but it’s 2023? We need to do better.
Back to the show
With the cost of living crisis looming over all of our heads, I can see the influence of a middle class grow your own movement. Huge spaces of raised beds, compost and neat lines of perfect vegetables, mixed in with perennials, flowers such as Calendula and Nasturtiums, it was classic cottage garden but… posher.
They were lovely to look at and I enjoyed the really great and skilled vegetable growing, but it did feel quite unrealistic. Yes, I am aware it is a SHOW. Even still, I enter shows and it still felt far fetched.
The thing with the grow your own movement is that it’s a cost saver because we don’t have any money. The issue that I had with the gardens with vegetables is that there was always an expensive centrepiece of a seating area / dinner party gathering space / expensive metal beds that probably costs more than a deposit on a house in Hertfordshire, amongst these ‘home grown’ vegetables to cope with the cost of living. Seems like such a contradictory statement to me and incredibly far fetched from the reality of the cost of living crisis and those who are genuinely struggling through it.
Tucked away at the back were these huge balconies. I don’t know what I was expecting of course, some people do have big balconies. Actually, I do know what I was expecting – I was looking for a more a new build council flat approach with no room to swing a cat, some bamboo shielding and clear glass panelling, that surrounds the industrial estate as you enter Hemel Hempstead.
Instead, I was greeted with an extremely generous 2 x 5m space (which is I think about the size of my little allotment).
I get that they are supposed to be the new spaces for small and modern design but again, I just found it detached from my reality. If you’re going to have small spaces, they don’t have to be balconies; just have smaller spaces for people to be creative.
As lovely and creative as some of them were, I just couldn’t comprehend that they did set restrictions on things like weight. They were great ground floor gardens however, and were inventive with ideas for small spaces. I guess you don’t have to agree with the whole concept of them being called balcony gardens and just take something away that suits you. My favourite was The St George ‘Alight Here’ Garden by Emma Tipping. I absolutely loved the green tiles (although you probably wouldn’t be able to tile the outside wall of your flat but would be GREAT for a small small space). Reusing the bin as a planter was inspired and I felt a bit like being in a pub garden. It was a fun and playful design that I took a lot from, especially with the beautifully potted edibles and ornamentals. The reuse of items generally such as railway sleepers, I found really true to my own style, so I really took a lot from this space.
The houseplant area felt forgotten. Tucked away at the back by the food, I accidentally stumbled across it on the hunt for a gin and tonic to settle my nerves. Houseplants aren’t really my thing as I only grow Sansevieria and Christmas Cactus – plants that thrive from neglect. Once my gorgeous plants were destroyed by mealy bug, I realised my attention should be more focused on what I actually enjoy. It was worth having a look, but it felt like an add on last minute when it deserved more love and attention.
I fell in love with he amazing displays and showcase of beautiful plants from people who really know their stuff. It’s hard to not come away from the tent in a daze, floating along, dreaming of all the new plants you want to source for your garden. Talking to the nurseries was a breath of fresh air and I adore how hard they work in such mass cultivation to a standard so high.
The tulip displays are just fabulous – I’m not much of a tulip fan either and it inspired me to try again with them, despite them being ludicrously expensive squirrel food shipped from the Netherlands.
I plan to focus more on these amazing people next year and conduct some interviews – but I know EXACTLY who I am going to at Hampton Court already. The displays really are the best of the best!
I have just returned from Gardeners World Live at the NEC, which I can’t wait to tell you about! To compare the two shows wouldn’t be quite fair – they’re both completely different types of event.
I enjoyed Chelsea but now I am definitely prepared for next year. I’d love to spend more time in the tent next year and really know where my focus will be. For a first experience, it was an amazing day out purely just to meet all the faces behind the plants and ideas. Also a great event to catch up with suppliers and trades for me too. Everyone’s experience is different!
Here’s to more shows in the season, and what a cracking way for me to start it off.