A History Of The Chelsea Flower Show

Given Britain’s well known association with its ‘green and pleasant land’, it’s hardly surprising that the public is often captivated by the world of gardening. Whether it’s our national interest in TV gardening shows, or the green-fingered among us who like to head outside for a putter about the garden (or allotment, for the more urban) whenever a spot of sunshine appears, it’s as much of a tradition to the UK as tea and crumpets.

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Heading up the popularity of gardening in the UK is of course the Royal Horticultural Society’s annual Chelsea Flower Show, the major international event for both RHS members and the public. This year, it will once again be hosted in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea from May 24th-28th 2016. Although the show is no longer the biggest flower show in Britain (that honour now goes to the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show in July), it remains the most recognised and celebrated, with a rich history.

How The Chelsea Flower Show Began

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The origins of the RHS Chelsea Flower show date back as far as 1804, when the Royal Horticultural Society was founded by Sir Joseph Banks and John Wedgewood, to promote the knowledge and art of gardening in the UK. The original format of what is now the Chelsea Flower Show was the Great Spring Show, first held in 1862 in Kensington, then later at Temple Gardens, before moving to its current location at the Royal Hospital Chelsea in 1913. Since then, it has been held there every single year, with the exception of gaps during World Wars I and II.

The heritage of the show is part of its charm, particularly with its associations with the Royal Family, who usually attend the opening day. One of the most memorable editions was held in 1953, during the year of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. As it still does now, the show picked up on the mood of the public, putting on a celebration that was attended by almost all of the Royal Family that year – amusingly, apart from the Queen herself who was otherwise engaged in public appearances. Celebrities also attend the show, with many having had plants named after them, which they honour with a visit. Helen Mirren and Stephen Fry are among the more memorable, but sadly for celebrity spotters, famous guests also generally attend the VIP preview.

The show is also a competition, although the gardens do not rival among each other. Rather, each is judged individually with gold, silver-gilt, silver and bronze awards available across five categories, as well as exceptional awards such as Best Chic Garden or Best City Garden. There are even three exhibitors still showcasing today who have been doing so since 1913.

Modern Approach To The Chelsea Flower Show
Garden of flowers

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The modern incarnation of the Chelsea Flower Show is particularly grand in scale, with the Great Pavilion large enough to house 500 London buses. In fact, it houses over 100 nurseries exhibiting during the show. The visitor number is 157,000 annually, which has been capped at that number since 1988 due to its immense popularity. The Show Gardens, which are the main attraction and include incredible, innovative landscape designs, are all built from scratch prior to the show in just 19 days.

But it isn’t the just scale of the show that makes it so popular, it is of course the stunning creativity. The Chelsea Flower Show is a place for gardeners of all abilities and interests to be inspired by innovative new ideas, find new and unusual plants and even pick up a few bargains. The famous ‘sell-off’ begins at 4pm on the final day of the show, where visitors are able to purchase pieces from exhibits to take home. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see the streets of Chelsea littered with attendees carting off enormous floral displays, even trees!


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It’s also the foremost showcase for new gardening trends, keeping ahead of the times as the demand for rock gardens, Japanese gardens, topiaries and more have come in and out of fashion. Plus, each year offers some kind of new innovation, from moving tributes to bold ideas, such as Diarmuid Gavin’s Irish Sky Garden in 2011, the first garden to be suspended in mid-air.


Poppies at the Tower of London

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This year will see features of the show include a celebration of the Queen’s 90th birthday, as well as a moving exhibit echoing the Tower of London poppy display from 2015, with thousands of hand made poppies on display at the show’s entrance. Proving that the show is as alive as ever with thought-provoking ideas, other highlights will include the Modern World Slavery Garden and the World Vision Garden, inspired by the lives of children around the world.

Tickets to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show are available from here.

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