Chelsea: the Greatest Flower Show on Earth


Submitted a year ago
Created by
Henry Homeyer

 It would be a bit of an exaggeration to say that I have always wanted to attend the Chelsea Flower Show in London. But not much. For years I’ve dreamed of going – and finally, this year, I went. Air ticket prices are down dramatically, the dollar is strong, and I decided there was no better time than now to cross off yet another item on my bucket list. It was well worth the effort.

Carnivorous plants on display

 Some basics: the Chelsea Flower Show is held on the grounds of the Chelsea Hospital in central London, which is now a retirement home for World War II soldiers. The show is bigger than anything in America: it encompasses 11 acres of displays, the vast majority of which are outdoors. That means that full-sized mature trees are installed, and in one case, a garden in a  faux stone quarry was installed with blocks of stone stacked up more than 25 feet.

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The show includes garden displays, rare plants, sculpture, food courts, vendors selling garden paraphernalia, music and much, much more. It has been an annual event since 1913 with the exception of a few years during World War II.

Flower girl!

Tickets for next year’s show go on sale August 1, and although prices are not yet posted, tickets are not cheap – this year a full day ticket went for 100 pounds (($128). Each year the number of tickets is limited and they generally sell out before the event – this year some determined attendees apparently paid scalpers 500 pounds and more. It’s the Super Bowl of gardening.

Mexican-themed garden

If you want to go next year, the best plan is buy a membership to the Royal Horticultural Society, which allows you to attend a day before the doors open to the public, and offers discounted tickets.

Calla liliy display

I go to flower shows to learn. I delighted in seeing new (to me) species of flowers and new ways of combining flowers in the garden. I loved meeting garden experts and artists who created sculpture for the gardens.

Sculpture garden

So what are some of the things I learned? Thistles, which we generally consider weeds, look great when planted in the garden. There I was in a city of millions, and a thistle, Cirsium rivulare 'Atropurpureum', was loaded with bees of all sorts! Clearly a great pollinator. Although a quick internet search did not lead me to seeds for that magenta-purple variety I saw there, I did find some seeds for a species native to the U.S. - Cirsium discolor - that is not the weedy pest farmers hate. So I shall order some seeds and try growing it.

This thistle was used widely in displays

Alliums were in all their glory at the show. Big, dramatic balls of flowers on 18- to 30-inch stems were used in many of the gardens. These are bulb plants in the onion family, and I have a few. I shall look for Allium schubertii which has an other-worldly pinkish flower head about 16 inches across. Another good one was just labeled with its variety name, ‘Powder Puff’.

Allium shubertii

Angelica (Angelica gigas) is another flower commonly used in the show. This is a 3- to 5-foot tall purple-leafed flower that I grew 25 years ago, but it is a biennial that does not come back after flowering, and I dropped it from my plant palette. But I have already purchased and planted one since returning from the Chelsea show. It can be very dramatic in the garden.

Japanese red maples on display

Ferns were used as filler in many of the gardens at Chelsea, and I shall try using them, too. Of course, their gardens only had to look good for 6 days, so ferns that spread, or get too tall, were not a problem, though they might be in my garden. I have a patch of Japanese Painted Fern (Athyrium niponicum) which is great in dry shade. But this summer I will investigate other ferns. Many nurseries sell them, but I admit I haven’t paid much attention to them.

Stone sculpture

Interesting people I met? George Ball, owner of Burpee Seeds was there. He is a highly knowledgeable (and opinionated) plantsman who is passionate about seeds. I was interested to learn from him that Melania Trump’s grandfather was a Slovenian onion breeder.

George Ball, owner of Burpee Seeds with Henry

Mr. Ball pointed out that most vegetable seeds originally came from Europe, which is actually farther north than we are – and hence not good choices here. He believes that modern hybrids, not heirloom seeds originally from Europe, are best. And he told me that in a blind taste test, 4 of 5 times, Burpee’s hybrid ‘Brandyboy’ beat the heirloom ‘Brandywine’, which is one of my favorites for flavor. I am trying it this year, since it ripens earlier, and produces more fruit, according to him.

David Austin, founder of David Austin Rose company

At a reception by David Austin Roses for a new rose named after actress Dame Judi Dench, who was there, I met the 91-year old founder of the company. I was able to thank him for all the beauty he has introduced to the world.

Dame Judi Dench with David Austin Jr.

The English know how to throw a party – or have a flower show. Picnics with champagne were everywhere. Women were dressed in flowered clothes and elegant garden hats; men wore suits, even in the hot sun. Of course, everyone was very polite. And I got to check off another item on my bucket list.

Poet's Garden Garden

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Robotic lawn mower at Chelsea Flower Show

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