Highlights from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show

Ideas and inspiration from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show: A first-timer’s diary

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Back in May, I crossed the pond, as they say, and spent my first full day in London at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. This yearly gardening extravaganza was on my must-do list for a long time. I actually had to write an article about it for a magazine I worked at around 2009 based on someone else’s trip and photos. This year it was my turn and I came home brimming with ideas and inspiration.

I was at Chelsea on press day, so I was allowed to arrive bright and early. Sometime after 7 am, I picked up my badge at one of the back gates and wandered up to a bustling press office. Canada Blooms is our big national garden show and it is a welcome flower-bulb-filled respite at the end of the winter, but it does not compare to the grandeur and importance placed on Chelsea.

chelsea flower show program

The Chelsea Flower Show covers a LOT of ground. My official program helped me figure out where the heck to go!

The British seem to be way more into gardening than we are here in Canada, where companies are constantly trying to figure out how to appeal to millennials. At Chelsea, journalists were writing and filing stories right from the press office and as media showed up, they were handed a packet stating which stars were going to be present. I’ll admit I didn’t recognize most of them and I didn’t want to waste my time chasing celebrities, but I made note of when Dame Judi Dench would be at the David Austin Roses booth. (And I did happen to see a few extra celebs on my route around the show.)

James Parker Sculpture exhibit at the Chelsea Flower Show

When you get to the Chelsea Flower Show early, you might catch a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how they keep everything lush and beautiful for the duration of the show.

The Royal Bank of Canada Garden

Upon exiting the press office, I’ll admit I kind of bumbled around for a few minutes because I didn’t know where to begin. But once I got my bearings, I decided to start with the Canadian connection and headed for the Royal Bank of Canada Garden. This garden was what sparked my idea to apply to go to Chelsea in the first place. Way back in December, I had seen a press release announcing that British garden designer Charlotte Harris would be designing a garden for RBC that would celebrate Canada’s 150 birthday and the 10th year of the RBC Blue Water Project, which aims to help protect the world’s freshwater resources. I had an assignment for Garden Making magazine, so this was a good place to start.

The Royal Bank of Canada Garden at the 2017 RHS Chelsea Flower Show

The Royal Bank of Canada Garden—and meeting its designer, Charlotte Harris—was a highlight for me at the Chelsea Flower Show.

Never mind celebs, I was really excited to meet Charlotte, who designed the garden with an all-female team. I had followed some of the garden’s updates on social media before arriving, so it was really cool to finally see it in person. It was pretty spectacular and got a lot of buzz at the show, as well as a gold medal. Charlotte was so approachable and passionate in her sharing of the intricate details of the garden, which I’ll post in my Garden Making article when it’s published.

The M & G Garden

Near Charlotte’s garden, I actually ran into someone I knew. I first met Pascal Garbe a few years ago and again this year at the Garden Tourism Conference held in Toronto. Pascal is a garden designer, VP of the International Garden Tourism Network and more. I say “and more” because he is important enough in the European garden industry that he had a VIP pass to stay on after the journalists had to leave and participate in the big fundraising event with the who’s who of London—including the Queen.

The M&G Garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show

The M&G Garden was inspired by the regeneration of a Maltese quarry.

Pascal introduced me to the designer of another big show garden, James Basson, who designed The M&G Garden. I had a great chat with his wife Helen about the inspiration behind the garden. It was a recreation of a Maltese quarry and watching how nature reclaims spaces and scars on the landscape. Over the years, the mining process has left striations in the stone. The spaces around the pillars that have been left behind are being allowed to go wild. James was inspired by this landscape and how Malta is dealing with ecological challenges (which are very real in other parts of the world). He got special permission from the Maltese government to use certain native plants from the region. The result isn’t one that can be easily recreated in one’s own garden, but the lesson of regeneration is one we can learn from. For example, the idea of planting wildflower meadows (often in lieu of a traditional lawn) is a concept I’ve seen gaining popularity in the last couple of years.

The Welcome to Yorkshire Garden

This garden had a soundtrack and if you squinted your eyes and focused just on the garden, you could also imagine yourself at the seaside. This garden was pretty elaborate because materials were actually sourced from the Yorkshire coast. A garden representative told me, for example, that the pebbles in the water would all be cleaned and returned to the beach from whence they came.

The Welcome to Yorkshire Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show

I was in awe of the work that must have gone into each and every garden. The Welcome to Yorkshire Garden had a seaside and seagull soundtrack that greeted visitors.

The Breast Cancer Now Garden: Through the Microscope

I had a lovely, moving chat with a volunteer at this garden, Sue Stannard, herself a breast cancer survivor. I’ve written about what the garden represents below, in the caption.

The Breast Cancer Now Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show

The concept of this part with the loops is that of looking through a microscope at breast cancer cells and the research being done through the charity to stop breast cancer from taking more lives.

A few Chelsea-inspired ideas I gathered for my own garden…

Planting different textures in the garden
I wrote a Chelsea trends piece for The Globe and Mail after I got back from the show, but here are a few more observations. These are concepts I’d like to explore in my own garden.

I wandered past some of the bigger gardens at least two or three times and one thing that started to stand out—besides the magnificent use of lupins—was the idea of texture. I love the wilder cottage garden look and there was a huge emphasis on cut flowers in various gardens. These were interspersed with various grasses as well as fennel, which I promptly purchased when I got home. Go Garden BFFs!

Lupins and fennel

Lupins and fennel are one of my new favourite plant combos.

The Anneka Rice Colour Cutting Garden at Chelsea

More lupins and texture in the Anneka Rice Colour Cutting Garden

Raised bed extravaganza
Pennard Plants, which is the British distributor of Burpee Seeds, had a great booth in the Great Pavilion. This is where new plants are introduced and thrust into competition. Pennard featured a few interesting edibles, including ‘Patio Plum’, which had some really unique foliage. “The Edible Haven,” as it was called, also featured a hobbit house and some fabulous upcycled tubs that were turned into raised beds.

Patio Plum tomato

The ‘Patio Plum’ tomato in the Pennard booth got some attention because of its deep-green, crinkly leaves.

Pennard Plants at Chelsea Flower Show

I couldn’t resist snapping lots of photos of the galvanized tubs Pennard used as raised beds around the hobbit house.

Places for pollinators
Insect hotels are pretty ubiquitous now—which is a good thing. We need to provide these beneficial garden visitors with habitat.

John Cullen Gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show

A company called John Cullen Gardens, exhibiting in The Great Pavilion, dubbed these creations Pollinator Palaces.

Insect hotel at The RHS Greening Grey Britain Garden

I loved these grand insect hotels in The RHS Greening Grey Britain Garden, which was a “climate-change-adapated” garden.

The delightful Artisan Gardens

Off to one side of the show, behind a retail corridor and through the woods was a magical area called Artisan Gardens and Artisan Studios. Here you could see smaller-scale gardens built around various themes, as well as artists at work on a variety of projects, from garden art to globes.

The Viking Cruises Garden of Inspiration at Chelsea

The Viking Cruises Garden of Inspiration focused on the work of Gaudí. I’m not sure the colourful tile could withstand our Canadian winters, but I’d love to have it someplace in my garden.

My first RHS Chelsea Flower Show experience was truly memorable and inspiring. I have so much more that I could share here. And yes, I did get a little starstruck when I spotted Dame Judi Dench in the David Austin Roses booth, where the company officially named a rose after her.

Judi Dench at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2017

I read later that when Judi Dench smelled her special rose, she sneezed!

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5 Responses to Ideas and inspiration from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show: A first-timer’s diary

  1. Ron Mitchell says:

    This is on our bucket list so, yes, I am jealous. But at least I have something to look forward too, lol. Do you have any idea how much time would be needed to see most, if not all, of it?

    • Tara Nolan says:

      Hi Ron, I would say you could probably do the whole thing in a full day. You just have to be efficient and not linger too long at any one place. Make note of where you’d like to go back to if you have time. 🙂

    • Ron Mitchell says:

      Thanks Tara. Good to know.

    • Sharleen says:

      I went two years ago, got there when it opened and managed to see most of it by 4 pm. We started with the outside gardens and then went into the pavilions (which are amazing), then saw more natural gardens on the outer edges and then a bit of time through the vendors. It was a full day and we made things easier by bringing our own sandwich. It isn’t cheap, but is well worth the visit!

  2. Brenda says:

    Great post. I could have read about your experience all morning. Thanks for sharing. Brenda

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