RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2013 – preview

This year Britain’s most famous gardening event celebrates its centenary, we speak to the organisers and experts for inside info on what to expect this May…

Every year the very best in garden nurseries, florists and designers come together to create a show bursting with colour, originality and flair. This year, the RHS Chelsea Flower Show (May 21-25, at the Royal Hospital Chelsea) celebrates its centenary, and has promised visitors stunning show gardens, inspiring artisan gardens and flower arrangements, plus a few new surprises.


RHS Chelsea acting show manager Sarah Easter explains that both professional horticulturalists and total amateurs will find something to enjoy this year. “The history is what makes it special – it has been running for such a long time and we have very strong traditions within the show. I think people like that we uphold those traditions but, at the same time, it is also the place to go to see what’s new. It really is at the forefront of the industry.” While the organisers keep most details firmly under wraps until the show opens its doors, we’ve uncovered a few special details from this year’s event that both beginners and expert gardeners will enjoy…


No trip to the gardening extravaganza would be complete without looking round the fifteen show gardens, which this year includes an entry from Prince Harry’s Lesotho-based charity Sentebale – meaning ‘forget-me-not’ in Lesotho’s language Sesotho, which inspired the garden’s designer Jinny Blom to use forget-me-nots in her planting this year. Also among the show gardens are offerings from Arthritis UK, whose garden – designed by Chris Beardshaw – aims to show the journey of arthritis sufferers, as well an excellent ‘urban rooftop garden’ designed by Nigel Dunnett.

In the fresh gardens, take a look at the art installation from Martin Cook, which promises to depict ‘calm and chaos’, and in the Grand Pavilion, the RHS Environment Area will have floral displays from Blackmore & Langdon, McBeans’ Orchids and Kelways – they exhibited at the first ever show in 1913, and 100 years later are all back for more.

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See: displays from award-winning gardeners

Visitors can expect to see creations from past award-winners such as Roger Platts, who is responsible for the sponsor M&G’s Centenary garden at this year’s show. “This year, I will be using a huge variety of plants, and we have an awful lot going on with this garden because it is the centenary and I am trying to give the visitors a sense of time,” Roger says. “Although we are all concentrating on our own gardens, as an exhibitor at the show the camaraderie really is fantastic – it is one of the things that make Chelsea so special.”  

Designer Jinny Blom, adds: “All of us designers are like family – we are not in rivalry with each other because we are all in the same boat. We all have such different approaches to design that we can’t really be competitive. As we near the end of the build up week, we are all frantically swapping plants and borrowing mulch and so forth. My favourite thing at the show is the contents of the great marquee. It smells so good and is full of treasure.”

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This year’s award winners will find they’re up against some tough competition. Not only are all of the garden designers going all-out for the centenary, but the judging process is a strict one, says Sarah Easter.

“At the RHS we feel a lot of responsibility that what’s on display should be showing good horticulture,” she explains. “The judging panel will look to see that gardens are not showing shade-loving plants in sunny areas, that the right plants are in the right soil types. But the biggest marks in judging are given for the plants themselves. So despite all the beautiful landscaping and structures, the biggest percentage of marks is still given to the planting because that is the core of the RHS.”

Do: vote for the plant of the centenary

As usual, awards will be offered up to those with the best show garden and artisan garden, plus product of the year, flower of the year and fresh garden. And this year visitors at the show will get to vote in one of the categories – the Plant of the Centenary award. Judges have delved through the show’s plant introduction archives, all of which have featured at Chelsea or have been exhibited by Chelsea exhibitors and the experts have whittled them down from hundreds to 20 finalists.

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See: the Great Pavilion

“The Great Pavilion is fantastic, you can’t fail to fall in love with plants in there, the smell is absolutely sensational,” explains Sarah Easter from RHS Chelsea. “When you walk in it really hits you and I think everyone can get inspired in there.” She also points new gardeners towards the artisan gardens, “which are fantastic because they are nice and small and feel a lot more achievable”. Those without gardens can still take inspiration from the show. Sarah explains that the exhibition will appeal to those who don’t even have a garden; the displays will arouse their senses. “We have a lot of floral arrangements at the show and floristry, so there are lots of things to inspire,” she says.

Do: get free help and advice

Amateurs looking for top tips will find plenty of professionals at the show that are happy to share their knowledge. Sarah explains: “The individual nurseries are more than happy to talk to people to tell them what is good for different areas of their garden, and we also have our advisory team at the show that gives free advice for all visitors”. To those feeling encouraged by the show, Roger explains that even the biggest gardens on display can be scaled down to suit an amateur’s skills. “Garden structure is important – time and time again if people struggle and are dissatisfied with their work, it is because they haven’t got the layout right, so ideas for layout and what plants are being used to create the structure are so important.” The most important tip for amateur gardeners is to keep it simple, Roger adds. One handy professional tip is to use repetitive planting to create stunning designs similar to those at the show “Don’t use too many plants just because you like them,” Roger says. “The things to aim for with gardens is cohesion; if you have one type of colour or shape then you should aim to repeat it in another part of your garden.”

Visit the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2013, with Radio Times Travel, see here for more details


See: the show gardens

“These are a real highlight,” Sarah urges. “[This is the chance] to see designers at the pinnacle of their careers and see what sort of things they are coming out with.”

Do: learn about new plants

Many horticulturalists launch their new hybrid plants at the show; this is a rare opportunity to see what’s new in the plant world. “Chelsea is one of the biggest places for new plant instruction. Our Great Pavilion is made up of around 100 specialist nurseries who each have a different plant specialism,” Sarah says. “It is like a sweetshop…to get access to those hundred specialist nurseries, you would have to travel all around the country and the world; they are all in one place, and it is one of the best things about our show.” The show also features the newest and best gardening products on offer to help you achieve your dream garden.


BBC series producer Rosemary Edwards explains: “With Chelsea we aim to entertain and inform as well as cover the event, because there are viewers who are serious gardeners. What I hope is that it encourages viewers to say I must go and get that hanging basket or plant; I hope it encourages people to look out of their window and get inspired.” The show has certainly made an impact on the team at the BBC. “It’s the greatest flower show in the world,” Rosemary says. “I’m a very keen gardener and I’d been waiting for so long to work at Chelsea. It is still a dream come true to work on the show.”

Do: press the red button

If you can’t make the show, Rosemary explains that keen gardeners can get tailored gardening information from the BBC by pressing the interactive red button on their remote control. “We try to film every single garden and exhibit at the show, so with the red button it means we can spend more time on each one.” 

The RHS Chelsea Flower Show runs from 8am-8pm, May 21-25, and 8am-5.30pm, 25 May at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, London SW3. Tickets start from £28, see www.rhs.org.uk/chelsea for more info.

Watch the RHS Chelsea Flower Show lunchtimes on BBC1 and evenings on BBC2 (times TBC) throughout the week of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show (May 21-25)

Grow with Radio Times Gardening, plants from as little as 99p, see here for more info


 Visit the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2013, with Radio Times Travel, see here for more details