Chelsea Flower Show

Chelsea Flower Show

The gardening show season is well and truly upon us. The RHS Spring Show in Malvern has just taken place, the Royal Bath & West Show happens next month, but the most famous flower show in the world has to be the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. It is being held from 24th – 28th May this year, so here at Clutton Cox, we decided to find out a little more about this horticultural happening.


The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has been putting on flower shows from as early as 1833. However, the Chelsea Flower Show, originally known as the Great Spring Show, was first staged in 1913 in a single marquee in the grounds of the Chelsea General Hospital, home to the Chelsea pensioners. Its start was a little faltering – what with WW1 and a change of venue – things didn’t go smoothly to begin with.

Queen Mary with group at Chelsea Flower Show. Date: 1913
Queen Mary with group at Chelsea Flower Show. Date: 1913

By the roaring 20s it was one of the highlights of the season with its famous Chelsea tea parties and visits from the Royals. In 1937, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth celebrated their Coronation Year, and to mark the occasion, an amazing Empire Exhibition was staged. It featured wattles from Australia, pines from Canada, brilliant gladioli from East Africa and even a big prickly pear from Palestine.

The show was cancelled during the Second World War when the land was acquisitioned by the War Office for an anti-aircraft site. It was thought unlikely the show would recover when it was mooted to hold it again in 1947. The majority of exhibitors wanted to postpone it as stocks of plants were low, the staff much depleted and you needed a special permit to get hold of the fuel required for the greenhouses. Lord Aberconway (then RHS President) and the RHS Council felt strongly that the show should resume as soon as possible. It went ahead and proved to be a great success.

Chelsea Pensioners
Chelsea Pensioners at Chelsea RHS

The show continued to increase in popularity throughout the 20th century, due in no small part to the regular visits by Queen Elizabeth 11. At one point it was felt there might be a need to move it to a larger site, but the RHS came up with the idea of holding other, regional shows at places like Hampton Court Palace and the Three Counties Showground.

In 2005, they added an extra day to the event and now over 160k people from all over the world visit each year.

The Gardens

There are an average of 500 exhibitors at Chelsea each year made up of the show gardens as well as displays from garden centres and nurseries throughout the country.

One of the most controversial gardens in the show’s history was Paul Cooper’s ‘Cool and Sexy’ garden in 1994, which featured a grille which blew jets of air up the skirts of unsuspecting women.

The longest-lived garden in Chelsea history is thought to be American Sherman Hoyt’s cacti garden, which impressed judges in 1929. She later donated the plants and their painted desert backdrop to Kew, who displayed the garden for over 50 years.

Cacti in the Great Pavilion at the Chelsea Flower Show.
Cacti are displayed in the Great Pavilion at the 2014 Chelsea Flower Show.

In 2000, a new pavilion replaced the large canvas marquee which was cut up and turned into over 7,000 handbags, jackets and aprons, by the Old Chelsea Marquee Company.

The tallest ever exhibit at Chelsea was ‘The Westland Magical Garden’ in 2012. It was designed by Diarmuid Gavin and featured an 80ft high pyramid.

All the Show Gardens are built from scratch in just 19 days and are dismantled in only five days.

Sneaky Gnome at the Chelsea flowershow!

Until 2013, gnomes were banned from the show – but exhibitors would often try and smuggle them in. Gardener and herb expert Jekka McVicar says she took in her lucky gnome, Borage, for years – she just used to hide him carefully among the foliage.

The Awards

  • Flora Gardens and floral exhibits
  • Hogg Exhibits of trees
  • Knightian Exhibits of vegetables, including herbs
  • Lindley Exhibits of special educational or scientific interest
  • Grenfell Exhibits of pictures, photographs, floral arrangements and floristry

Special awards

  • Best Show Garden Award
  • Best Courtyard Garden Award
  • Best Chic Garden Award
  • Best City Garden Award
  • RHS Sundries Bowl
  • RHS Junior Display Trophy
  • RHS Floral Arrangement Trophies
  • RHS Floristry Trophies
  • Show Certificates of merit
  • Certificates for Junior displays
  • RHS President’s Award

We’d love to see pictures of your gardens – why not send them to and we’ll happily show them off on Hoot.

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