Bowles & Wyer
Sarah Price's Nurture Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show 2023

It’s Show Time!

Written by John Wyer

Chelsea Flower Show is once again upon us. I do really enjoy Chelsea. There are many things that I like – obviously the show gardens and the ideas, the theatre and razmataz of it all, but also the chance to catch up with old friends – designers, suppliers, contractors, nursery folk, as well as the opportunities to see some new plants. It has a well-deserved place as the pre-eminent flower show in the world. Its saturation of the media in the UK during the week is huge, but its global reach is staggering.

But despite all this, there is one thing about Chelsea that really irks me. And that is its stranglehold on the industry, particularly in terms of design. I can hardly think of any of the top-flight designers who did not start their careers out at Chelsea – although there are one or two. In terms of its show gardens, Chelsea has effectively become a competition to find the top designer in the UK each year. But strangely, the majority of marks don’t even go for design.

But let’s just think about this – and bear with me here. It’s the Oscars. All the best directors, actors, artists and technicians in the world are competing. But instead of putting forward their best work that year, imagine they’ve been asked to put together a new three-minute video instead – and that is what they will be judged on. Now, I’m sure most world-class directors and actors could make an amazing three-minute video, but that is not the point. Chelsea is the landscape equivalent of that. Plots that are the same size, at the same time of year, and only there for a week. Although it is amazing what is achieved in the three-week build up, there is often more theatre than design in it. I get that it is a ‘catwalk’, and its job is to showcase ideas. But often, the stupendous budgets behind the gardens mean that sponsors can be quite unwilling to take real risks with either ideas or designers.

It is easy to understand how we got here – Chelsea sort of ‘growed like Topsy’, and is a victim of its own success – what is more difficult to agree is whether a reset is necessary and how it could be achieved. As lots of international competitors/imitators have discovered, if you want to build a successful flower show, start off by looking at Chelsea. The RHS works hard to counter criticisms of ‘the same old faces’ – it constantly encourages new designers and by having smaller (cheaper) plots it provides a series of steps up for newer players. It also runs ‘young designer of the year’ at Tatton. But who can blame some sponsors for wanting a safe pair of hands? If you are investing half a million or more in the garden (without all the PR and entertainment costs) then would you go for a previous winner, or an unknown?

And the media l-u-r-v-e-s Chelsea. With more TV coverage than any other annual event (except for Wimbledon), and probably enough column inches to get you to the moon and back, it is hardly surprising that if you Google a designer’s name, it is often their Chelsea gardens that pop up most. As a result, it has launched more garden design careers than anything else.

Then there is the sustainability. Again, I can’t fault the RHS here. They are working hard to make the show as sustainable as possible. I have attended several meetings on the subject with them. However, it is a bit like trying to make a luxury ocean liner sustainable. Prior to one of these meetings, I asked a well-known designer for their ideas on how the RHS might improve Chelsea’s sustainability. ‘Don’t put it on’, was the answer. What do you think? Does Chelsea serve its purpose – indeed, what is that purpose? Can a week-long show ever be sustainable?

Let’s just go back to the Oscars, for a minute. Is there an equivalent for garden design? With real gardens, for real clients, actual sites facing all the challenges of budget, changes of mind, contractors, weather, and everything else that the real world throws – just as movie-makers face? I think that the UK awards schemes deliver this. The SGD awards in particular is a really hard gig. It’s difficult to win one. And one of the surprising things is that quite often it is not the big names, but an outsider who scoops it. True, you can’t go and visit and see the gardens in the way you can at Chelsea, and maybe that’s why Chelsea is so successful.

So as Elvis Costello famously sang, “I don’t want to go to Chelsea”. But wild horses couldn’t keep me away. See you there.

May 2, 2024