Gardens: The Chelsea flower show marks its centenary

The 4Head Garden of Dreams. Picture: Getty
The 4Head Garden of Dreams. Picture: Getty
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IT IS the highlight of the British gardening world, attracting celebrities, dignitaries and members of the Royal Family and, for one week in May, putting horticulture on our TV screens and on the front pages of our newspapers.

And this year, the Chelsea Flower Show promises to be that extra bit special as it celebrates its centenary year.

First held by the Royal Horticultural Society in the grounds of the Chelsea Royal Hospital in London in 1913, the show is now the most prestigious event in the gardening calendar.

Boasting more than 6,000 exhibitors over its 100-year history, including displays from every continent in the world, Chelsea can lay claim to being a truly international show.

While it is not the largest event of its kind – the RHS’s Hampton Court Palace Flower Show is the biggest in the world – it has almost doubled in size since its inception, when it had just 244 exhibitors compared to 433 last year.

To celebrate the 100th anniversary, RHS historian Brent Elliott has written RHS Chelsea Flower Show: A Centenary Celebration, which looks at how the show has evolved over the years.

From its pre-war origins, to the shows between the wars and then decade by decade to the present day, the book explores how the show reflects and shapes tastes in garden design and planting.

The Chelsea Flower Show grew out of the RHS’s Great Spring Show which was first held in Kensington Gardens in 1862.

Elliott says this gave the show an element of prestige from the very beginning. Another factor was that it set itself up as a showcase for ornamental horticulture. “Most flower shows involved competition,” says Elliott. “Chelsea was based on exhibits. It’s a place where people – amateurs and nurseries – have come and displayed as best as they can. It’s not about competition, just showing the best of horticulture.”

The exhibits at the show fall into three categories: show gardens, trade stands (including businesses related to greenhouses, garden tools and books among others) and displays of horticulture by nurserymen, seedsmen and amateur gardeners in the pavilion (formerly the Great Marquee).

From the early days, Scottish nurseries, amateur gardeners and businesses have played their own part at Chelsea.

Hawick-based nursery Forbes was at Chelsea in the first year and was a regular exhibitor until the 1950s and John McWatt, a primula expert from Duns, was one of the first amateurs from Scotland who exhibited at the show.

Mackenzie & Moncur, which manufactured and constructed hothouses throughout Scotland and in various parts of England from 1850 onwards, also exhibited at Chelsea in the early days.

The garden centre business Dobbies, which started life as Choice Seeds & Flowers of Renfrew when its founder James Dobbie first packeted seeds from a leek, is one of Scotland’s longest running exhibitors at Chelsea, having been present from its inception to as late as the 1970s.

Having staged the show from 1913-1916, the RHS cancelled it for the following two years after being criticised for holding a show largely devoted to ornamental horticulture during a war.

“It was thought people should be forgetting about ornament and decoration and should be thinking about food,” says Elliott. The show was again cancelled for the duration of the Second World War. Between the wars however, the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh exhibited.

And over the years, various Scottish local authorities also took part with Edinburgh City Council exhibiting and sponsoring a garden at Chelsea where in 2003 it won a gold medal in the centenary year of its floral clock, displayed in West Princes Street Gardens.

Before the Glasgow Garden Festival in 1988, the city’s parks and gardens department had a show garden at Chelsea by designer George Carter, and Aberdeen City Council’s parks and recreation department has exhibited there six times.

This year Scotland is being represented by Kevock Garden Plants, from Lasswade, a nursery which was awarded a silver gilt medal at its first appearance at the show in 2011, and by Uphall nursery Binny Plants, UK specialists in paeonia which also won a silver gilt medal at its first Chelsea show last year.

The Kevock Garden display, by owners David and Stella Rankin, is inspired by their love of mountains and will include alpine, bog and woodland plants. The nursery qualified for entry into the show by demonstrating a high standard of display at previous shows including Gardening Scotland and Harrogate.

“It’s by far the most prestigious,” says Stella Rankin about Chelsea. “It’s a great honour. It’s a very exciting show.

“You meet so many interesting people. Everyone is very supportive and encouraging. You’re meeting experts from all sorts of different areas.

“The public are also fantastic. They are so interested, so responsive and so excited by new plants. It’s quite overwhelming,” she says.

Looking back over the show’s 100-year history, Elliott says the decline in the popularity of the rock garden – which up until the 1950s dominated the show to the extent that a Rock Garden Bank was created on the southern edge of the showground, the move away from amateur gardeners, and the growth in the number of show gardens have been the biggest changes seen at Chelsea.

He attributes some of this to the advent of television which first covered the event in 1958.

“TV has brought many changes,” he says. “It has probably to a great extent helped shift the emphasis from nurseries to show gardens.

“The greatest single change has been the rise and fall of the rock garden and the rise of the garden as a display of style, of garden design, rather than a display of horticulture.”

For those who have been inspired by the Chelsea Flower Show, another book published to celebrate the centenary – Take Chelsea Home, by Chris Young – identifies the most attractive, practical and portable ideas from the last eight years and analyses how they might work in any garden.

From lighting a dim corner or improving your planting scheme to creating a space for relaxing and entertaining, Young provides easy-to-follow, practical advice on designing the perfect garden with the book covering every type of outdoor space from contemporary to classic, wildlife to kitchen.

For information about this year’s Chelsea Flower Show, visit: www.rhs.org.uk/shows-events/rhs-chelsea-flower-show/2013

RHS Chelsea Flower Show: A Centenary Celebration by Brent Elliott, published by Frances Lincoln, £25, hardback.

Take Chelsea Home by Chris Young in association with the Royal Horticultural Society, published by Mitchell Beazley, £20, www.octopusbooks.co.uk