by Guest Ranter Graham Rice
It takes 600 exhibitors, including thirteen major outdoor show
gardens, twenty-nine smaller outdoor show gardens, and over a hundred floral
stands in the three acre Great Pavilion, to create the world famous Chelsea Flower
Show in London. As
much as £250,000/$390,000 has been spent on creating
a single show garden – for just a few days viewing before the site is restored
to the lawns of the Royal Hospital, the veterans’ hospital on the banks of the
River Thames. 157,000 people visit the show each year; it’s always a sell out.
But here’s the thing – you can’t buy plants. That’s right,
it’s a flower show but no plants are for sale. So what’s the point of all these
nurseries spending all this time and money creating such incomparable exhibits
if they can’t sell anything? Isn’t this a bit mad? Or just a bit too British?
Rob Hardy of Hardys Cottage Garden Plants says Chelsea is not about selling. “It’s about the
prestige of winning a Gold Medal,” he told me (as he admired his Gold Medal!). “A Gold Medal at the
Chelsea Flower Show is worth more than you could wish for, it’s known around
the world. It’s about credibility. Chelsea is the pinnacle, winning a Gold
Medal is far more important than sales.”
But not everyone agrees. Fifteen years ago John Metcalf of
Four Seasons Nursery, who staged some of the finest exhibits of perennial
plants seen in decades, took just eleven orders in four days and never came
back. More recently, others have said the same. So what’s the problem? I asked
Lynn Beddoe of the Royal Horticultural Society. Basically, it’s the site.
“With 600 exhibitors on an eleven-acre site there just
isn’t the space to stock plants,” Lyn told me. “And restocking every day is
impossible with the traffic issues here in central London.”
But she also puts a positive spin on it. “Don’t forget that
all the floral exhibitors take orders, more and more are selling seeds, plus
there’s a whole range of wonderful garden goodies on sale. And at the end of
the show, on Saturday, we have the sell-off when anything and everything from
the show gardens and floral exhibitors is sold off. Everything is recycled from
plants to planters.”
Three Counties Nurseries (they don’t have a website) have
created a great business selling seeds of American columbines at Chelsea after
giving up selling garden pinks because they no longer took enough orders to
make it worthwhile. But why not simply move the show to a bigger site? There’s
a huge park just across the river.
A simple answer, says Lynn: “It wouldn’t be Chelsea.
Firstly, there’s the historic link. The show has been held on the same site
since 1913 and it’s a privilege to be here. And the show has an atmosphere all
its own, it’s special. You can go to any garden centre to buy plants but only
at Chelsea can you see exhibits like this.”
And with more and more visitors from other countries,
including many from North America, perhaps it doesn’t matter if they can’t buy
plans – they can’t take plants home anyway.
Fortunately, there are other shows like the Hampton Court
Palace Flower Show, in
July, where the visitors can buy plants – and that’s where British gardeners go
if they want to take plants home. Chelsea remains the show people visit simply
to see the best of the best – without struggling around all day with bags full
Photos: Top, the Gold Medal winning exhibit from Hardys Cottage Garden
Plants. Bottom, carrying home a bottle brush (Callistemon) from the Chelsea
Flower Show sell-off.