Each May for the past hundred years, gardeners have succeeded — with the help of hairdryers, miracles, and the greenest of fingers — at coaxing thousands of exotic plant species into full bloom at precisely the same time.
But the Chelsea Flower Show isn’t about the quest for the perfect begonia or the latest composting techniques. It’s about the carat count on your fingers and how debonair you look in a panama hat.
Given that it’s the centenary, tickets sold out in record time, and were appearing on the black market at £500 a pop. The show is, after all, the place to be seen debating the qualities of a herbaceous border as if your life depended on it. This is why Prince Harry was trying to look inconspicuous (even while wearing a high-vis jacket) as he sneaked in before the grand opening to visit the garden built to promote his charity, Sentebale.
To be sure, royalty plays a central role at Chelsea Flower Show: at 3 p.m. on opening day, a small bell is rung: everyone who isn’t anyone is told, unceremoniously, to beat it so that the Queen can tour in private.
So the great and the good were out in force, clinking glasses full of lavender vodka. A marigold-wreathed Ringo Starr was chatting to me personally (I am still having palpitations) about how he had learned to love gardening from his good friend, George Harrison. Having grown up without a garden, he described how thrilling it was to dig up his first potato and how heartbroken he was when the trees he planted died. An ambassador for WaterAid, Starr was a firm fixture in the organization’s beautifully crafted Indian garden.
Show Manager Sarah Easter took time out from worrying about a brewing thunderstorm to talk about how much has changed at Chelsea over the past 100 years. Standards have relaxed considerably, particularly in terms of the dress code. In the 1950s a group of ladies in bathing costumes were unceremoniously removed, in keeping with the ban on livestock. I could attest to this fact, having already spotted a couple of girls wearing nothing but strategically placed petals.
More shocking however, for those nostalgic for times past, was the fact that the embargo on garden gnomes was revoked for the first time in the Show’s history. Elton John took advantage of the laxity, contributing a mini-me version of the once-offending figurine: glittery pink, with diamante glasses.
Gardeners described how they took inspiration from the past, as well as from looking forward to the future.
One of the exhibitors, Robbie Blackhall-Miles described how the botanical blueprint of the plants at the Flower Show differed from that in his own garden (he only permits plants with a fossil record dating back before the dinosaurs were wiped out). Other exhibitors whispered gleefully about how their cucumber-melon hybrid was hitting the open market.
Chelsea Flower Show is always hedonistic: ancient olive groves are brought over from “the Continent,” gardens are built into the sky, and Thailand’s offering of thousands of orchids is nothing less than a diplomatic mission. You can follow your nose around the globe, from the lavender fields of Provence, to the heady scent of the Amazon.
You won’t be disappointed. The gardens are extraordinarily established and cared for meticulously. It isn’t unusual to wander past an exhibitor pruning with nail scissors and a magnifying glass.
But the most amazing — and delicious — thing about the Flower Show is that it ends: after a mere five days, ornamental ponds are drained, zen gardens are raked out, and newly built “ancient cottages” are bulldozed, returning the Royal Hospital Chelsea grounds to their normal, stately state.
National Geographic Young Explorer and photographer extraordinaire Emily Ainsworth was born and raised in Oxford, England.