Impressions from a Chelsea Virgin


Stunning Rosa 'Edith Holden' & Iris 'Dusky Challenger' on Thrive garden
Stunning Rosa 'Edith Holden' & Iris 'Dusky Challenger' on Thrive garden


On Tuesday I made my first ever trip to Chelsea Flower Show.  I realised as we had lunch before making our way down through Sloane Square that I didn’t seem to have any expectations of what I would  see which was a rather weird sensation.  Surely I should be looking forward to certain things or maybe even dreading others. I should have things I desperately wanted to see or ideas to acquire.  But no my mind was blank.  I  suspect that this was because despite having watched Chelsea for years on the television, having followed this year’s build up via the photos on twitter and through some blog posts I  couldn’t really believe I was actually going – it was like a dream, but more trance like than euphoric. 

Wild flower meadow on The HESCO Garden
Wild flower meadow on The HESCO Garden


There is just so much to take in –  every aspect of horticulture you can think of.  Gardens and plants from right  up near the Arctic to lovely displays from South Africa. It wasn’t only the plants and gardens but the people.  I was surprised that it wasn’t as crowded as I  had expected.  There was a bit of a bottle neck around the courtyard gardens but it was good-natured and with a bit of a strategic shuffle and a keen eye for an opportunity we managed to get a good view of most of the gardens.  But people  watching was proving to be quite a distraction from the plants – there were the corporate types in their suits, the lovely ladies dressed up in their hats and heels and  then the more down to earth  gardeners like your  truly dressed in sensible shoes! 

lavender bordered pathway on the L'Occitane garden
Lavender bordered pathway on the L'Occitane garden


Due to the number of people around the gardens I found it hard to take in whole gardens but I have come away with a lot of impressions or cameo views from the gardens.  I absolutely loved the planting on Jo Thompson’s The Unexpected Gardener for Thrive garden.  The colours of the roses and irises were just so sumptuous and were complimented with the Mathiasella bupleuroides ‘Green Dream’ and Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’.For me this was the best garden in the show.  The flower meadow on the front of the HESCO Garden built by Leeds City Council won my heart.  Whilst many were admiring the replica canal lock which was the main feature of the garden, I was drooling over the toadflax. I understand that there was also poppy in the mix and they are hoping that these will be in flower by the end of the week.  What is more the nice man from Leeds gave me a packet of seeds as per their mix.  I have just got to work out where to have a mini wildflower meadow! 

Cortal steel screens in The Daily Telegraph Garden
Cortal steel screens in The Daily Telegraph Garden


I was taken with the L’Occitane garden. I thought the planting was very reflective of Southern France and the Mediterranean, especially as the weather was warm you could  smell the lavender and I felt quite transported.  I was particularly taken with the path up the slope, which made me feel that a cart had been pulled up between the rows of lavender.  Interestingly when I was looking at this garden there were few others there as the Daily Telegraph garden over the way was attracting more people. This garden had been awarded Best in Show and seemed to be the one everyone was talking about even before we got to the show.  However, whilst I admired the planting particularly the movement created with the grasses and the use of rusty coloured Irises and Verbascums at the time I wasn’t keen on the metal sculptural shapes.  However, on looking back through my photos at a couple of days distance I see the garden in such a different way and how the colour of the metal rectangles pick up on the colours in the planting particularly that Iris Action Front.  I suspect that if I could have walked into the garden rather than being stuck on the outside looking in I would have appreciated the garden more. 

Rhododendron 'Fireball'
Rhododendron 'Fireball'


Of course we went to the Floral Pavillion but sadly my camera battery was dying by this time so I concentrated more on making notes of plants I liked and where I could get them.  However, I couldn’t walk past the Rhododendron ‘Fireball’ without squeezing one more photo out. 

So whilst there has been much talk about what makes  a good  garden, which one should win Peoples Choice, whether gardens should have themes, what is the latest trend in gardening for me Chelsea 2010 is a collection of images and sensations not just visual but smell and sound.

Author: Helen Johnstone

I live in Malvern, Worcestershire and am a very keen gardener. I started the Patient Gardener Blog in January 2008 as a way of recording what was happening in my garden and connecting with other like-minded people. I started a second blog PatientGardener 365 January 2013 in order to try and post a photo a day to capture what is growing in my garden or places I have visited

12 thoughts on “Impressions from a Chelsea Virgin”

  1. Nothing beats the first-hand account of a first-timer! Thanks for sharing. (It’s 15 years since I attended and I remember it all vividly… and likely to be another 15 before I attend again. South Africa is a long, expensive trip away…)

  2. So exciting actually to be there and see the installations! I love the photos I’ve seen of that Telegraph garden, but it’s interesting you were not so impressed in person. That Rhododendron is a knockout!

  3. I loved the L’Occitane garden too, and you are right that the smells were wonderful. perhaps it was the heat bringing out the scents, but I can’t remember ever noticing this so strongly in other show gardens. It gave it the edge on many of the other gardens, for me. It’s a pity this can’t come across on the telly! Glad you had a great time at your first ever one.

  4. Thanks for sharing your first Chelsea visit with us. I enjoyed reading about it all. When i see Chelsea on telly I feel that visitors should be allowed to go into the gardens (it’s never going to happen of course as the gardens would be destroyed by a stampede of gardeners). Felt the same about Malvern because that’s how you can really experience the garden; to be IN it.

  5. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, and weren’t too exhausted. I liked the L’Occitane garden too, particularly because I was finally able to discover how it is pronounced!

  6. I have watched Alan & co on BBC2 each evening, and think that perhaps it all might be a bit overwhelming to actually be there. So much for all your senses to take in. And the crowds looked horendous tonight! Must be time to join the RHS just to be able to go when there are not so many people! So glad you enjoyed your visit.

  7. I really enjoyed your post and photos Helen. I remember being in a daze and thinking it all felt most’unreal’the first time I went. Bet that you are back next year 🙂

  8. What a lovely post! I never went to Chelsea, a huge disappointment, before leaving the country and now I’ve lived in Miami for 25 years. Gardening is very different here; we have two seasons: cool and dry, and hot and humid. Still, we can grow tropical orchids next door to lovely hybrid tea roses!

  9. Your review was simply puurfect, Helen! I loved your honest appraisals and talking about how your experienced the whole show rather than just what was planted where by whom. I love that lavender laced pathway as well and agree that being right inside it would have been the ultimate way to enjoy the plantings. One of these days, I AM going to Chelsea as well. 🙂

  10. An excellent post! You described so well how I felt at Sissinghurst!~~I love the cor-ten steel and would love to have a bixt in my garden~There is something about the rust that belongs in a southern garden! L’Occitane with its lavender fragrance would have caught my eye, too. Your garden shows are marvelous~I might have to visit one of the US’s better known ones~our little city hasn’t anything to get too excited about;-)gail

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