Created in 1912, London’s annual Chelsea Flower Show has blossomed into the world’s most prestigious, over-the-top competition devoted to gardens and flowers. The exhibition, held on the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, hosts elaborate show gardens created by some of the world’s top landscape designers, packed with rare plants and jaw-dropping features from waterfalls to a 19th-century-style canal complete with lock gates and towpath. Inside the show’s Grand Pavilion, thousands of perfect specimens-from clematis to cucumbers-vie for coveted awards. This year, the garden exhibition attracted more attention than ever, thanks to a garden co-designed by Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge herself, who brought her husband, Prince William, and their three children to frolic on its rope swing and dip their feet in its stream. Meanwhile, her grandmother-in-law, Queen Elizabeth II, rarely misses a chance to wander the show and smell the roses.
I was fortunate to attend the opening of the 2019 edition of the Chelsea Flower Show earlier this week and witnessed all the artistry, know-how, and hoopla that go into it. The throngs were dressed to the nines in their best florals and straw boaters, and celebrity sightings included Dame Judi Dench, Aerin Lauder, and “Great British Bakeoff” star Mary Berry. Equally impressive was the overwhelming pride and passion that Londoners feel for this annual rite. All over town, shops and homes overflow with flowers, and everyone from schoolchildren to tourists enthusiastically get in the act.
Here are my top five takeaways from this year’s exhibit:
You Don’t Have to Be a Royal to Love Gardens
But love them they do! The Queen is patron of the Royal Horticultural Society, the charity that stages the Chelsea Flower Show, and attends every year. Prince Charles is famous for his green thumb; his spectacular garden at his home, Highgrove Estate in Gloucestershire, is open for tours this summer. This year, his daughter-in-law Kate Middleton collaborated with landscape architects Davies White on the RHS Back to Nature Garden at Chelsea. The woodland design was inspired by “childhood memories” and includes a treehouse, a hollow log to climb through, a stream and waterfall, and a rope swing. Her children-Princes George and Louis and Princess Charlotte-were enlisted to gather “moss, leaves, and twigs to help decorate” the garden, Kensington Palace says. “I believe that spending time outdoors when we are young can play a role in laying the foundations for children to become happy, healthy adults,” the Duchess of Cambridge told the press.
The Late, Great Rosarian David Austin Lives on in His Roses
The legendary Shropshire plant breeder, whose fragrant and gorgeous English roses are the gold standard for this beloved flower, died last year at the age of 92. But the Chelsea Flower Show did him proud, with a rose-covered memorial and a Secret Garden-themed David Austin Roses booth in the Great Pavilion so spectacular that it was awarded a gold medal (it’s 25th). The circular display featured dozens of rose varieties, including two new ones named after characters from Thomas Hardy novels: Eustacia Vye, a stunning apricot-pink shrub rose, and Gabriel Oak, a multi-petalled fuchsia rosette with a heady fruity fragrance.
Gardens Are Not Only Beautiful-They Literally Keep Us Healthy
For his Savills & David Harber Garden, designer Andrew Duff created an urban garden around an elegant bronze sculpture by Oxfordshire artist David Harber. Duff worked with The Environmental Change Institute to create a garden packed with sustainable and pollution-fighting features, including an air-purifying wetland area, a green wall, and native British plants including iris, bullrushes, and taxus shaped into topiaries. The sculpture acts as a focal point in a central pool of water. Look closely and Harber’s magic becomes apparent: rippling across the water at regular intervals (and controlled by robotics) are small gold-and-black petals reminiscent of autumn leaves.
Gardens Are the Best Teachers
Several of the show gardens at Chelsea were education-themed. Dame Judi Dench made a stop at the Montessori Centenary Children’s Garden, which celebrates a century of Montessori in the United Kingdom. Designed by Jody Lidgard, the gold medal-winning split-level garden features a sunken greenhouse filled with peonies and dahlias, edible walls, and a teaching lab where kids learn to grow vegetables using hydroponic (soil-free) technology.
Another colorful installation was The Camfed Garden: Giving Girls in Africa a Space to Grow. The garden, designed by Jilayne Rickards, is a recreation of a rural Zimbabwean outdoor classroom, with rocky red soil planted with edible crops, including iron-rich beans, papaya, and banana trees. Rickards, who visited Zimbabwe in researching her garden for the charity CAMFED (The Campaign for Female Education), noticed how mothers support their daughters’ education. “They create support groups and come to the school to grow food and cook it for the children,” she said.
For a Feel-Good Rush, Nothing Beats Flower Power
In May, Londoners are seized with Chelsea Flower Show fever. In neighborhoods like Chelsea and Mayfair, boutiques from Chanel to Thomas Goode dress up their windows with spectacular floral displays, restaurants offer flower-themed teas, and hotel lobbies are redolent with the scent of fresh bouquets by the city’s top florists (one of the prettiest: the @mcqueensflowers display at Claridges Hotel. The most Instagrammable spot in town is the façade of the tony Mayfair private club Annabel's, which is covered in top-to-bottom flowers by @theflowerbx.
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