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Chelsea Flower Show – elitist or inspiring?

Great Pavilion at the Chelsea Flower Show

An elitist and overpriced garden event or a show to amaze, amuse and inspire? Just how relevant is the Chelsea Flower Show – and how much can the everyday gardener take away to apply in their own garden?

As soon as the cameras alight on Alan Titchmarsh on Sunday, he will no doubt welcome us to the ‘greatest flower show on earth’, as he does every year.

The show is a showcase for British horticulture and design, a highlight of the social calendar and a chance to hear random celebrities tell us about their hitherto unmentioned love of gardening. But is the show of any relevance to ordinary gardeners?

The case against

Detractors say that the big show gardens at Chelsea are flights of fancy – they have huge budgets  paid for by sponsors. BBC Gardeners’ World presenter Carol Klein is reported to have said recently that Chelsea now has a big corporate influence and is less about plants than it used to be.

Plus, they only have to look good for a single week in May, whereas most of us are trying to get our gardens to look good all year round.

They don’t have to house everyday paraphernalia like washing lines, trampolines or sheds. And they’re often a representation of a particular environment – a Provençal hillside or a Cumbrian fell – which has nothing to do with the average British garden. And that’s not to mention the crowds, and the crazy prices for a cup of tea.

The case for

But despite its grand scale, I think there’s much to inspire everyday gardeners at Chelsea. Anyone with an interest in design can learn much from the accomplished (and often deceptively simple) designs of the big show gardens. If you can’t replicate them at home, you can admire a specific combination of a few choice plants or a clever design idea.

But, for me, it’s the smaller show gardens that shine through most. These are pretty tiny but contain tons of ideas – bike stores, green roofs, grow your own areas – that are practical for you to replicate at home.

And of course the Great Pavilion, many people’s favourite part of the show, is home to the best plants people in the UK, all of whom are more than happy to dispense expert advice.

Yes, Chelsea is about perfection. Nowhere else will you see such immaculate gardens or flowers at their peak. Growers and designers prepare for the show for months, but I defy anyone not to go away with inspiration for their own outdoor space.

The hot, dry spring weather has been a real headache for them this year, but I bet it won’t show when the gates open on Tuesday. The stands and gardens will look as good as they have ever done, and we might even get to enjoy some summer plants that we wouldn’t normally see at Chelsea too.

I can’t wait.


It’s hard not to describe the Chelsea Flower Show as elitist, when all-day tickets cost an eye-watering £45 per person. Although I go to Chelsea most years, this year I’m giving it a miss. Yes, some of the show gardens are truly inspirational, but the crowds get in the way of enjoying them, and many of them, as you say, are more like stage sets.

Press coverage, including the BBC Gardeners’ World special programmes, give a great view of all the show gardens, without the crush. My advice: carry the TV out into your garden, make a large jug of Pimm’s at a fraction of the cost it would be from a tent in the showground, and enjoy Chelsea from the comfort of your own green space.

Either that, or visit Hampton Court Flower show instead. A great experience, a bit cheaper, and more room to breathe!

Wendy C says:
20 May 2011

Al Warman, you have said it all and I cannot agree with you more. I too stopped going some time ago partly due to expense, etc., I record the programmes and watch at my leisure with the G&T or the Pimms!

dorkin the gardener says:
22 May 2011

Al Worman thinks £45 is an eye-watering rip-off . Where has he been for the last 10 years? I had to pay £18 a CHILD to watch a mediocre Division One football team in 2001. (2 children, one adult, £50) Fortunately, my wife is happy to pay the entry fee to the Chelsea Flower Show, That is a bargain, allowing for inflation!

Helen says:
23 May 2011

Join the RHS then get reduced rates to Chelsea, Hampton Court and the other shows as well as entrance to lots of gardens and a great monthly magazine. The savings more than pay for the membership

Alison says:
23 May 2011

Chelsea tickets are not that bad value compared with some other events. It is definitely not elitist as I see people from all walks of life there, joined together by their love of gardening. It is good that people can join in by watching it on TV too. I think it is inspiring rather than elitist – I might not like all I see, but I come away with more ideas than I went with. A long day and a tiring day but always worthwhile.

Peter from Australia says:
15 June 2011

my very first chelsea. cost of tickets was irrelevant compared with airfares and accomodation. we’ll definitely be back in a few years. took so many photos we’re still sorting and labelling. we’re from north queensland and much of what we saw will remain just photos because we can’t grow them.look for us in 2014 or 2015.