The Chelsea Flower show is the floral equivalent of the Paris catwalk says Jo Arnell

Often bizarre, occasionally radical, always brilliant, the Chelsea Flower Show is the most prestigious and talked about event in the gardening year. It is the perfect interface between the worlds of horticulture, garden design and the rest of the world. It’s a meeting place, a fashion show, a talking point and nowhere else can we see so many issues of the day reflected back at us in floral form.

It is not to be confused with actual gardening – the Chelsea show is, just like the catwalk, a slightly impossible place of fantasy; a stage on which design and horticultural excellence struts its stuff.

The other thing it’s about is winning, about being the best, using the best of materials, planting the best plants, claiming a medal. Preferably a gold one. Silver-gilt and silver are just about acceptable, but, heaven forbid, no one appears happy with the almost-insult of a bronze medal.

The judging criteria are sometimes mysterious, as can be seen when the popular vote varies markedly from the professional, but we all know a winning garden idea when we see one – and we can copy. Just as the high streets make catwalk styles wearable by mortals, we can apply good design to our domestic spaces. Once you peel away the pizzaz and impossibly perfect plantings, there’s always a wheelbarrow full of ideas to take home.

Stealing some Chelsea Gold

We need first to digest and then translate those new ideas, turn them, as a fork turns compost, into practical solutions for our more down to earth and domestic spaces. Show gardens are, well, for show, and won’t always include a space for the bins; they often have peculiar paths that go nowhere, are too narrow, or go around in circles.

Paths in show gardens lead on and off the garden onto bigger paths and walkways – and in our gardens that is usually where the fence or garden boundary would be. It also pays not to be too fashionable. Chelsea designers have the luxury of a new makeover each year, we are stuck with our gardens for a lot longer than that; huge pink walls, mad rockeries and steel water features might not be in vogue for long. Like a classic staple wardrobe (where you can update the accessories) it is often better to stick to some tried and tested ideas.

Features and focal points

All gardens need focal points; and while choosing garden features is a matter of taste, it does pay to look at your surroundings, their scale as well as their style. Focal points can easily tip into the realms of folly. A huge silver ball or corner of a ruined abbey might set off a Chelsea garden, but can look out of kilter in a domestic garden, positively monastery-ous in fact.

Water features

These can be a sparkling addition to the garden, bringing refreshing movement, sound and life. But, as with focal points, style, scale and positioning are key here. It is also vital to keep them clean and functioning. They don’t have time to get clogged with algae and grunge at a flower show, but it’s surprising how quickly a water feature can turn into a forlorn relic, becoming dry, silent and shamefully derelict.

The Plants

For most of us, plants are the main attraction at Chelsea, but you can’t buy them directly from the show, at least not until the final hour, when they are sold off in a frenetic bun fight that sees normally demure and well-behaved ladies forgetting their manners and scrambling for bargains like seagulls behind a trawler.

If you do visit on the last day with the intention of buying plants, be as prepared as you would be for the first day of the sales. Pay with cash and have some kind of trolley to take your haul home in.

The Floral Pavilion

Plant breeders, nursery owners and their plants are found in the big tented Floral Pavilion that sits at the heart – figuratively and literally – of the show. Gold medals are also won (and lost) here and the displays of plants inside can look just as spectacular as the show gardens.

Many new cultivars are launched at Chelsea. Some will be novelties (red delphinium anyone?) and will fade from view after a few years, but a few of the Chelsea introductions, like the wonderfully floriferous Geranium ‘Rozanne’, the ever-flowering wallflower Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’, the perennially popular Heuchera ‘Palace Purple’, or even that old classic the ‘Iceberg’ rose, have stood the test of time and become border favourites.

Floral fashions

Flower colours and planting combinations seem to follow the latest in couture, fitting with Chelsea’s role as the catwalk of gardening. For a long time wistful meadowy themes have been at the fore, but colour is creeping back in.

In the last couple of years the tones have been more vibrant, in fact a few of the displays last year were positively lurid. The fashionable colours this year are pink and peach.

Planting combinations

These must be taken, sad to say, with a pinch of horticultural salt. There is soil at the Chelsea Flower Show, but it is the perfect soil, or often there’s no soil at all (yes, shock horror, some of the plants stay in their pots). The plants are at the peak of perfection, flowering beautifully and are packed very closely together in order to achieve those gorgeously dense tapestries of colour.

You can achieve a similar look in your own garden, but it is tricky in the long run (that would be the long run back to the garden centre). Flowers can be fleeting, so look for plants that have a long season of interest and those with lovely foliage.

The realist in me (a cross between Jiminy Cricket and the worst car mechanic) sucks in breath and tuts at the impracticality of many planting schemes and because it is a snapshot taken in late May, inevitably the mass of gorgeous late spring/early summer plants will all be over in a few short weeks.

My romantic side (Kate Bush and Marie Antoinette?) can’t wait to plant a mini meadow on top of the bin store, make the topiary spin and install an ancient olive grove where the apple tree once was.

Life in the garden would definitely be a duller place without Chelsea.

Find details of Jo’s design and gardening courses at or phone 01233 861149

TEST A garden by Professor Nigel Dunnett

Bug hotel in the 'Greening grey Britain' garden

TEST A large silver ‘focal point’ in one of 2016’s show gardens

A large silver ‘focal point’ in one of 2016’s show gardens

TEST More show gardens from the Chelsea Flower Show

All gardens need focal points; and while choosing garden features is a matter of taste, it does pay to look at your surroundings, their scale as well as their style

TEST More show gardens from the Chelsea Flower Show

The Silk Road garden Chelsea 2017

TEST More show gardens from the Chelsea Flower Show

Paths in show gardens lead on and off the garden onto bigger paths and walkways

TEST More show gardens from the Chelsea Flower Show

Ishihara Kazuyuki - artisan garden 2017

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