For many garden lovers, visiting the RHS Chelsea Flower Show is the highlight of the gardening year. Held during the third week of May in the grounds of Chelsea’s Royal Hospital, it’s billed as the greatest flower show on earth, showcasing the talent of the leading growers and designers of the moment. Prestigious, it most certainly is, but with full-day tickets coming in at almost £100 a head, it can be an expensive day out.
To help you get the most from your visit to the Chelsea Flower Show and other RHS events, here are my ten top tips:
- Plan your visit - The RHS website is brimming with information, if a little slow to load. Here you can purchase a show guide in advance, download a site map and learn more about the show gardens. Closer to opening, the BBC’s extensive coverage highlights all the key exhibits.
- Dress appropriately - May is an unpredictable month, and the temperature at Chelsea can vary between single fingers and the mid-twenties centigrade. It’s not uncommon to experience four seasons in a day, so it pays to be prepared. Whilst it’s fun to dress up for Chelsea - any many people do - make sure you have stout shoes, a waterproof coat if rain is forecast, and a hat and sunscreen if it’s bright. Layers are always a good idea!
- Avoid the crowds - This is easier said than done! Arrive early - before the gates open at 8 am - and make a beeline for your ‘must see’ gardens or exhibits before a crowd develops. The Great Pavilion is often quieter first thing when everyone rushes to see the show gardens. The 3.30 pm-8 pm ticket is also a good bet if you don’t want to spend a whole day, but you’ll be mingling with a lot of corporate guests as the evening wears on.
- Bring your own - Take a bottle of water with you - there are unusually refilling points around the grounds. Picnics are permitted - look out for the organised folk with traditional hampers securing their positions early in the day! If you can carry a blanket, it will give you more options as space is very limited. If you fancy lunch and haven’t booked one of the fancy (i.e. expensive) restaurants, aim to eat early to avoid the queues and bag a bench. Aim for the woodland glade area within Ranelagh Gardens, which is slightly more secluded and informal, but be prepared to play the whole ‘loiter and lunge’ game if you want to sit at a table. If you leave the showground, you cannot come back in, so going out for lunch isn’t an option.
- Ditch the baggage - Use the cloakroom near the exit for larger bags and coats - not carrying stuff around makes the whole day much more pleasurable. Toilet facilities are generally good, but queues do form at busy times of the day.
- Be patient - If you’re anxious to see a show garden and the crowd is ten deep, be patient and wait your turn to get a good view. People tend to take their fill and move on, so you’ll get to the front surprisingly quickly. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of the exhibitors and volunteer helpers - that’s what they are there for.
- Take advantage of special offers if there’s something you want or need. Many of the trade stands and nurseries offer special deals on purchases made at the show - this includes everything from greenhouses to gardening magazines and lilies to ladders. It’s worth noting that very few plants are sold at the show because of strict space limitations, so don’t take a trolley unless it’s Saturday when some plants are sold off.
- Stay connected - The sheer volume of visitors means that phone and wifi signals can weaken. Unless you’re going to be taking lots of photographs, it’s best to put your mobile away and enjoy the moment. There is nowhere to charge a phone, so bring a battery pack if you think you’ll need a boost during the day or on the journey home.
- Beware of the infamous Chelsea Cough - A persistent tickle in the throat is caused by showers of irritant fibres that rain down from the plane trees towering over the show gardens. The fibres cause a physical irritation, not an allergic reaction, so hayfever tablets won’t make a difference. Wear a face covering if you want to avoid it, although the effects are short-lived.
- Grab the best seat in the house - If you can’t visit the Chelsea Flower Show in person or prefer not to, the BBC’s coverage is a brilliant alternative, revealing vantage points and insights you might not get as a visitor. It’s free, apart from the license fee, and available on demand.
For more details about the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, visit the RHS website.