24 May 2022

Blooming lovely: the enduring appeal of gardening

The British are avid gardeners and garden enthusiasts. When they’re not actually gardening, or tending their balconies or window boxes, they’re visiting historic gardens or exploring private gardens as part of the National Garden Scheme – an excellent opportunity to borrow ideas and inspirations and a very genteel way of snooping on other people’s lives.

The huge variety of British gardens owes much to an imperial past, when botanists, explorers and plant-hunters scoured the farthest corners of the Empire for exotic species, many of which thrived in Britain’s temperate climate. Centuries of garden and landscape design and experimentation, changing horticultural fashions and exuberant amateur enthusiasm have created a vast array of gardens, which range from the grandiose and architectural to cottage gardens that overflow with colour and variety.

The British recognise that gardening is good for their physical and mental wellbeing. Despite our unpredictable weather, we love nothing more than eating and entertaining al fresco in our gardens and admiring our own, and other people’s, horticultural handiwork. This essentially benign aspect of the British character has many social benefits. A shared enthusiasm for gardening, or even an uninformed appreciation of a garden, is excellent common ground for small talk at al fresco social occasions and can be very bonding. Gardeners will always enjoy curious visitors, who want to identify their plants or pick their brains about their planting schemes and recommendations. Obviously, dispensing unwanted advice, or voicing criticisms of a much-loved herbaceous border is totally unacceptable – even the most exacting gardener can normally find something to admire.

The Chelsea Flower Show

Against this backdrop, it is scarcely surprising that the world-famous RHS Chelsea Flower Show, which begins on 24 May 2022, is a traditional highlight of the Social Season and a particular favourite of the Royal Family. The RHS Chelsea Flower Show takes over the grounds of The Royal Hospital for five days in late May, displaying a huge array of plants, plus a multitude of gardening accessories and tools.

New plant launches are a feature of the Show, while around 40 Show Gardens, Container Gardens, Sanctuary Gardens and Balcony Gardens predict coming trends. All About Plants gardens are a chance for growers and nurseries to demonstrate the ways in which plants can positively influence mental health, community and industry.

The Royal Horticultural Society was founded in 1804 as The Horticultural Society of London, by the botanist, Sir Joseph Banks, and horticulturalist, John Wedgwood. Its aim was to collect plant information and encourage the improvement of horticultural practice. In the 1820s the Society held a series of ‘floral fêtes’ at the Duke of Devonshire’s estate in Chiswick, the origin of later Garden Shows.

The fortunes of the Society were on the wane when, thanks in part to its then president, Prince Albert, it was reborn with a new charter and name – the Royal Horticultural Society – and a new garden in Kensington, which became the location of the “Great Spring Show” in 1862. In 1888 the RHS moved the Show to Temple Gardens situated between Embankment and Fleet Street in the heart of London, which it was felt would be accessible to more visitors. In 1912 the Royal International Horticultural Exhibition was held at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, and the Great Spring Show moved there a year later, in 1913.

The Flower Show reached its pre-war apogee in 1937, when an Empire Exhibition celebrated the coronation of King George VI. Exhibits included wattles, gladioli and prickly pears. The show was suspended during the War, when the land was used as an anti-aircraft site, but in 1947 the Show was re-launched and since then it has become a major visitor attraction.

The 11-acre Chelsea site is visited by around 157,000 visitors during the five-day show. Tuesday and Wednesday are for RHS Members, and then the Show is open to the ticketed-public on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The only formal day is Monday, when members of the Royal Family attend, along with press and invited guests. In the evening the Charity Gala Preview, in support of the RHS, is an exclusive event to launch the beginning of the summer season. Don’t miss the famous plant sell-off, which begins when a bell rings at 4pm on Saturday afternoon. Be prepared for sharp elbows and a lack of queuing etiquette.


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