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Monty Don says… Chelsea in autumn? I think it could be a winner! 

Like almost every other public event, Chelsea Flower Show was cancelled last year and has been postponed in 2021. But it is now happening, albeit for the first time not in spring but in September. 

The implications of this seasonal change are significant. You can move music festivals around, rearrange theatrical performances, football or rugby matches, and despite the shift of dates, the performance – the thing itself – will remain pretty much unaffected.

Not so with gardens. Weather and seasons are everything to the gardener and Chelsea cannot rearrange its calendar and behave as though nothing is affected.

Trailfinders Undiscovered Latin America Garden at Chelsea in 2019

Monty (pictured left) and the Trailfinders Undiscovered Latin America Garden at Chelsea in 2019 (pictured right)

The Donkey Sanctuary Show Garden in 2019, pictured

The Donkey Sanctuary Show Garden in 2019, pictured

First, a little history. Not for nothing was the show originally known as ‘The Great Spring Show’. However, from the very first show in 1913, this rather grandiose formal name was almost always ignored and referred to by the public and exhibitors alike as ‘Chelsea Flower Show’ or simply ‘Chelsea’. 

The precedent for this Great Spring Show was back in 1862, when a show was held in what was then the RHS garden in Kensington, and is now where the Science and Natural History Museums stand. Moving to the gardens of the Inner Temple in 1888, The Great Spring Show became an annual fixture of the London ‘season’ until 1911. 

The following year saw a Royal International Horticultural Exhibition that featured the RHS as well as a number of other organisations staged in the grounds of the Royal Hospital at Chelsea, and the success of this and the much larger size of the grounds meant the Inner Temple site was discontinued. 

Plots of gold! The highlights of 2021 

THE YEO VALLEY: ORGANIC GARDEN (designer Tom Massey)

Tom, familiar from TV’s Your Garden Made Perfect, has created a Show Garden using habitats and plants found at Yeo Valley’s organic garden in Somerset. It’s designed to support pollinators and beneficial wildlife.

THE YEO VALLEY: ORGANIC GARDEN (designer Tom Massey)

THE YEO VALLEY: ORGANIC GARDEN (designer Tom Massey)

GUIDE DOGS’ 90TH ANNIVERSARY GARDEN (designers Adam Woolcott and Jonathan Smith)

Guide dogs were first used in Britain in 1931, to help servicemen blinded in the First World War. This Artisan Garden uses metal sculptures and sensory elements to chart the journey of someone with sight loss, from fear and isolation to independence with a dog.

GREEN SKY: POCKET GARDEN ( designer James Smith)

The new Balcony Garden category shows what can be done in a small urban space. Designed as an antidote to frenetic city living, all of this space – even the railings – is used to grow scented and edible plants.

GREEN SKY: POCKET GARDEN (designer James Smith)

GREEN SKY: POCKET GARDEN (designer James Smith)

FINDING OUR WAY: AN NHS TRIBUTE GARDEN (designer Naomi Ferrett-Cohen)

This Sanctuary Garden celebrates not just the work of doctors and nurses during the pandemic, but also that of unsung staff from pharmacists to hospital porters. Water is the dominant feature, with rills and pools, and the tones are warm.

THE FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE GARDEN: A CELEBRATION OF MODERN-DAY NURSING (designer Robert Myers)

Marking 200 years since Florence’s birth, this Show Garden is an imagined courtyard for a hospital. Designed to aid nurturing and recovery, it is planted with drifts of late-flowering perennials.

BIBLE SOCIETY: THE PSALM 23 GARDEN (designer Sarah Eberle)

Sarah has won multiple gold medals before and her Sanctuary Garden is based on Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is my shepherd’. It is inspired by Dartmoor, where Sarah grew up.

Constance Craig Smith

In 1913 the first Great Spring Show was held at the Royal Hospital, beginning the tradition of what very quickly began to be known as ‘Chelsea’.

The RHS did hold a summer show in Ranelagh Gardens, which is now part of the Chelsea showground, in 1905, but it was just a temporary relocation from its usual venue of Holland House in Kensington and the only time – until this year – that Chelsea has been linked to an RHS show outside its usual date (although it was postponed by a week in 1926 due to the General Strike).

The fact that Chelsea Flower Show has always been on at the end of May, as opposed to any other point in the year, has completely shaped how it has looked and, perhaps more unconsciously, how we have reacted to it. 

By dint of some very skilful management of plants that often involves taking them in and out of greenhouses, tunnels and even freezers, the palette and menu of plants in May has managed to encompass bulbs that flower as early as daffodils and tulips as well as the full array of every possible rose that most of us would not see in our gardens for another month. The range and selection of plants is enormous and utterly captivating. 

But nevertheless it is limited. The show gardens and nursery displays celebrate all the glories of spring and early summer but not beyond that.

If I walk round my own garden at the end of summer, it is filled with a range of plants, such as rudbeckias, sunflowers, buddleia, cannas, zinnias, heleniums and kniphofia, that barely ever feature at Chelsea. May is not their time even with all the manipulation of greenhouses and freezers. Not for nothing was it called the Great Spring Show.

This has affected our feelings and reactions to Chelsea. Visiting it is almost like permission to enter summer without casting off the lovely freshness of spring. The end of May is a magical border country between the two seasons that retains the best of spring and yet is rapidly evolving into real summer. The days are gloriously long but still getting longer. 

The weather can be very iffy – many is the time I have filmed the glories of the show from beneath an umbrella – but it will get better and somehow, in May, we don’t mind that much. Summer is around the corner and we’re still filled with the blithe joys of spring.

None of that will apply this time. September is certainly a lovely month, but for entirely different reasons. September is the month when everything in the garden thins out, as though the colours and light are being gently stretched, and the leaves on the hedges gradually yellow and thin so the light drifts through them like smoke. The light is decreasing daily but is rarely gloomy. 

It is ethereal, translucent and delicate. Above all September has that quality of wistfulness, even melancholy, running through its days. This is not the same as depression or sadness and can be delicious, but it’s there all the same.

So much for the human response to September, but the huge difference this year to every other Chelsea Flower show there has ever been will be the plants. Sunflowers, dahlias, cannas, tithonias, zinnias and cosmos all continue to fill the borders with splashes of bright, strong colour. In the Cottage Garden there is a last flurry of roses with the second, all-too-brief flowering.

The Grass Borders are starting to really come into their own and are the glory of the garden, the green foliage becoming silvers, golds and bronzes before autumn leaves it tawny and sun-bleached. The vegetable garden gives its most abundant harvest throughout September and many of the plants like celery, celeriac, pumpkins, climbing beans, chicory and Florence fennel are simply not around in spring.

Of, course, like everyone else, I adore the special combination of promise and fulfilment that is found in May and which September cannot claim to have but nevertheless it is one of my favourite times in the garden. Along with lots of good flowers and masses of fruit and vegetables, the fading elegance gives it dignity and the knowledge that every fine day is one of the last makes them precious. So will we see this at Chelsea this year? Will it be redolent of that sense of summer slipping away?

I think it must, because the range of plants at growers’ disposal will determine it in the showground just as it does in our gardens. The light that falls on Longmeadow is the same light that slants through the giant plane trees into the grounds of the Royal Hospital. 

Chelsea Pensioners help with planting at this year’s show

The Queen, Kate and William at Chelsea in 2019

Chelsea Pensioners help with planting at this year’s show, pictured left, and the Queen, Kate and William at Chelsea in 2019, pictured right

Incidentally, one of the unexpected benefits of the show moving to September is that there will be an awful lot less sneezing. Many people react to the pollen from the London planes and find themselves sneezing, wheezing and coughing more than normal.

It will get light much later in the mornings so there will be no early morning filming for me, as usually on the opening Monday I go in at 5.30am, before anyone other than my film crew and the overnight security guards are there, to see it all finally primped down to the last petal. Plus it will be getting too dark to film by 7pm, which is when I normally begin to record the ‘live’ links for the 8pm BBC2 programme.

And of course Covid, as it has done for almost every aspect of our lives, will also change how we work and play. Visitor numbers will be restricted and there is to be an extra day, Sunday 26th, to allow them to be spread more thinly – and thus more safely. We will all have to observe some social distancing, masks will be encouraged inside and all exhibitors are to be regularly tested. 

PAVILION FULL OF PLANTS 

The Great Pavilion will be there again this year as in May, covering nearly three acres. 

The RHS website uses the image of it being roomy enough to park 500 London buses but for a country person like me that is big enough for nearly 300 bales of hay or, if you like, big enough for almost two full size football pitches. However you measure it out, it is enormous. 

Displays in the Great Pavilion in 2017

Displays in the Great Pavilion in 2017

Over the past ten years or so the educational element of the Great Pavilion has grown and as well as being the best place in the world to view an astonishing array of plants, all the issues that gardeners have to deal with, such as climate change, water use, plastic, peat, the introduction of disease and predators, and the varying ways in which we can aid and nurture our vanishing wildlife, are covered by stands showing both expert research and projects undertaken by colleges and schools.

There will be fewer gardens because they normally take at least a year to prepare, along with a huge amount of organisation, time and money. But there will be six Show Gardens, plus a Garden of Hope created by the RHS with the BBC’s One Show, and new categories that reflect the times: Sanctuary Gardens, Balcony Gardens and Container Gardens.

Flower arranging has become a regular feature of Chelsea and this year, of course, the arrangements will be unlike any before, with a whole new palette of autumnal foliage and the rich purples, burgundies and caramel shades of late summer.

In the BBC compound, tucked between a line of show gardens and the Chelsea embankment, which is like a little village where about 150 people spend up to 18 hours a day, there are apparently to be more but smaller cabins to try and avoid overcrowding. 

This I welcome, as one of the less enjoyable aspects of Chelsea for me are the hours I spend between filming, crammed either into a portacabin the size of an average family saloon and shared with up to a dozen other presenters, make-up artists, visiting celebrities and their families, or sitting on a rickety chair in the narrow earthen ‘street’ trying to research for my next interview or item to be filmed, jostled by the constant traffic of researchers, anxious producers, crews looking for something to eat and visitors trying to persuade the security staff that yes, they do have the right pass to be there. Glamorous it is not.

But I think that not only will it be enormously exciting to be back in that heady atmosphere of every possible aspect of horticultural excellence, but it will also be thrilling to see just how different it is. I certainly do not want any aspect of the show to behave as though it is really May and part of the ‘season’ and everything is therefore back to so-called normal. 

I want this to be an opportunity grabbed with both hands to slightly reinvent all the possibilities for Chelsea without in any way harming or diminishing its unique essence.

Who knows? September might prove to be a better time for the show. But then, if you are any sort of gardener, there is never a bad time for Chelsea Flower Show.

RHS Chelsea Flower Show, tomorrow, 6pm, BBC1, Monday-Friday, from 3.45pm, BBC1 and from 7pm, BBC2.


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