Skip to content

Learn The History of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show Ahead of This Year’s Event

The RHS Chelsea Flower Show takes place this May, here’s a look back at what makes it so prestigious among expert gardeners

Bookmark article to read later

By House & Garden | May 17, 2024 | Gardens

For the last 19 years I have spent the third week in May at the Chelsea Flower show. It's one of those Great British institutions that just has to be experienced - a chance to see the country's best horticultural performers all in one space, to glean ideas, spot trends and talk to the people who make our gardens grow.

History of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show

The very first Chelsea flower Show was held in 1913 on the present site of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. It was a bigger, grander version of the Royal Horticultural Society's already successful Great Spring Show. Held over three days and with around 300 exhibitors, the inaugural show was an immediate hit with the public, extolled in The Gardeners Chronicle as 'exceeding all expectations.' It has taken place almost every year since then, and today 157,000 visitors flock to the 11-acre site each May.

With around 550 exhibitors, including show gardens, floral displays, nursery stands and gardening sundries, todays show is a fabulous mixture of tradition and innovation, from old-fashioned roses and bowler-hatted nurserymen to the latest trends in garden deign or furniture - but it can be bewildering.

Where do you start? What are the highlights? How can you really make the most of a day at Chelsea?

The show is open from 8am - 8pm, so to beat the crowds, and visit first thing in the morning or last thing in the evening. It's also worth becoming a member of the RHS, as you'll be entitled to tickets on members' day, which is less busy.

When you arrive, buy the show catalogue and work out a rough plan of action: pinpoint stands that you know you want to visit and decide which area to focus on first.

With over 250 trade stands selling everything from lawnmowers to botanical prints, it is hard to resist the urge to shop - but enquire about mail order so you don't have to lug everything around with you. Also consider renewing subscriptions to magazines or signing up for a course, as special show discounts are always on offer.

Finally two practical points: bring a picnic and plenty of water to save time in queues, and it should obvious, but make sure you wear comfortable shoes.

The Show Gardens

The large show gardens created by some of the country's leading garden designers are without doubt what people come to see. The crowds around these show-stopping creations - more theatre than garden - are often several rows deep, and it can be frustrating not to be able to see the gardens clearly. However, the show gardens are always covered comprehensively on television, so if you feel you miss out on the day, watch the coverage when you get home. If you manage to fight your way to the front of the crowd, study plant combinations carefully, taking photographs and jotting down notes.

Look out for the gardens built by the contractor and online garden centre Crocus - the Daily Telegraph garden and the Laurent-Perrier garden for instance - and if there's a particular plant combination that takes your fancy, you'll be able to order the plants from

'Don't get swept away by the theatre of the main show gardens at the expense of the rest of the show.'

The courtyard and artisan gardens, dotted around the show, are equally worth seeing, and often more translatable to your own back garden. A newer category, the Fresh gardens, is more experimental than traditional, to challenge conventional thinking.

The Great Pavilion

If you're a plantaholic, the great Pavilion is the place for you. Overflowing with mouth-watering plants, this vast marquee contains exhibits from some of Britain's leading nurseries, as well as national Collections, societies and horticultural colleges. Be led by your nose to the stands of roses, strawberries and sweet peas, and by your eyes to the extraordinary displays of outlandish dahlias or weird and wonderful carnivorous plants. Nursery staff are always pleased to help, and although you can't buy direct from the stands - until 4pm on Saturday - most nurseries offer mail order, so you can order the plants you like after the show. Also look out for the RHS Best In Show stand, with a selection of award-winning plants and products from the show.

This story originally appeared on House & Garden UK.