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Chelsea 2021: A new kind of Chelsea

Moving the RHS Chelsea Flower Show for 2021 from May to September wasn’t a decision its organisers took lightly. But here it is at last. And here’s the day one verdict.

The 108th RHS Chelsea Flower Show will go down in history as being that little bit different… And that’s no bad thing. And the fact that this week’s show – the first EVER in September – got away with merely being ‘a little bit different’, is a miracle and testament to both the nerve and planning chops of the RHS, and the skill and adaptability of the designers and nurseries that make Chelsea come alive.

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The show this year was as huge as ever, but careful design delivered a more relaxed and distanced feel.
The show this year is – we’re delighted to report – as huge as ever, but careful design for 2021 has delivered a more relaxed and distanced feel.

In fact, this year, perhaps more than ever, saw a great pulling together. A desire to triumph over adversity. Grasp bulls by horns. Deliver the goods and to hell with the naysayers. They said it couldn’t be done. Then they said it shouldn’t be done. But we’re delighted to report that Chelsea 2021 not only exists but, to all but the most critical eye, appears as vital and delightfully bumptious as ever.

Yes, it's still rather crazy and random in places. And that's a good thing.
Yes, it’s still rather crazy and random in places. And that’s a good thing!

Of course there were casualties. The Great Pavilion – while still Great – isn’t perhaps as laden with goodies as it has been in the past. This year it’s almost victim of its own vastness, with some corners and offshoots remaining unpopulated. But those attendees that DID go large, did so on a huge scale.

The Great Pavillion's displays continued to pull out all the stops.
The Great Pavillion’s displays continued to pull out all the stops.

Likewise some show garden designs by some highly respected designers were – admirably – put on the backburner rather than be ploughed ahead. But thankfully this seems to have given us all a little more ‘room to breathe’ around the site where previously there had only been excited, squished excess.

The show gardens were as impressive as ever. The RHS Queens's Green Canopy Garden is this year's largest, with more than 3500 plants and 21 native trees.
The show gardens were as impressive as ever. The RHS Queens’s Green Canopy Garden is this year’s largest, with more than 3500 plants and 21 native trees.

Numbers are down. Not shockingly so but – at the time of writing – 142,000 visitors are expected, down from 168,000. But if I’m absolutely honest I don’t think I’d have wanted it any other way. Of course – as I write – the site is filling up ‘nicely’ – but there’s that bit more room to manoeuvre. It’s easier to make your way around. See from afar. The areas flow and ebb together with less pinch points. In fact the 2021 show design is excellent. And nobody ever liked a crush. Double-jabbed or not.

OK. This is first thing on Press Day… It WILL be busier than this if you visit. The good news is that all the usual shops and stalls are ready and waiting for you.
OK. This is first thing on Press Day… It WILL be busier than this if you visit. The good news is that all the usual shops and stalls are ready and waiting for you.

And certainly – on Press Day at least – the volume of celebs on offer this year slid from the casual occasional, eye-opening lucky spot, to – as the day grew long and the sun finally put in an appearance – a torrent of names and faces both familiar (and – dare we say it – not quite familiar…) as free flowing as Chelsea has ever drawn in the past.

And all this while remaining as much of an eyeful as ever. We’d had our doubts. Would the designer’s ‘plan B’s (and plan-C’s) still cut it in September? And – despite everyone’s best ideas and intentions – would the plants themselves play ball?

Yes, the planting is different… But the results – here's the Yeo Valley Organic Garden at Chelsea – are no less dramatic.
Yes, the planting is different… But the results – here’s the Yeo Valley Organic Garden at Chelsea – are no less dramatic.

And the fact is that, yes, all – plants included – have performed brilliantly. Yes, the colours were more muted. The inevitable change in palette has perhaps given the gardens a similar hue with less riotous diversity from show garden to show garden. And more than a few were caught in limbo, either hanging onto summer with specimens past full bloom or praying for the onslaught of autumn with only the first glimmers of green leaves turning red and gold. But these designs and their designers delivered a different and ever-arresting 2021 show in style.

And – perhaps most of all – it’s just great to have Chelsea BACK. The collective high spirits of the country might not be back in place just yet but the return of this great show is just the tonic we need right now to remind us that great things can return and things can get better.

It's always great to see these chaps again.
It’s always great to see these chaps again.

So Chelsea 2021 will go down as being different, and it’s hard to think that the organisers will be in a rush to hang onto the September timing (while the issue of transitioning back to May is itself fraught with mischief) but it is nonetheless a triumph.

If you’re yet to visit, or be convinced that a September show can work, we suggest you get on site and see what you’re missing.

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(Or take a quick look around with a gallery of pics below.)