Get ready for a whole new Chelsea. This year the show takes place in September, prompting a whole new look and feel for a show that’s 108 years old. We asked some of Gardens Illustrated’s experts to give their thoughts on the move and predictions for what should be a very different show.
Garden Writer, Plantswoman and Head Gardener at Blackland House
“Overall I think it’s a positive move this year but a huge challenge for all concerned (except the attendees where its win win). I think the question of contractor and exhibitor safety is paramount and very challenging.
“It’s good news to have a different plant palette in the marquee as it’s a fabulous opportunity for a whole host of new nurseries, but there will have to be an understanding that they have had very little notice (in plant terms!)
“It will be nice to shift the focus towards harvest- I hope someone does something interesting to promote the theme of seed saving. It will be incredibly voluptuous and colourful which is fun with punchy salvias, asters, dahlias and grasses.
“For the designers this is tough, they are possibly being asked to be less sustainable, abandon specimens that have been nurtured and already procured and scramble for a new plant palette. I feel there should instead be a shift in focus so that plants are appreciated at different times in their seasonal cycle (ie not just flowering so perhaps many of the original plants could still be used). This also reflects the reality of gardening and the seasonality of gardening.
“And I think the hospitality needs to move towards autumn cocktails!”
Journalist, Designer, Consultant, Garden Media
“From the perspective of designers, visitors and commentators, the move to the Autumn is a hugely positive and exciting prospect. There will be new challenges in getting plants through the heat and drought of summer for autumn perfection, rather than cosseting and forcing them through a chilly spring, yet there are also enormous opportunities.
“Instead of lashings of Ammi majus, foxgloves and Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’ we can look forward to being wowed by dahlias, asters and heleniums in full spate; revel in the diversity of salvias and grasses; get excited by Hydrangea quercifolia in all its glory. Growers can turn their talents to creating a spectacle of autumn foliage and berries, and I’m looking forward to new inspiration for Acers, liquidambar, crab apples and sorbus. There might be autumn-flowering bulbs that have never been used at Chelsea before – think Galanthus reginae-olgae, Sternbergia lutea and colchicums.
“In many ways, the change of date demonstrates a willingness by the RHS and exhibitors to rise to the challenges of the situation. It will still be Chelsea but it will be different. And an autumn show blows away the ennui. If all the possibilities and opportunities are embraced it could be really refreshing – and even if they aren’t, there will be lots to talk about!”
Author, Garden Critic and Landscape Historian
“I think the date change creates a stimulating opportunity for both nurseries and the designers of show gardens. For several years now, late summer to early autumn has marked the horticultural highpoint in many gardens. That’s because so many planting schemes are now based on perennials and grasses which really look their best at that time of year. (In fact I have dubbed this period a ‘fifth season’ in gardening — a phrase ‘borrowed’ without attribution by the makers of the movie ‘Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf’.) So the season change will actually suit most contemporary designers; early to mid May is a notoriously awkward moment, anyway, for growers.”
Gardener and writer
“It’s a wonderful time of year in the garden so I think it will really refresh the show and provide new opportunities for designers and nurseries in the Great Pavilion. I remember Cleve West and I once chatting at Chelsea and saying we thought there ought to be a show in late summer or early autumn, so now Chelsea is here, the time to discover if we are right.
“I am excited by the opportunity to see what the designers do with another colour palette and the different groups of plants that come to the fore later in the year. It will also give visitors some exciting new ideas about what they can plant to create an impact later in the year.
“However, Chelsea Flower Show is an iconic event, that is synonymous with spring and I will really miss that. There is much more excitement in the anticipation and optimism of what is to come in the garden in spring, than the knowledge of what has been. They are very different emotions. It will be enjoyable but in a different way.”
“So attendees can expect to see lots of glorious late flowering plants, like Salvias in their many forms, Rudbeckia’s, Echinacea’s and grasses but I expect less widely known plants to make an appearance, like Veratrum album with its elegant pleated leaves and generous white flower spikes. I also expect the hard landscaping to reflect the colour tones at that time of year; the light is often beautiful in September, so it will be interesting to see how designers capitalise on this dimension. One thing is certain, whatever happens, the exceptional standards we have come to expect, will still be maintained and the prospect of a late flowering RHS Chelsea is very exciting indeed.”
Consultant on sustainable flower growing
“I’m delighted Chelsea has moved to September, it will inject new energy with completely different palettes of plants to excite people and fantastic full on colour rather than the subtlety of May. Though it will be sad not to see the wonderful spring bulb displays I hope that spectacular September showstoppers in the Floral Marquee may provide inspiration for gardeners to take a whole new look at their plant choices. I imagine some wonderful dense colourful perennial planting, dreamy banks of billowing grasses, hardworking unsung persicarias and crocosmias. September is the perfect month to be planning changes for the following year and I hope gardens and displays will promote sustainability, showing resilient easy maintenance plants with fabulous seedheads and great foliages. I’d love to see a seed saving garden. There’s much to look forward to!”
Garden writer and author of The Almanac, a Seasonal Guide
“Well it’s certainly going to be strange! Chelsea has always been such a herald of early summer, London in all its finery in the late spring sunshine (or rain, or hail – my memories aren’t entirely rose tinted!) and it will not have that feel, of the whole of the season ahead spread out ahead of us. I will feel sad for that. But I think it’s really exciting as well. The RHS are throwing down the gauntlet to their designers and exhibitors and seeing what they can make of this. I always think some of the best ideas come from having to work around obstacles and I bet it throws up some absolute beauties.
“I expect we’ll see a lot more in the way of edible gardens, or edibles included in gardens, as September is such a bountiful moment in the year, and I expect the colour palette will be richer and warmer, but otherwise, who knows? It will just be so exciting to see people coming together again and creating beautiful things again. There is only so much we can all do from our individual kitchen tables, and it is the kind of creative collaboration that September’s Chelsea will bring us that I think we have all missed.”
“I’m excited about the move. Although May is a lovely month, I always notice that my own garden suddenly starts moving after the end of Chelsea. It’s just a very tricky time, when the weather is sometimes too important, for example the year (was it 2013?) when there were no flowers after a sunless spring.
“It’s sometimes freezing at Chelsea, whereas September is an underrated month; it’s warmer for people and more importantly, plants will have had months to develop at a reasonable pace. I’m looking forward to the results of the improved opportunities, and fewer irises. I’m not sure that people will want to go back to May.”
Garden Designer and Writer
“I’ll miss the freshness of the May show, but it does mean that gardeners can be home and gardening at the busiest time of year.
“Growers will need to rethink completely and if we have a hot summer it may be hard to keep things back . I doubt we can see spring bulbs , so there may not be such a seasonal spread but you should talk to Alan Street at Avon.
“What can attendees expect to see this time? Dahlias , chrysanths , late abundance , harvest festival… the RHs great autumn show used to be A marvellous draw I hope it will be a bit like that , all rich and ripe.”
Garden Designer & Designer of the Yeo Valley Organic Garden for RHS Chelsea 2021
“September is actually one of my favourite months in the garden, ornamental grasses & late summer perennials shine, trees & shrubs are laden with berries & fruit and everything has a slightly tired satisfied feel, tinted with autumn colour, getting ready for winter shutdown. I’ve always thought a late summer show would be great to do, and now I am excited to be a part of the first (and possibly only) September Chelsea!”
Garden journalist and co-author of RHS Your Wellbeing Garden
“In mid January, it suddenly looked quite possible that Chelsea would be cancelled for the second year running so when the RHS announced that the show would be held in September I felt huge relief. Then I began to think what a monumental challenge it will be for the growers, designers and other exhibitors to change their meticulously planned displays. But we all know that Chelsea exhibitors are horticultural geniuses, so as long as their sponsors continue to back them, I reckon we’ll be treated to a fabulous and energizingly colourful show.
“What will I miss about not stepping through the gates in May? Drifts of foxgloves, irises, alliums and airy umbellifers, woven together in romantic profusion; the heady scent of sweet peas and roses in the Pavilion; the gold medal combinations of perennials and bulbs on the Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants stand (Rosy and Rob have just announced their retirement from Chelsea). What I definitely won’t miss are the husky bits of seed blown off Chelsea’s majestic plane trees which trigger embarrassingly violent and protracted choking fits that cause tears to stream down your face.
“What will be new and exciting at September Chelsea? A riot of colours from a different palette of flowers (think zingy dahlias, gladioli, rudbeckias, nerines), from berries and from foliage. We should also get plenty of ideas for how to combine grasses and I’m hoping that at least one of the show gardens will inspire me to try kniphofias.”
Gardener and Writer
“I have had the privilege of attending Chelsea Flower Show in various guises: from a regular punter on a busy Thursday to a journalist on the rarified Monday, to constructing pavilion exhibits and even building a main show garden. There is nothing quite like it and while Chelsea is undoubtedly the highlight of the horticulture calendar, even before this crisis, significant questions were being asked about its relevance. Ballooning ticket prices, heaving crowds and an inescapable corporate atmosphere alienated a large number of enthusiastic, but less affluent, gardeners. In recent years the show has also had to improve its environmental credentials as increasingly ecologically minded visitors called into question the huge amount of waste it generates. This unprecedented move allows, to some extent, this most traditional of shows to tackle concerns that Chelsea has become less about growers and more about corporate sponsorship.
“We are all searching for silver linings at such a difficult time and while Chelsea in May feels as natural as strawberries and cream, the chance to experiment with a different range of later flowering plants is extremely exciting. Every year growers perform nature-defying feats to bring their plants to peak just in time for the show. One of the most spectacular exhibits I have seen was John Massey’s 2016 display of Hepaticas, which he skillfully delayed by regulating his prize-winning plants in a repurposed refrigerated supermarket van. Though made infinitely more difficult by an inability to plan I am still curious what surprises will appear among the chorus of late season blooms.
“Gardeners are adaptable, seeing a fallen tree not as a tragedy but merely as an opportunity to plant something new, and while I hope that Chelsea can be quickly restored it seems a perfect moment to reflect on its role as the brightest jewel in Britain’s horticultural crown.”
Writer and Editor
“The only thing I can really say is that I’m excited to see how different the gardens will look. After years of foxgloves, irises and lupins, it’ll be interesting to get some ideas for later in the season. I’ll miss the rose displays in the floral marquee if they’re not there, but I’m sure there’ll be some spectacular dahlias and grasses.”
Nigel P Dunnett
Plantsman, designer and Professor of Planting Design and Urban Horticulture in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Sheffield.
“Moving the Chelsea Flower Show to late summer/early autumn instead of late spring 2021 is definitely something to be welcomed. The Chelsea Flower Show is undoubtedly the world’s premier garden and horticulture show, and to cancel it for two years running would create a serious vacuum. It’s a strong decision to move the timing, but also a bold one.
“I have long thought that there was a big gap in the garden show year. The main RHS shows are all bunched together over quite a short period in late spring through to mid-summer. I think that because of that, there is even a sense of ‘show fatigue’ in terms of all the media coverage over that period. There has been a need for a proper late-summer/early autumn show for a long time, as a chance to show-case everything that the season has to offer, at the crescendo of the gardening year.
“So, it’s an exciting prospect. To give a sense of gardens at their peak. To exploit a whole new and refreshing planting palette – mostly of plants that will never have made an appearance at Chelsea before. It’s also a chance to celebrate more than flowers – plant forms, foliage, seed heads and fruits, as well as early autumn leaf colours. And it’s also a chance to work more with height and tall plants, even in small spaces. Weather’s always a gamble, but the prospect of rich late summer sun, and soft light, with all of these plant effects, is enticing.
“It’s also a chance to push for a more sustainable show. Appreciating the beauty of a plant in the late season might take the focus away from absolute floral perfection, and reduce the need for such intensive input to have every plant at 110% performance – a slightly more relaxed Chelsea, for both exhibitors and visitors alike? It’s certainly a great time to advocate for wildlife and ecological gardens. And of course, it comes at a much more natural harvest time for fruit and vegetables, and might do away with the slightly ludicrous sight of summer and autumn vegetables being displayed at full maturity, in May, following what must be energy-intensive methods to get them into that state (and the same goes for many of the flowers too, of course).
“Although Chelsea in May comes towards the beginning of the gardening year in the UK, and is an economic stimulus to the whole horticultural industry, at a time when many people are probably actively thinking about what to do in their gardens for the coming summer, a late summer/autumn show can be equally valuable. Autumn planting of trees, shrubs and perennials is much more sustainable than spring planting, and the show could lead to an upsurge in this practice. It’s also a perfect time to plan properly for the next year, and leads perfectly into bulb planting season (but that’s not a cue to have lots of artificially forced tulips and daffodils appearing in September, please!)
“Although the Chelsea Flower Show move to autumn is a one-off, perhaps it will highlight the huge potential of a late summer/early autumn show, and create the spark for a more regular show at this time, elsewhere.”
Sonya Patel Ellis
Writer and Artist
“Early autumn is such a wonderfully transformative and enigmatic time of year, when many of my favourite flowers and herbs such as cosmos, dahlias, verbena, anise hyssop, echinacea, fennel and roses continue to bloom while also beginning the next phase of their seasonal journey into seed, berry, hip, haw and eventual elements of decay. It’s often still warm when golden lowering light sets grasses, delicate petals, frothy seedheads and turning foliage aglow. I’m therefore really looking forward to seeing what the event organisers, garden designers and exhibitors come up with this year.
“Although it’s a break with tradition and, I imagine, tricky in terms of logistics due to Covid and breaking with the norm, it’s also a great opportunity to express the renewed creativity that often comes with change, embrace the beauty of ephemerality and imperfection and take a heartfelt therapeutic approach. I think it will be a stand out show that will remain in the consciousness of gareners for many years to come: the one where we did it against all the odds and found new ways to look closer, connect with nature and each other, and celebrate.”
“I think the move of Chelsea flower show from May to September is much like a fallen tree. Inevitable in its action, it will no doubt cause some problems and heartache, but from it will arise new opportunities and inspiration for those willing to take advantage”