Walking through the RHS Chelsea Flower Show gates just after 7am on Press Day (always the Monday of Chelsea Week) is a moment of delicious anticipation for me: should I look at the Main Avenue gardens first or branch off to Ranelagh Gardens to get inspiration from the smaller, beautifully constructed plots? When should I delve into the Grand Pavilion and once inside, which stands should I make a beeline for?
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This year, though, we will all be visiting Chelsea on our screens and the programme curated by the RHS means that on Press Day RHS Members get to enter the virtual gates, followed on Tuesday by the rest of the public. Chelsea without show gardens seems inconceivable, but this virtual Chelsea offers us something rather special instead – video tours by some of our leading designers of their own gardens.
We get to see the first outing of Andy Sturgeon’s ‘really small’, L-shaped town garden (Saturday 23 May) which was only completed last August and which features huge boulders which were hollowed out in order to be able to haul them through the house into the garden. Chelsea aficionados will recognise plants from his 2019 Best in Show garden and his love for sawn stone steps and steel edged pools. There’ll be inspiration too for shady planting, sun-baked areas and an array of beautiful trees that you could consider for a south-facing small plot.
Instagram followers of Ann-Marie Powell (@myrealgarden) will know that since the beginning of lockdown she has been giving her family back garden in Hampshire a complete make-over, on a budget. For Virtual Chelsea on Friday 22 May she is giving a tour of the changes which include a prairie border, a circular lawn, and veg growing, and of her shady front garden which was gloriously planted up after her 2016 Chelsea Front Garden, designed for the RHS Greening Grey Britain Campaign.
Tom Massey’s video (Friday 22 May, when Tom will also be holding a Q&A for Gardens Illustrated readers on Instagram) will show us how to plant up a biodiverse organic meadow of native and cultivated plants in a 5mx1m border. It’s in his own front garden in south-west London and he’s using some of the plants that had been grown for his Main Avenue garden for Yeo Valley. Then we’ll get to see organic gardening on a large scale – and the inspiration for Tom’s Chelsea design – with a tour by Sarah Mead of her established garden in Somerset.
Perhaps the most intriguing of all the garden tours will be the Japanese garden of Kazuyuki Ishihara whose Chelsea design for this year had a bold black-and-white gravel garden in the foreground. Is his own garden like this, or more like his previous gold medal winners, exquisite compositions of mossy rocks, falling water and shapely trees? All will be revealed on Wednesday 20 May.
For some practical insight into how to grow, pick and condition cut flowers such as alliums, lupins, guelder rose and Euphorbia ceratocarpa, Sarah Raven’s garden tour at Perch Hill, Sussex (Thursday 21 May) is a must, and I reckon Rob Evans’ video (Tuesday 19 May) on growing the small-flowered and highly desirable Nanus gladioli in containers will send many of us straight to his website to order these beauties for September blooming.