Illustration by @_thenightgardener
Thought piece

Too good to miss at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show this year

My first visit to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show site during the build always blows my mind. With 25 show gardens this year, the compact site feels full of activity, machinery and a LOT of people in high vis.

Written by:

Hattie Ghaui

Published on:

May 19, 2023


My first visit to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show site during the build always blows my mind. With 25 show gardens this year, the compact site feels full of activity, machinery and a LOT of people in high vis.

The gardens I’m most excited to see come to life for show week (Monday 23rd - Saturday 27th May) are for good causes. This year, we’re funding 15 gardens for good causes at the show (7 show gardens, 2 sanctuary gardens and 6 All About Plants gardens), and each one has taken the message of an important cause and translated it into an inspiring concept, design and planting plan. 

What I’ve enjoyed more than anything else this past week is noticing how every material decision and every planting choice adds depth and intrigue - all to help each charity tell its story. 

What follows is a guide for my ideal route around the showground.

Don’t forget to vote for your favourite in the BBC/RHS People’s Choice Awards which open during the Wednesday evening programme - you’ll be able to vote for your favourite Show Garden on the BBC website, and your favourite Sanctuary and All About Plants garden on the RHS website.

Arriving at the show

I’d suggest arriving at the London Gate entrance off Royal Hospital Road. Bull Ring may be the ‘shortcut’ but, in my view, the stroll down from the London Gate is part of the build up and the magnificence of the trees on Eastern Avenue is not to be missed.

Half way down the avenue, you’ll turn right and pop out onto Main Avenue where you’ll stop in your tracks; ahead of you, a cascading waterfall, straight out of the central African forest, has emerged, complete with a guided mountain trek, gorilla nest and a community kiosk. Gloriosa rothschildiana (Flame Lily) reminds me of my mum, so it makes me very emotional and happy to know this is hiding somewhere in the forest foliage of the Fauna & Flora Garden designed by Jilayne Rickards (site 338 on your map). 

On the other side of main avenue, Horatio’s Garden, designed by Harris Bugg Studio (site 321), puts wheelchair users and those who have experienced a spinal injury at the centre of the conversation. The thought and tactility are evident in every detail of this garden – the raised water feature, the cairns, the hut and thousands of cast thumbprints from patients and NHS staff that make up the artwork installation. It is a beautiful tribute and a hopeful place of recovery. 

(Illustration: Horatio’s Garden at Chelsea Flower Show as depicted by Morag Curtis, a beneficiary of Horatio’s Garden South West. A watercolour image of a garden with a path leading to two people in wheelchairs facing each other and another wheelchair user on a path to the right.
Horatio’s Garden as depicted by Morag Curtis, a beneficiary of Horatio’s Garden South West.

Stop by the PGB Lounge to say hello…

You might be tempted to keep moving along Main Avenue at this point, but instead, take a right turn along Pavilion Way to say hello to our team at the PGB Lounge (Site 210) and pick up one of our much loved organic canvas tote bags created by re-wrap that we’re giving away in exchange for a follow on Instagram. 

Sanctuary gardens with good causes…. 

From the PGB Lounge, you can meander your way through trade stands out on to Royal Hospital Way to view the Sanctuary Gardens. Here you’ll find The National Brain Appeal’s Rare Space Garden, designed by Charlie Hawkes (site 285), and right next door, the RSPCA Garden, designed by Martyn Wilson (site 284). 

The design language of Charlie Hawke’s garden is simple and crisp, with magical planting that gives it an atmosphere of calm. Put yourself in the shoes of someone with rare dementia and let your sight be guided by the lines and colours that demarcate the pathway from the planting, the arches that signify the resting points and, keep an eye out for Tulipa sprengeri which is jaw-droppingly beautiful. 

Martyn’s garden for the RSPCA encourages and inspires us to think of what we can do for wildlife in a more urban garden - everywhere you look, there is a habitat - for bees, for birds, for little bugs. I’m obsessed with the colony bird boxes designed by John Hollington that are built into the drystone-wall, and the planting is already abuzz with activity. 

The National Brain Appeal's Rare Space Garden

Dive into The Great Pavilion and find All About Plants… 

From the RSPCA garden, it’s time for The Great Pavillion (enter via the central entranceway) - where alongside hundreds of incredible specialist nursery exhibits, you’ll also find the All About Plants category. We’re funding all six gardens in this category this year. My advice is to give yourself plenty of time here - the gardens may be smaller than they are outside, but they’re equally full of exquisite planting and detail. 

I suggest starting with the Sadler’s Wells East Garden, designed by Alexa Ryan-Mills (site 23). Every plant in this design has been chosen for how it reminds Alexa of a dancer’s shape or movement. It is a planting performance in the best possible way. 

Next door, the School Food Matters Garden designed by Harry Holding Studio (site 19) is entirely edimental - my new favourite word - and encourages children to enjoy growing their own food and flowers, all with an edible twist. School Food Matters wants food education to be as fundamental as English and Maths on the national curriculum and is campaigning for outdoor learning to be a part of every child’s school experience. 

The Natural Affinity Garden for Aspens, designed by Camellia Taylor (site 16), is beautiful to see, touch, hear, smell and taste. Designed as a tranquil space for people with autism spectrum disorder and learning disabilities, it’s a calming and welcoming oasis amidst the hubbub of the show.

Next door, the Semple Begg duo is creating a magical world for the Teapot Trust Elsewhere Garden (site 17). Don’t miss the soundscape and art installation in this garden that lets us listen to the sound of soil and encourages us to think about the benefits of art therapy for very poorly children. 

(Illustration by Sandra Dieckmann @sandradieckmann)

The Talitha Arts Garden, designed by Carey Design Studios (site 20), also celebrates the creative arts and their therapeutic power to change lives. Talitha Arts offers art therapy to some of the most vulnerable people in our society who have experienced unspeakable trauma. This garden pays tribute to their resilience, and tells their story through beautifully crafted details (including a host of porcelain butterflies handmade by ceramicist Naoko Tagai) and an exquisite palette of plants.

You’ll finish your exploration of the All About Plants space with the Choose Love Garden, designed by Jane Porter. Taking inspiration from migrant routes, Jane has created a moving tribute to Choose Love’s work with its partners in supporting displaced people around the world. The concept of desire lines - paths we create where no formal routes exist - has guided the design, with planting inspired by those found along well-worn routes and seeds that might remind people of home. The super adobe wall that gives shelter from prevailing winds, was built in an impressively short amount of time and provides a wonderful backdrop to Jane’s planting. 

Find your balance and lots of specialist plants before you hit Main Avenue 

Take a breather from The Great Pavilion (taking in the wonderful nursery exhibits en route!) and head out the opposite side to where you entered. Here, on Southern Road, you’ll find the Centre for Mental Health Balance Garden designed by Wild City Studio (site 330). It’s opposite the RHS Hub on the map if that helps! Jon and Steve have created a celebration of resilience - putting urban communities and the challenges they face at the heart of the design. The ongoing cost of living crisis is felt keenly by marginalised communities in urban areas, and this garden is helping tell their stories, focusing on Tottenham in North London, where the garden will be relocated after the show. 

Then head back into The Great Pavilion and walk parallel to Main Avenue to take in a few more of the specialist nursery exhibits. Bonus points to those of you that can find the exhibits of Peter Beales Roses (you’ll smell it before you see it), Big Hedge Co. and Plantbase who are all among the list of nurseries supplying plants to some of our gardens for good causes this year. 

Centre for Mental Health's Balance Garden

Marmite, magic and plenty of meaning on Main Avenue

Exit the Great Pavilion at the point where Sweetingham Way joins Main Avenue - and here you’ll find the much-anticipated Centrepoint Garden designed by Cleve West (site 322). Cleve himself has said this garden will be marmite, and not for everyone, but that’s the point of Chelsea gardens, and whichever side of the fence you sit on, there are moments that will delight you in this garden. Every detail in the garden has been carefully considered by Cleve to send a powerful message of youth homelessness - 112,500 is the number of dots in the mural backdrop, it’s also the number of homeless young people in the UK. Nature is healing and enveloping an uprooted and deserted place, much like the role Centepoint plays in young people’s lives with their independent living programmes. If, like me, you loved reading The Secret Garden, you’ll be transported in time - it feels less like it’s been designed and built and more like an archaeologist has unearthed it and a community member has lovingly celebrated what nature can do when it’s gently gardened but mainly left to its own devices.

Next on my ‘must see’ list is The Samaritans' Listening Garden by Darren Hawkes (site 325). Having lost close friends to suicide, and being a Samaritans listening volunteer, Darren wanted to pay tribute to the charity’s life-saving work. It’s hard to put into words what makes this garden so special - the planting (provided by Kelways) is incredible, the sheltered listening space at the end of the garden draws you in, Darren and his team have taken materials you wouldn’t expect to be beautiful and made them so. Standing in front of Darren’s garden makes me feel like a huge weight has been lifted. 

The Samaritans' Listening Garden

Next door to Darren’s garden for Samaritans, Tom Massey and his team have created an insect lab inspired by a compound insect eye for the Royal Entomological Society Garden (site 326). This garden is wildly colourful, uplifting and a dream to explore for children and adults alike. Insect habitats are built into every surface, with deadwood, leaves and rubble all included in an incredibly beautiful way. The planting is all beneficial for our tiny garden friends, but one of my favourites - Beth’s poppy - is dotted throughout and it catches the light in such a fun way. 

At this point, you might wander into Ranelagh Gardens - the location of the house plant studios, balcony and container gardens. For someone with a smaller space and plenty of houseplants, this is where I plan to get a lot of personal inspiration from!

Myeloma UK - A Life Worth Living Garden

A final moment of reflection with Myeloma UK

I will choose to end my day by standing meditatively in front of the Myeloma UK - A Life Worth Living Garden designed by Chris Beardshaw (site 327). I read a description of the garden this week that said it is ‘unapologetically beautiful’ -  it really is, and so calming too. This time last year, we didn’t know we’d be funding a garden for Myeloma UK, and Chris certainly didn’t know we’d be asking him and his amazing team to create it. It turns out, we didn’t know a lot of things last year - mainly that one of our founders would be diagnosed with myeloma the week after the show in 2022. This huge personal blow came just after what was meant to be an incredibly joyful celebration of funding our first cohort of gardens for good causes. With fortitude and optimism, our founders have encouraged us to turn bad news into good by choosing to fund an additional garden for Myeloma UK, which has been a huge source of information, advice and support for them over the past year. The garden is a woodland glade that feels inviting and protective, the dappled light makes it feel gentle and peaceful, and it is a garden full of emotion. 

Whether you’re visiting Chelsea in person this year or watching it at home, I hope you find inspiration in the magic of horticulture and learn more about every garden and good cause. 

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