The BBC has broadcast the Chelsea Flower Show to green-fingered TV viewers every year since it was first televised in 1958. Today, 13 hours of TV coverage is broadcast over five days with horticulturalists and celebrity gardeners like Monty Don and Alan Titchmarsh bringing the delights from the Show to our screens. This year’s event runs from 24-28 May.
But the history of the “Mount Olympus of horticulture…world’s most famous garden show”, as once described by Boris Johnson, goes far beyond its televised past. In fact, garden enthusiasts have had the chance to enjoy the Show since 1862, when it was called the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Great Spring Show and was held at the RHS garden in Kensington. Over 50 years later it moved to its current grounds at Chelsea, and its name was aptly changed to the Chelsea Flower Show.
The Show has as colourful history as its annual flower displays. Here are a few highlights from its past:
The show must go on
In 1928 a fierce storm ripped through the exhibition the night before the opening, with hailstones blocking drains, causing severe flooding and damage throughout the grounds. It was due to the heroic efforts of a dedicated team who worked tirelessly through the night that the Show was ready to welcome visitors the following morning.
Long live the… cacti
The longest-lived garden was on display over 50 years. American Sherman Hoyt set up her cacti garden in 1929 as an exotic exhibition of native American desert plants, impressing the judges by including a painted desert backdrop. Hoyt donated the entire display to Kew, who continued to display it in its original form until the mid-1980s.
The ‘Good Life’ effect
Up until 1979 the RHS had not had to worry about overcrowding at the Chelsea Flower Show, as it was considered as an elite hobby. But due to a suspected side-effect of the popular TV show ‘The Good Life‘ a new gardening trend had spread over the UK, resulting in more visitors flocking to the Show than it could handle. This forced the RHS to close the turnstiles for the first time in its history, and introduce a strict upper limit to the number of tickets it would make available each year.
Affectionately known as Gnomegate, garden gnomes were banned from the Show until 2013, although a few exhibitors were caught smuggling them into the Show.
Aiming to awe the visitors with his trendy display, Paul Cooper and his ‘Cool and Sexy‘ garden outraged female patrons in 1994. One of the features of his installation was a grille which blew jets of air upwards, lifting the skirts of many unsuspecting women visiting his stand.
Record breaking coverage
Until 2000, the Show’s exhibitions were housed under a giant marquee, spreading 3.5 acres across the Chelsea grounds. The tent weighed 65 tons and used 274 miles of yarn, taking 20 men 20 days to put up, earning it a Guinness World Record for the world’s largest tent. After it was replaced by the current modular structure, the tent materials were turned into 7,000 bags, aprons and jackets.
This year, the Chelsea Flower Show will welcome 157,000 visitors to marvel at its exhibitions. But if you can’t make it there in person, you can still enjoy the full coverage from the comfort of your own home, courtesy of the BBC.
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