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Elly West’s guide to garden shows this spring

Grab your waterproofs, sunnies and notepad and be inspired this spring: it’s Elly West’s rough guide to garden show visiting

If you’re passionate about plants and gardens, love discovering new trends, gaining inspiration and perhaps even picking up a bargain or two, there’s no better place to indulge yourself than at a garden show. April sees the start of the gardening show season, providing opportunities to immerse yourself in some horticultural haute couture.

Cardiff holds its RHS show this month, followed by the RHS Spring Festival in Malvern in early May. But the jewel in the crown has to be Chelsea next month. This prestigious annual event is to gardening what Milan is to the fashion world. People travel across the globe to experience this feast for the senses, with top designers setting trends that filter down to our own gardens. A trip to Chelsea is truly something special; worth doing at least once in a lifetime if you are even vaguely interested in horticulture. Closer to home there’s plenty going on as well, so on these pages I’ll aim to give a rough guide to garden show visiting.

Show gardens

For me, as with many visitors judging by the inescapable crowds to be found on Chelsea’s main avenue, the show gardens are the highlight. I love seeing what other designers are doing and what colour schemes and plant combinations they are using. I’m amazed by what is physically possible, especially when you see full-grown trees that have been shipped in, or moss-covered stones and walls, looking as if they’ve been in situ for decades.

On the flip side, don’t be disheartened if your garden doesn’t look like a show garden. The number of plants per square metre is phenomenal and breaks all the rules – there’s no following the label’s guidelines. They’re crammed in much more densely than you would ever plant in a permanent garden border, with 30 or 40 plants per square metre in some cases. Also, everything is chosen to look perfect in that moment. But despite the fact that show gardens may not be sustainable and cost eye-watering amounts of money to build, they are the place to see new, cutting-edge ideas, whether it’s colour schemes and plant combinations, interesting materials for hard landscaping, or other elements such as water features and even outdoor kitchens.

As well as the main show gardens, there’s plenty of inspiration to be found in the smaller gardens too. Malvern has its festival gardens, which showcase new designers’ work, while at Chelsea there are the artisan and fresh gardens, scaled down, but rich in detail and inspiration. They’re often slightly quieter as well so you may get to have a proper look without too much shoulder-barging. As well as the traditional show gardens, this year’s Gardeners’ World Live, at the Birmingham NEC in June, has a ‘beautiful borders’ competition, where designers will fill a plot of around seven square metres, with the theme ‘every space counts’.

Shop, shop, shop

Another highlight for me is the opportunity to grab a bargain, whether you’re looking for plants, garden furniture or a hot tub. Retailers often offer show-only prices, and it’s a good chance to talk to suppliers about their products and see them demonstrated. At Gardeners’ World Live there’s a plant crèche, where you can leave your purchases to pick up at the end of the day. Wheelie trolleys seem to do a roaring trade, or you can arrange delivery of larger items at a later date so you don’t have to struggle getting them home. Chelsea is the exception, with no plants available to buy until the big sell-off at 4pm on the Saturday. It’s quite a sight as herbaceous borders are dismantled and carried off by happy customers through the streets and on tube trains and buses in the surrounding area.

Plan your visit

Because of my work I’ve been lucky enough to visit Chelsea out of hours, first thing in the morning when the light is beautiful and all is calm. A few hours later when the gates open to the public it’s another story, and it can be incredibly crowded. I’d recommend going later in the day, as cheaper tickets are available after 3.30pm and 5.30pm, when the all-dayers will (hopefully!) be worn out and heading home. Most of the regional shows are on larger sites with more space, and crowds are not such an issue, but it’s still a good idea to plan your day, arriving in good time to avoid traffic where possible. It also pays to watch the television coverage if there is some. Gardeners’ World on BBC2 does a spot on most of the RHS shows, and Chelsea has its own dedicated programmes. These give you a behind-the-scenes look at the designers and their inspiration, so you’ll know what to look out for during your visit.

Dress appropriately

Comfortable clothes and shoes are a must, as is a waterproof top layer, preferably one that can be rolled up and put in a bag. A hat or hood is more sociable than an umbrella, particularly at Chelsea, where you risk poking eyes out not to mention blocking people’s view. Don’t forget sunscreen as you’ll be outside for most of the day.

Take photos

And a notebook. And a pen. Or a phone to record the things that catch your eye. You might think you’ll remember details, but write things down and take plenty of photos to be on the safe side. One of the best things about show visiting has to be the ideas and inspiration. Spend all day walking around plants, gardens and stalls selling exciting gardening products and it’s impossible not to go home enthused with ideas for your own space, so make sure you record the things you want to remember.

Indulge your passion for plants

There’s nothing quite like walking into a floral marquee and immediately being surrounded by colour, texture and fragrance, with plants looking their absolute best and displayed to perfection. It’s also a good place to discover new varieties. Growers tend to be friendly people, passionate about their subject, who want to share their knowledge and expertise, so make the most of all that know-how under one roof.

Upcoming shows: RHS Flower Show Cardiff, Bute Park (13 – 15 April); RHS Malvern Spring Festival, Three Counties Showground (10 – 13 May); RHS Chelsea Flower Show, Royal Hospital (22 – 26 May); Gardeners’ World Live, NEC, Birmingham (14 –17 June)