Podcast: Let's Argue About Plants

Episode 160: The RHS Chelsea Flower Show with Annie Guilfoyle  

Go behind the scenes of the world’s best-known horticultural event  

Produced by Fine Gardening, Edited by Nati Gruca  

Did you ever wonder what it would be like to get exclusive access to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show? Well, your dreams have come true because in this exclusive interview we got an all-access pass to the horticultural event of the year thanks to Annie Guilfoyle, a 2024 judge. Annie is cofounder of Garden Masterclass in the UK and an award-winning garden designer who earned a silver medal at Chelsea years ago for her innovative landscape design. Annie is just back from the show this year and shares details from her favorite gardens, interesting new plants that caught her attention, and even some celebrity gossip from those stars that were in attendance at the show. (Spoiler alert: She did not see Lady Whistledown at the Bridgerton-themed garden). We discussed how native plants and sustainable practices played a role in this year’s event and talked about themes of water conservation and hardscape upcycling.  

Looking to attend the show next year? You’re in luck because Annie shares tips for navigating the show grounds and insights on how to make the most of your visit. Who needs Monty Don when you’ve got Annie Guilfoyle? Not us! 

Chelsea Flower Show grounds

The Chelsea Flower Show is held for five days at the end of May by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) on the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea in Chelsea, London. The gardens utilize 11 total acres, so ticketing is limited each year to only 157,000 visitors. All tickets must be purchased in advance. The show has been in operation since 1912. 

The building and installation of the show gardens begins nearly a month in advance of the show opening. Designers generally employ contract crews to install/engineer the hardscaping and general garden structure. Planting crews undertake the green material installation. All care and maintenance in the proceeding weeks is done by the designers and their chosen helpers. Set up in the “marquee,” an area dedicated to nursery trade-show booths, all takes place within a week of the show’s start.     

Although important, far less emphasis is put on native plants in the UK when compared to North America. However, you will see some nurseries in the marquee area promoting native plants, wildflowers, and pollinator-friendly options.  

London designer Ula Maria was awarded a gold medal at this year’s show for her Muscular Dystrophy UK–Forest Bathing Garden. The garden showcased a highly accessible landscape that offers a place of refuge to those affected by a limiting physical condition. Each show garden/designer has a partner charity that they collaborate with to develop an overall design theme. After the conclusion of the show, the garden is dismantled and relocated to a place of the charity’s choosing. This award-winning garden will be going to a hospice in Glasgow. 

Acclaimed garden designer Tom Stuart-Smith leaned in to a more subtle color palette, with soothing green and soft pastels dominating the plant scheme. This woodland garden was a respite from others with more audacious colors, and a standout focal point was an incredible garden shed designed by Tom’s son.  

Matthew Childs (a former student of Annie’s) won the 2024 Silver Gilt Medal and Best Construction Award. The garden was inspired by a rejuvenated quarry landscape. The structure resembled a crevice rockery, with many alpine plants taking center stage and monolith slate stepping-stones throughout. The beautiful garden design honors all the lives lost to HIV, but also the hopeful vision of the Terrence Higgins Trust’s (charity partner) prediction that by 2030 there will be no new HIV cases. 

The Pulp Friction–Growing Skills Garden was designed by Will Dutch and Tin-Tin Azure-Marxen. This pollinator-friendly, edible-forward landscape had so many charming details it’s hard to name them all. One particular favorite was the repurposed fire spigots that the designers turned into bug houses. The garden will be relocated to Stockhill Fire Station in Nottingham and will be used as a community garden by Pulp Friction (charity partner), the local community, and firefighters suffering from psychological stress. 

Annie’s favorite plant of the show, also voted Best Tree of the Show, was white fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus, Zones 3–9).

You never know what you’ll see at the marquee. In this year’s nursery booth was a choice Chrysanthemum grower whose sample plants were approximately 10 times the size of an average human head! 

Once the show gardens have been constructed, planted, and pretty much completed, the detailed polishing takes place hours before press day begins. At this point, you’ll see lots of shoes kicked off both for comfort and to avoid tracking debris into the landscape.  

To demonstrate the water absorption and redirection properties of the flood-resistant garden designed by Naomi Slade and Dr. Ed Barsley, a simulated rainstorm took place every so often in this landscape. The “weather” necessitated welly-wearing and umbrellas.  

She Grows Veg won a gold medal for their first exhibit at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Business owners Lucy Hutchings and Kate Cotterill started the heirloom edible seed company about a year ago to encourage folks to “stop growing boring vegetables.” Their marquee display reminded Annie of a group of Renaissance paintings.   


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