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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: Malvern Spring Festival & Chelsea Garden Show 2019

Photo credit: Jim Bishop.

An outdoor display garden featuring an oversized sculpture of a pea pod.

By Jim Bishop.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2020 Chelsea Garden Show has been cancelled. How tired we all are of reading those words about our favorite garden tour, events and meetings. However, as I mentioned in my October 2019 column about Powis Castle, last May I attended the Pacific Horticulture tour of Wales and two garden shows bookended that trip: the Royal Horticultural Spring Festival at Malvern and the Chelsea Garden Show in London. The two shows are different in style with one being in the country and the other in the city, however, many of the same plants were on display at both. The show gardens were better at Chelsea, but if you’d like some breathing space, I’d recommend Malvern. Let’s take a closer look.

Royal Horticultural Spring Festival at Malvern

The festival is held at the Three Counties Showground in Malvern, Worcestershire, with the picturesque Malvern Hills to the west and Wales just over the hills. It being May in the U.K. the field where the festival is held was very wet and muddy in places and not helped by thousands of people walking on it. However, there were wooden walkways in the highest traffic areas and we only had occasional light mist on the day we visited. Several local garden celebrities gave talks, which I mostly skipped since the advice would not likely be applicable here. But I did take a quick look at the talk given by Monty Don, star of many gardening shows. He is from Malvern, but surprisingly he had 2 very large, intimidating bodyguards dressed in black suits to keep the crowds at bay.

The festival grounds were divided into these distinct areas:

The Featured Display Gardens

The featured display gardens were the most crowded and somewhat difficult to view.

Photo credit: Jim Bishop.

One of the gardens built around a shipping container.

It has a vegetable and herb garden out front.

Gardens that Incorporated a Shipping Container

I found the shipping container gardens more interesting.They had interior settings displayed inside the container surrounded by outdoor gardening spaces.These seemed more realistic for most UK home gardens.

Photo credit: Jim Bishop.

Something we can grow! An outdoor vendor display of Pelargonium hybrids.

Outdoor Plants Vendors

There were rows and rows of plant growers displaying and selling all sorts of plants for home gardens. Many also included a small display area to woo prospective purchasers. These were loaded with many plants that we can’t or usually don’t grow in San Diego due to water, climate, or maintenance requirements. Still they were fun to see and showcased what many of us associate with traditional English Gardens.

Photo credit: Jim Bishop.

A specialty grower of hybrid bulbs of Amaryllis belladonna and Nerine bobwdenii

Indoor Floral and Plants Displays

A very large tent contained many specialized growers that each had a display of their flowers and plants in very eye-catching arrangements. I would see many of the same vendors at the Chelsea Garden Show a couple of weeks later.

Photo credit: Jim Bishop.

A very British Floral Arrangement and First Prize winner.

Floral Arrangements

There were several smaller tents with floral arrangement displays and container plants. This was the least commercial area of the festival and reminded me a bit of the flower show at our local San Diego County Fair, also cancelled for this year.

Photo credit: Jim Bishop.

This wisteria vine seemed way too large and natural looking to have been staged…but who knows? The Brits have some amazing skills at creating temporary gardens.

Tents with vendors

The vendor and food tents were quite large and very crowded. I didn’t spend much time there since I wasn’t likely to buy anything.

Central semi-permanent Display

My favorite display was a garden you waited in line to enter. Once inside you followed a set path through several outdoor rooms with lots of interesting hardscape and plants. I never really figured out how much of it was permanent and how much was temporary. This garden drew a lot of attention and I passed by several times during the day waiting for a shorter line to enter.

Phot credit: Jim Bishop.

One of many vignettes in this walkthrough garden with wonderful paving and stonework. Definitely something I could admire and be inspired by.

Royal Horticulture Society Chelsea Garden Show

Several weeks later after touring many gardens and places in Wales, we returned to London to take in the Chelsea Garden Show. The overall space for the show is much smaller than Malvern and the crowds much bigger. No chance to do any social distancing here. Also, I suspect there were many fewer real gardeners in attendance, but a lot more people that make it an annual event to see and be seen. Similar to Malvern, the Chelsea Garden Show was divided into to different areas, though things ran together a bit more and were perhaps a bit more polished, especially the display gardens. There were fewer vendors and plant sales however.

Photo credit: Jim Bishop.
A traditional wild looking English garden using repurposed items for hardscape.
Photo credit: Jim Bishop.
A manufactured wild looking garden with mid-century hardscape.
Photo credit: Jim Bishop.
A wall of water providing a bit of privacy and noise to drown out the city at this outdoor dining patio.
Photo credit: Jom Bishop.
They have a thing for contemporary designs…not exactly my taste.
Photo credit: Jim Bishop.
Formal displays of designer vegetables were a big hit.
Photo credit: Jim Bishop.
There was an interesting display of floral crowns fit for a queen.
Photo credit: Jim Bishop.
What visit to the U.K. in spring would be complete without a blue Himalayan poppy?
Photo credit: Jim Bishop.
Like Malvern, the specialty growers all had displays - this one with magnificent Delphiniums and tuberous Begonias.
Photo credit: Jim Bishop.
There were some picture-perfect displays of carnivorous plants…something I’ve never grown.
Photo credit: Jim Bishop.
Specialists in tropical plants and fruits were there too.
Photo credit: Jim Bishop.
Some great little alpine gardens.
Photo credit: Jom Bishop.
A specialty display of animal sculptures made from driftwood was extremely popular
Photo credit: Jim Bishop.
This was my favorite garden of the floral displays - a very un-natural display of South African plants and flowers. I watched online as a South African Facebook friend put it together and shipped it to London. Unfortunately, he wasn’t at Chelsea that day so we’ve never met in person.
Photo credit: Jom Bishop.
My paparazzi photo of Mary Berry filming a garden segment at the Chelsea Garden Show.

We saw Mary Berry of The Great British Baking Show fame, filming a piece about the show. Scott said he’d love to tell her how many times he’s fallen asleep watching her show.The gentleman standing nearby overheard the comment and in the traditional British sense of humor said, “probably one less than me”.



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