This week, I was very over-excited to go the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. If you like gardens, love flowers and might even be partial to giant horses made of driftwood, Chelsea is the place to be.
Trouble is, tickets are pretty pricey. I was lucky enough to get a ticket with many thanks to M&G Investments, who sponsor Chelsea Flower Show. With perfect timing, I was invited along on the second anniversary of starting to post a #floweraday over on Instagram.
But there are ways to cut the cost, so here’s what I love about Chelsea and my top tips to visit for less.
What to expect
If you’ve never been to Chelsea Flower Show before, the main things to remember are that the site is big, the crowds are huge and the show gardens are actually pretty small. Wide angle lenses have a lot to answer for.
The highlight for me is the specially created gardens, which come in a variety of sizes. This year, there were 10 Show Gardens, then smaller Space to Grow gardens and then the Artisan Gardens which are smaller still.
I particularly liked the Yorkshire and South African gardens, which recreated particular places, alongside the conceptual gardens promoting particular causes.
Normally, you have to sidle in next to the crowds crammed up against the ropes round the gardens. One weird aspect of Chelsea is that most gardens include a favoured few people standing around drinking and chatting, while studiously ignoring everyone staring at them.
A real privilege for me was going on an after-hours garden tour. The tour was led by an RHS garden manager, who pointed out the planting and stories behind the designs. This year, I reckon the garden designers clubbed together for a bulk order of lupins, foxgloves and irises.
I also love the amazing exhibitor stands and floristry displays inside the Great Pavilion, with entire stands devoted to single flowers such as irises, alliums or gladioli, or constructed in the shape of the Windrush or a horse and cart. Some exhibits at Chelsea are breathtakingly beautiful, ranging from the most delicate flowers to explosions of colour.
Otherwise there are a gazillion stalls selling everything you could possibly need for gardens and gardening, plus a ton of stuff that is completely unrelated (rocking horses, anyone?). Chuck in a bandstand, a bunch of catering options from flash to fish and chips, and people wearing more floral prints than you can shake a stick at. That’s Chelsea.
How to visit Chelsea Flower Show for less
Wear comfy shoes
Vital just for the 10-minute walk from Sloane Square, let alone trekking round the huge site. Check out the map above – there’s a lot to explore. I modelled some particularly ugly walking sandals, and just hoped no-one would look at my feet.
There is a shuttle bus from Victoria Station, but it costs £4 one way and £6 return, so save by walking instead or taking an ordinary bus. The Plan A Journey page on the Transport For London website is great, if you need to work out your route. I also slashed a third off my train tickets to London, by travelling off peak and using a Network Railcard.
Grab food on the way
There are a couple of newsagents en route to Chelsea, if you don’t pack a picnic. For the well-prepared, there are picnic areas by the bandstand and near the Artisan Gardens.
I snaffled a quick sandwich rather than fork out for more expensive fare from the restaurants and catering stands. The RHS is pretty tough about no readmission, so once you’re in, you can’t nip out for snacks elsewhere.
Cut the cost of tickets
Hands up, tickets to Chelsea are expensive, unless you are skipping in on corporate hospitality. Think £105 for an all day ticket.
You can pay less if you’re either a member of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), go later in the day, or both. There are no discounts for pensioners or children. In fact children under 5 are banned.
So, while ordinary members of the public have to pay £105 for the whole day (8am to 8pm, but only 8am to 5.30pm on Saturday), that drops to £56 if you wait till 3.30pm and £45 after 4.30pm.
Join the RHS, and you can save more than a third for the whole day, as the ticket price drops to £68. Later tickets also cost less: £47 after 3.30pm and £39 after 4.30pm. Plus only RHS members can buy tickets for the Tuesday and Wednesday.
The cheapest RHS membership* is £45.75 for a year, including a 25% discount if you’re willing to sign up for direct debit. That’s slightly more expensive than the saving on a full day ticket to Chelsea, but worth doing if you’re buying for more than one person. You can buy up to 4 tickets, subject to availability. Plus, you get all the other perks of RHS membership, including entry to more than 200 RHS Gardens and RHS Partner Gardens, special access and discounted tickets to other RHS Flower Shows, and a monthly magazine called The Garden.
Ideal world, aim to go earlier in the week when the plants are freshest, or show up early or late to avoid the midday crush.
Resign yourself to buying a guide book
This year’s guide to the Chelsea Flower Show costs a tenner, which I think is pretty steep. Normally I steer clear of the expense and clutter of guide books. Trouble is, this isn’t like a museum where there are also handy paper plans available for free. Oh no. There is a foldable show map and great pavilion plan – it’s just stuck in the back of the £10 guide book.
With such a big site, and map noticeboards few and far between, I reckon a map is essential especially if you’re not familiar with the site or need to meet up with similarly clueless friends. It is a good book though, with lovely illustrations and descriptions of the gardens, practical info and listings for all the exhibitors.
Plan any purchases
The show gardens are just a front for a gazillion stalls dedicated to flogging stuff, so beware of temptation if you’re on a budget.
It’s like a Lakeland catalogue for gardeners, brought to life with so many products you never knew you needed. Sure, there are plants, bulbs and seeds. But also everything from power assisted secateurs to garden statues, green houses and cast iron fire pits. If anything stands still long enough, it gets a flower design slapped on it and sold at Chelsea.
True, some stalls offer special discounts during Chelsea. I was particularly taken with some wooden summer houses, but they still cost a ton of money even with 25% off. You could run up a mega mortgage in as many minutes. So maybe plan any major purchases, and go for another stagger round the Great Pavilion before committing to shears with Japanese carbon steel blades or a jacket in extremely loud tweed.
Stick around for the Saturday Sell Off
If you really want to bag a bargain on plants, show up on the final day, for the Sell Off in the Great Pavilion from 4pm to 5.30pm. This is not for the faint-hearted. Brace yourself to do battle with the crowds, and start queuing well beforehand.
Top tactics include going to the show earlier in the week, and buying plants to collect on Saturday. You can then get re-admission if you show up from 3pm on Saturday, clasping your ticket plus a signed and dated exhibitor receipt. An RHS membership card alone isn’t going to cut it.
Not everything gets sold off, so if you see something you like, ask if it will be for sale, and make a beeline for that particular stall. Expert bargain hunters also recommend taking cash rather than cards, plus a robust bag or collapsible trolley to cart everything home.
Enjoy everything on offer for free
The show gardens can be weird and wonderful, although mostly amazing, and some of the displays in the Great Pavilion are breath-taking.
Chelsea is also a great place to get gardening advice, listen to music from the Artisan Garden bandstand, spot celebs and generally drift around people watching. I’m not promising George Clooney – I saw the likes of the Rev Richard Coles, of Radio 4 and Communards fame, and Nicki Chapman, who was a judge on Popstars and Pop Idol aeons ago.
Bob up and down long enough in front of the BBC press tent, and you might even make it on telly behind Monty Don.
Outside the official Chelsea Flower Show site, loads of businesses put on amazing flower-themed displays, to enjoy for free. There’s even the Chelsea Fringe, which co-ordinates a hosts of events and installations at other venues.
Now I just need to bring some of the inspiration back into my own garden!
So – there’s my round up of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and how to visit for less. Now – over to you. What’s the best thing about Chelsea for you?
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