Growing for RHS Chelsea during a pandemic

Planning for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show happens many months before the event. Once the gardens are designed, the plants then need to be grown for the show so that they’re in peak condition for the event.

But throw a pandemic into the mix and the usual time frames go out the window.

Hampshire nursery Hortus Loci are no strangers to Chelsea and regularly grow for gold-medal-winning show gardens.

Mark and Robin from Hortus Loci with Matthew Keightley on the Sentebale garden (People’s Choice Award) at RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2015

Last year, amongst other gardens, they were growing for designer Tom Massey and The Yeo Valley Organic Garden. But the 2020 show was cancelled for the first time since the Second World War, only two months before the opening date.

Mark Straver, CEO of Hortus Loci, said: “It’s a bit like training for a marathon for six months and then running it for six months, and having it cancelled in March was a bit like saying you’ve run 22 miles and now you’ve got to stop. We’d almost finished our jobs.”

That meant that thousands of plants grown for the show were no longer needed.

That didn’t mean they went to waste, and Yeo Valley donated plants to various hospital trusts.

Try again for 2021

The Yeo Valley Organic Garden is now a show garden for 2021. But this year isn’t going to plan either, because for the first time in  the 108 year history of the show, the RHS, for safety reasons, postponed Chelsea Flower Show to September instead of May because of the ongoing pandemic.

The effects of a move to autumn

This means that plants now have to look their best in a totally different season so a lot of the plants that would have been grown for May now can’t be, and designers and nurseries have to adapt.

Mark said: “We need to start again with a completely different range of plants. If you have perennials potted in the spring and you’re trying to hold them until autumn, they’ll be frazzled. Everything starts to die back when it gets too hot, so the key thing for September is to start potting again in July. There’s nothing that can be used in the show perennial-wise from May that could be used in September.

A third of the Yeo Valley garden is perennials and that’s where all the work is.”

New opportunities

But with a change in month, there are new opportunities.

Echinacea Splendor Dark Rose – Hortus Loci

Mark said: “This could be really exciting. It’ll be a totally different palette. To have a flower show in September will be great, especially with the longer autumns. It’s such a lovely time of year.

Miscanthus sinensis Kleine Fontane – Hortus Loci

“There’s all the autumn grasses which will start either flowering or tinting up for the autumn, all the daisy-type flowers like rudbeckias and echinaceas, the Mexican salvias which come into their own in autumn. Lots of reds, oranges and purples in particular, and yellow.”

Salvia nachvlinder – Hortus Loci

“Right plant, right place can’t change though.”

RHS Chelsea Flower Show – September 2021

Sue Biggs, RHS Director General, said: “Never have so many people gardened in recent times, nor needed the benefits of gardening more, so we will do our utmost to deliver a beautiful, uplifting and different RHS Chelsea safely in September 2021.”


Take a look at our 2019 Chelsea Flower Show gallery