RHS Garden Show at Hampton Court

Purple, pink qand white tulips on display
Purple, pink qand white tulips on display. Photo Leo Herzog. Licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

It is always a pleasure to attend a garden show organised by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). In the South East, there is the choice of Chelsea (May), Hampton Court (July) and Wisley (open most days in the summer as this is the garden of the RHS headquarters).

Travelling to Hampton Court

If you choose to go by car, Wisley in Surrey is convenient and takes one hour 17 minutes according to Google but, if one is dependent on public transport coming from Kent, this time doubles with a need for an expensive 17 minute taxi ride at the end from Weybridge station.

For Chelsea, travelling by train is quicker than by car because of the London traffic but the showground is a 15 minutes walk from Victoria Station. Hampton Court is reckoned to take one hour 37 by car and 2.5 hours by public transport from the middle of Kent. What helps is the direct train from Waterloo to Hampton Court Station via the south London suburbs.

The view from a train

Seen from a train, huge flats loom over the route where I can recall rows of two up two down terraced housing in the 1950s, each with a small yard where the washing flapped, with maybe some rabbit hutches or pigeon lofts on the side of the fence. It is silly to get too nostalgic about old London housing.

My granny used to have to carefully wipe the soot off the clothes line before she could hang anything in her yard, as London air was full of the smut from the steam trains and other industries. Brown rats from the sewers were also rampant in some places. So these rows of little houses were demolished to make way for those skyscrapers. Some have balconies, but it is noticeable that nobody seems to grow plants on them.

Looking for novelties

When I reached the garden show it was already mid-afternoon, and a stream of people were already coming away, most with bags or trolleys stuffed with plants.

These people evidently don’t lack space in which to garden. Like me, living in a suburban street, they may be lucky enough to have a front garden, back garden and an allotment. For me, the prime purpose of going to this garden show was to get new or special cultivars of colourful plants like lilies, dahlias, tulips that I can grow in pots for my front garden display.

Of course, one can buy tubers or bulbs for these in any garden store but it is the garden shows that enable the growers to exhibit new colours or shapes. Fashions in these sweep across the decades. For example, two decades ago gardeners preferred tulips of the bulbous shape. Now there is reversion to the elongated shape with pointed petals (that were in fact how they were originally cultivated in the Middle East, as pictures from the Islamic world indicate).

Cultivars and hybrids

Painting of a tulip from Turkey, c. 1708/9
Painting of a tulip from Turkey, c. 1708/9. Photo Ashley Van Haeften; Public domain

These fashions are picked up for public gardens too. For example, this year Godinton house in Kent had a magnificent display of pointy tulips. In the Flower tent the garden firms were selling cultivars and hybrids that had been bred in unusual colours. The lily selection caught my eye and I bought five dark red ones for my front garden pots.

A dahlia specialist had found an eye-catching way to exhibit the blooms, a hundred or more just pinned to a blackboard, with none of the leaves showing. Rather unnatural looking, but it certainly caught the cameras. Last year, I bought some giant purple alliums that flowered beautifully this year, and still wave their brown poms-poms over my flower bed today.

We went to the Rose garden, which had a huge selection including a new one (lush and creamy) dedicated to Dame Deborah James, the cancer campaigner who has just died of bowel cancer. The person I was with wanted to buy a rose, but she wanted a specific fragrant scent, so we had fun sniffing our way round the roses. To state the obvious, although you can just stay at home and watch the Gardener’s World programme or another garden show, the treat in actually buying a ticket and attending a show is that you can then smell the roses!

We gave the allotments a miss as we were short of time. Also I was a bit sceptical as to whether I would learn anything in this section. I am still smarting from last year when I missed a demo on no-dig allotments and did not get a chance to ask my question as to whether no digging would actually work on a plot of Kentish clay infested with bindweed.

Sue Kents show garden
Sue Kent’s show garden at Hampton Court. Photo by Charlotte Lebon

We did walk around some of the show gardens. A winner this year was the forest garden, people enjoying the shade of it when the rest of the area was sweltering in July sunlight. I was also on the lookout for Sue Kent’s garden as her preparations have featured on Gardeners’ World: the most recent being about the difficulty of ensuring that the blooms chosen are in perfect condition on the days of the show. I am pleased to report her small garden was a wonderful sight with abundantly blooming varieties of daisies.

When we needed refreshments we peered at various stalls selling coffee, alcohol and fancy varieties of gin, but could find nothing selling a plain cup of tea, plain fruit juice, or even bottled water. There was a tea tent but it was by advance booking only. In the end we opted for iced coffee. I did not see any drinking fountains for free tap water which would have been nice on such a hot day for our refillable bottles.

We went back to the plant stalls to load up before leaving. I had brought a shopping trolley to enable me to buy larger plants. So I left looking just like all those other people who were trooping out as we went in. The train back from Hampton Court to Waterloo was also full of people laden with plants. Undoubtedly the Royal Horticultural Society makes an impact on the gardens of Kent!

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