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Britain in full bloom: the country's finest horticultural events

It is a sign of Britain's passion for horticulture that flower shows – once small affairs and the preserve of the landed gentry – have proliferated in the 21st century to become social events packing a crowded gardening diary each summer.

If you combine the established showpiece events with local festivals in villages and towns across the country, over 500 such events are held each year.

Holding pride of place for many is the Chelsea Flower Show, dating back to the 1860s, and this year having something of a contemporary credit-crunch feel. But don't assume that this means it will be an austere affair. Instead, the Royal Horticultural Society is using three exhibits to show how a modest budget does not mean having to accept a small or unattractive garden.

The Overdrawn Artist's Garden, The Off-Shore Garden and The Banker's Garden – created from plundering scrap yards and foraging local crops – show just how eco-awareness and frugality can make for a stimulating display.

"These gardens help us retain our sense of humour during an enormously challenging time," says Bob Sweet, RHS shows organiser. "They're a superb way to highlight some great ideas to recycle and reuse materials in the garden and demonstrate what can be achieved on a low budget, in a short space of time."

Another exhibit is from Top Gear presenter James May, who will spend 10 days creating a 35sqm garden entirely out of Plasticine.

"James has been researching how plants and gardens have been depicted by acclaimed artists throughout history and I'm looking forward to seeing how he translates this in his garden," says Alex Baulkwill, Chelsea Flower Show manager.

Traditionalists need not fear – most of the remaining 36 gardens will be of a more conventional nature. The show gardens include the seventh by designer Robert Myers, plus a large urban garden from Italian designer Luciano Giubbilei whose exhibit is framed by tiered evergreen hedges and a monolithic stone wall. Another garden takes its inspiration from perfume designed for Elizabeth I, while the Great Pavilion will be packed with flowers as always – including this year no fewer than 13,000 cut tulips.

Famous names are not confined to Chelsea. Celebrity status, having already transformed the world of restaurants and chefs, may now be on its way to flower shows, too. The likes of Bob Flowerdew, Anne Swithinbank and Diarmuid Gavin will be making guest appearances at a string of shows this summer.

Toby Buckland, the new BBC Gardeners' World presenter and RHS gold medal-winning garden designer will be joining Monty Don at the Gardeners' World Live show in June. It is staged at Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre – not a traditional focus for lovers of the outdoors – but the 25 show gardens will demonstrate what you can do to green everything from a humble roof terrace to a country estate.

Indeed, this year's event typifies how many shows of this kind have become centres for gardening advice and opportunities for buying plants and equipment, as much as admiring the blooms. The spectacular RHS Floral Marquee will have 100 specialist nurseries offering high quality plants with many rare and unusual varieties, while down the Plant Mall there will even be a plant swap, where enthusiasts can exchange their cuttings.

Those who like their shows on a smaller scale have plenty of others to choose from (see box).

The world's oldest horticultural exhibition, according to Guinness World Records, is at Shrewsbury. It has a stunning three million blooms set out in marquees over a 29-acre site, and draws in some 60,000 visitors over two days in mid-August. Arena events have an appropriately country feel, majoring on pony shows and show-jumping as well as dog displays.

One of the newest events is the Hatfield House Rose Weekend, where the Jacobean property will be decorated with flowers. James Alexander Sinclair, of the BBC's Small Town Gardens, is giving one of the talks at the event that combines horticulture and music at one of England's finest country houses.

The move by organisers to diversify – you will find local food fairs, music performances or field sports as well as horticulture at many events – is in response to the appeal of the flower show as a social event well as a gardening activity.

Research by the organisers of the Southport Show, a Merseyside event that displays over a million blooms each August, shows that under 75 per cent of visitors attend for the flowers, while well over a third of visitors are under 45 – perhaps defying the assumption that gardening and similar pursuits are the province of the older person.

10 summer shows

*Malvern Spring Gardening Show, May 7-10 (www.three counties.co.uk).

Watch for: the Celebration of British Horticulture display.

*RHS Chelsea Flower Show, May 19-23 (www.rhs.org.uk). Watch for: the first ever Chelsea flower-arranging competition – for professional florists.

*BBC Gardeners' World Live, June 10-14 (www.bbc gardenersworldlive.com). Watch for: three visionary exhibits from ordinary amateur gardeners.

*Rose Weekend at Hatfield House, June 16-17 (www. hatfield-house.co.uk).

Watch for: the Wine and Roses Pavilion, which mixes flowers and tastes.

*Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, July 7-12 (www.rhs.org.uk).

Watch for: six gardens celebrating each of the wives of Henry VIII.

*RHS Show Tatton Park, July 22-26 (www.rhs.org.uk). Watch for: the RHS National Flower Bed Competition for horticultural colleges.

*Taunton Flower Show, August 7-8 (www.taunton flowershow.co.uk).

Watch for: Ready, Steady, Garden! – building a garden from scratch in a few hours.

*Shrewsbury Flower Show, August 14-15 (www.shrews buryflowershow.org.uk).

Watch for: the Lecture Marquee, with experts on hand to answer questions.

*Southport Flower Show, August 20-23 (www.southport flowershow.co.uk).

Watch for: the annual naming of a new rose in aid of charity.

*Harrogate Flower Show, September 18-20 (www. flowershow.org.uk).

Watch for: scores of masterclasses on flower arranging and floristry.