The Big Question: What is the Chelsea Flower Show, and how did it become so important?

Why are we asking this now?

Britain's, and possible the world's most famous flower show begins today. Over the next five days, until Saturday, 157,000 visitors will enter the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, south-west London, to gasp at the orchids and water features.



Is attendance higher than last year?

No, the capacity is the same every year; 157,000 is the maximum the organisers, the Royal Horticultural Show, can squeeze into the 11-acre showground. However, the show sold out faster than last year, despite the straitened financial circumstances. Tickets cost from £13.50 to £48.



What is Chelsea's attraction?

For gardeners and garden designers, Chelsea has several attractions. First and foremost, it is a spectacle. Here the finest, most inspirational designers flaunt their knowledge and verve. The most extravagant, the most beautiful gardens are on view at Chelsea rather than the Hampton Court or the RHS Cardiff shows. Green-fingered suburbanites can marvel, and return to their gardens filled with excitement and wonderment. As well as providing ideas, the show offers practical help. One hundred and six exhibitors sell everything from seeds to sit-on lawnmowers. Thorny problems are picked over by experienced horticultural experts such as Roy Lancaster and Andrew Wilson at the Gardening Matters Marquee.



Who goes?

RHS members who receive discounted admission make up a substantial portion of the crowd. When the doors are flung open at 8am, though, the event will contain a variety of people, from council estate to country estate gardeners, from gamekeepers to lords of the manor. Some will have been drawn in by the televising of the show, just as TV highlights have popularised the Glastonbury music festival. Yesterday, Chelsea was open to journalists and celebrities. Some quintessentially English faces were at the preview day: Joanna Lumley, Stephen Fry, Sienna Miller, Paul Smith, Jools Holland, Will Young and Zac Goldsmith.



Has the show lost sponsors?

Despite being a sell-out, the credit crunch has hit the Chelsea Flower Show. Last year there were 22 sponsors of the big gardens. This year there are 13. The RHS says sponsors change every year and insists speculation cannot explain the absence of large sponsors. Although the champagne house Laurent-Perrier sponsors one garden, there are few luxury goods companies among the corporate backers in 2009. Those sponsoring the gardens are the toilet-roll manufacturer Quilted Velvet, the QVC shopping channel, Cancer Research UK and Cornwall's Eden Project. Lloyds TSB bank and the estate agent Savills, which sponsored shows last year, are not back this May.



Will we garden more in the recession?

Despite the fall-off in sponsors, there are signs that interest in gardening is rising. The Garden Centre Association says garden centres sales were up by an average of 38 per cent last month on last April. Sales of outdoor plants were up 61 per cent and garden furniture up 27 per cent. "I would say that garden centres will fare very well this year," says the GCA's Gillie Westwood. "When you think that the average spend is £24 – it's below the radar. It's not really seen as a huge expense." Britons have gone wild for grow-your-own vegetables. Waiting lists for allotments are growing as quickly as the potatoes planted on them and urbanites are turning their back gardens from aesthetically-pleasing lawns to stomach-filling vegetable patches.

Are there any credit crunch gardens?

The RHS is tapping into the new mood of frugality this year; but only because of a catastrophe. When bush fires rages across Australia, the garden company Fleming's suffered losses to one of its nurseries and had to abandon its show garden at short notice. In its place, the RHS commissioned the designer Sarah Eberle to create the Credit Crunch Gardens. She created three: the Overdrawn Artist's Garden, the Off-Shore Garden and the Banker's Garden. The Overdrawn Artist's Garden was made from hard material and furniture scavenged from the local scrap-yard, with steel panels filled with sand, gravel and crushed CDs. The Off-Shore Garden belongs to a man "who likes to protect his space and his assets," and contains, in more prosaic language, a water feature with three large concrete slab stepping stones. The jolly, tongue-in-cheek Banker's Garden is designed around a well-known board game including the features "jail", "electric Co", "water works" and "free parking".



Which are the best gardens to see?

Everyone will have their own view of the gardens which are designed for different spaces such as show, urban and courtyard. Among the most talked about this year are 13-gold medal winning Jekka McVicar's herb garden: the Power of Plants, which includes stinging nettles and dandelions, both of which have medicinal uses and Roger Platts' astounding floral display, the Plantman's Palette.



Who wins medals?

The medal-winning gardens are announced today. There are four medals: bronze, silver, silver-gilt and gold and they are handed out on the basis of achievement, so the number varies. The RHS yesterday awarded Prince Charles its highest honour, the Victoria Medal of Honour, in recognition of his passion for plants, sustainable gardening and the environment. His mother awarded it to him.



Anything unusual this year?

Flesh-eating piranha fish are swimming round designer David Domoney's underwater river display in the Great Pavilion. Birmingham City Council has a "credit munch" courtyard garden showing how to lower one's carbon footprint and food miles while living a healthier lifestyle. Its facade of a typical family house gives way to a productive garden packed with strawberries, rhubarb and herbs.

Bizarrely without plants, the urban "Plasticine Paradise" is made entirely from modelling clay: the work of thousands of people, from children to professional model makers. It is believed to be the world's largest-ever Plasticine creation.



Where does the money go?

The RHS, a registered charity, takes around £5m in income from the show. After costs, the proceeds go towards good causes, which include its Grow Your Own campaign and the Britain in Bloom competition for towns and villages.



What if I can't get a ticket?

The RHS recommends its next show, the Hampton Court Show, the biggest garden show in Britain with 160,000 visitors, which takes place at Hampton Court Palace on 7-12 July. Tickets cost £17-£32. Hampton is aimed more at the common gardener, it's less about fantasy, and more about reality.

Has the slump wilted the Chelsea Flower Show?

Yes

*The number of sponsors has shrunk this year, from 22 to 13, and financial institutions are boycotting the event.



*There is a more frugal feel, with grandiose displays replaced by more muted, practical plots.



*Harder-pressed shoppers will be buying seeds and seedlings rather than gilded secateurs.

No

*Chelsea sold out in double-quick time this year. Despite the credit crunch, 157,000 will swell the grounds.



*Every inch is filled this year and the event remains the swankiest on the gardening calendar.



*Despite the recession, companies at the show will take orders worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.

m.hickman@independent.co.uk

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