Behind the Scenes: Before the RHS Chelsea Flower Show

Sowing, pricking out and potting on are just some of the activities that started early this year at Sparsholt College, in preparation for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in May.

Chris Bird has been busy designing, planning and planting for his 22nd year at Britain’s most prestigious flower show, along with an enthusiastic team of past and current horticulture students.

As lecturer in horticulture, Chris has repeatedly led Sparsholt College in Hampshire to medal-winning success, achieving 8 Gold Medals and 5 Best in Category, to name a few.

  • Take a peek at some of the plants destined for  the Sparsholt exhibit at this years show
  • Discover the garden that will explain the science of plant breeding milestones with Behind the Genes
  • Understand the techniques used for future plant breeding targets

I meet Chris outside the horticulture shed, aka his office, where he and two of his team discuss ‘potting on and pinching out – down to the lower petioles,’ around a barrow of young sunflower plants. Amongst the seeds supplied by Thompson and Morgan, eight brand new plants are being showcased this year and New Product Development Manager Peter Freeman has come to see how the plants are looking. They’re thriving and growing fast towards their May deadline.

A weaning bench bears some stock for Chelsea:

Agapanthus ‘Fireworks’ – African Blue Lily

Pots of Agapanthus ‘Fireworks’ which are already showing a few buds.

Propagation schedules, that include several cycles of sowing, account for this and other eventualities. Losing batches of plants and planning for some that flower too early, or not soon enough, is the business they’re in. At this time of year the weather can go from sub-tropical to arctic overnight.

I linger long enough to admire rows of students’ projects, which I learn can be another potential hazard for the Chelsea team:

Alex Graham, who’s completing a part-time RHS Certificate in Practical Horticulture, alongside her job as a teacher, says, “A few weeks ago a student was doing a study on weeds – next to the Chelsea bench – which meant aphids and all sorts were keeping us on our toes!”

Digitalis purpurea ‘Primrose Carousel’

Pulled along in Chris’ slipstream we go into a large 4-bay polytunnel that houses row upon row of foxgloves at a cooler temperature. Plant maintenance instructions are discussed and the more mature plants are selected for potting on. I dream of shady spots in my garden where these could happily go with their unusual yellow blooms, finished with a heavy dusting of purple freckles. I can’t wait to see them in flower, on my return next month…
We peek into the open doorway of the ‘Chelsea Tunnel’ and see where some of the frameworks for the exhibit are kept. Chris talks different paint colours which are intended for the inside and outside of a large 3-dimensional double helix structure.
DNA helix structure.

You’ll find the Sparsholt exhibit in the Discovery Zone within The Great Pavilion, with this giant metal helix at its centre. “The DNA spiral has been made by a local blacksmith,” Chris says. “We like to use local artisans wherever possible.”

Inside the super-cool shade tunnel there’s an emerald carpet at our feet. While the team talk about how to register and submit a plant for DNA testing, I take in the visual feast . . .

Geranium ‘Rozanne’ are nestled amongst two more cultivars of foxgloves in vibrant tropical colours.
There’s ‘Illumination Pink’ & ‘Cherry Brandy’. Both promise to attract bees with hot pink blooms borne all around the stem, echoing the helix theme.
Digitalis Illumination ‘Cherry Brandy’ 

The ‘Digitalis Illumination Series’ is a hybrid, so does not set seed. It’s a perennial, unlike most foxgloves, which are biennial. On top of that it’s a semi evergreen with a long flowering period and should last for years. What a gem!

These Scabious ‘Butterfly Blue Beauty’ seem a far cry from Scabiosa the genus name, which comes from the Latin scabere ‘to scratch’. Perhaps in reference to the plant’s rough leaves.

Back at the horticultural practical shed, redolent of garden machinery oil, Chris grabs his jacket from the staff office, to go to his next meeting.

Liz and Alex potting on Helianthus, helped by Toby –

A future student, perhaps?

Next Month:

  • I’ll be looking at a brand new and rather magical clematis, which has flowers that change shape throughout the season. 
  • We’ll see how the team get to ‘wind-up’ the plants, before the show.
  • Tips on the fine art of watering.
  • And did I mention – loads more luscious plants? 
  • Follow me and share in the preparations for one of the most famous international flower shows, attracting guests from all over the world.

Found and Lost

In December 2018 this story gained third place in a competition, originally published at The Hampshire Writers Society. You can read mine here, but click the link to read the other winning entries.

Found and Lost

(The Dig Diary of Max Glover)

Pouilly-Le-Fort, 25th December 2018 

Just after sunrise: clear winters morning. Le Champ Maudi (The Cursed Field) next door to our rented gite. Walked the perimeter: the ditch contained the usual jumble of roofing tiles, a few broken bits of crockery, clay pipe head – Flemish? 

Ran my eye slowly over the expanse of corrugated mud, sparkling with frost. A larger glint of reflected sunlight caught my attention. As I worked to free the object I realised I was brushing soil from the brow of a skull, with a blue-green iridescent ‘pebble’ of glass lodged inside the eye socket; it’s rounded and frosted – blinded by the action of time. As more glass was revealed, I had one of those spine-tingling moments. I’ve found a tear vial bottle – intact! I suspect it’s Holy Land, Roman Period, 1st Century AD. Fantastic – a once in a life time!
Sent photo to Dan Bones (osteologist at the museum) with query: Roman? 

Punctured my thumb on a shard of bone which bled badly. I had to keep licking it, so returned to the gite for first aid. 

By the time I got back, the kids were awake and Christmas Day was in full swing. Nancy dressed my thumb and persuaded me to stay put. I’ll go back to the dig tomorrow. 

Dan emailed. He’s started his research – turns out we’re holidaying in the area where Pasteur performed vaccine experiments (1880s) on cattle infected with anthrax. Anthrax was so widespread that the abattoir on that field was closed down. 

I’m turning in early. Feel freezing/generally lousy and my thumb is as swollen and red as a Boudin sausage. 

Trembling, Nancy traced her index finger over her husband’s writing, then closed the tatty notebook, still unable to comprehend that these were his last words. 


  • What could I write?
  • Why had I even joined a writing class?

I looked around the room: Tired wallpaper was loosing its grip. Tea coloured stains advanced across the ceiling and down the walls, mapping out years of water damage.

Cardboard boxes, torn and overloaded with books, teetered in shambolic piles.

Lying amongst dogeared promotional boards and posters, dusty display stands held a few biros and mechanical pencils – long forgotten. A model Norman castle nestled in the disused fire grate, next to a large foam-board cutout of Mog the Forgetful Cat.

The sound of pencils whispering to the paper amplified, as each student made a start.

From my mug of tea, Miffy stared back at me, looking a bit dispirited. Her arms supported the simple outline that formed her head and ears. With only three marks for a face, a crosstitch mouth beneath eyes set far apart, this endearing rabbit took me back to my 1970s bookshelf where Dick Bruna was king. I remembered things that have lain dormant for decades – in such detail. Inspired . . .

I started to write . . .

  • Want to hear about my wonderful writing teacher?
  • And the best independent bookshop to visit in Hampshire?
  • Read about them in my next blog . . .