10 things not to miss at the Chelsea Flower Show

Lithuanian garden designer Ula Maria
Lithuanian garden designer Ula Maria has sought to create a sanctuary at her Main Avenue Muscular Dystrophy UK Forest Bathing Garden - Clara Molden

There have been many significant changes to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show over the past few years – wilder naturalistic planting, the use of reclaimed materials (the RHS feature garden this year is entirely recycled from past show gardens), and, of course, a focus on sustainability more generally.

This will be the greenest flower show yet, as exhibitors work to consider their carbon footprint in every element of their design and build, in line with the RHS target to become net positive for nature by 2030. And this year’s show gardens abound with innovative thinking, with many ideas that visitors can put into practice at home.

But perhaps none of these changes is as significant as the shift to gardens that are designed with an end-use in mind. Since 2022, Project Giving Back has provided support for UK charities to have a garden at the show (by 2026 it aims to support 60 projects) before repurposing them in permanent locations; this year it is supporting 15 charities.

It has not only radically shifted the kind of designs being proposed but also showcases how horticulture and gardens can significantly impact wellbeing.

From Chelsea veterans to Main Avenue newcomers, here are 10 things to look out for at this year’s show.

National Garden Scheme Garden by Tom Stuart-Smith

Few designers can claim the track record of Chelsea stalwart Tom Stuart-Smith, who has won three Best in Show awards, and whose eight show gardens have all won gold medals.

Tom Stuart-Smith
Tom Stuart-Smith's garden celebrates the joy and wellbeing benefits of garden visiting - Rii Schroer

This year he’s back after a 10-year hiatus with a design that will be relocated to the Maggie’s Centre for cancer patients at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, after the show, where it will sit on the edge of oak and hazel woodland.

In many ways, this is a personal project for Stuart-Smith, who has opened his own Hertfordshire garden for the NGS for 30 years. Some of the plants for the garden have come from his Serge Hill Project Plant Library and its cleft oak building has been designed by his architect son Ben Stuart-Smith and created by furniture maker and woodworker Fenton Scott Fielder. Inside, it’s been styled with tools restored by the Sunnyside Rural Trust.

A group of hazel trees discovered at Solitair nursery in Belgium will be joined by a boundary hedge with hawthorn, field maple, hornbeam, viburnum and Cornus mas, and a tapestry of woodland flowers – some of which have come from NGS gardens.

Tom Stuart Smith's National Garden Scheme Garden
Stuart-Smith's National Garden Scheme Garden has a subtly soothing woodland plant palette

The soothing colour palette includes Angelica archangelica as well as white astrantias, camassias, epimediums and peonies, alongside more unusual plants such as Maianthemum oleracea and woodland plants, Boehmeria platanifolia and Disporopsis pernyi.

Subtle colour comes from Iris sibirica ‘Sparkling Rose’ or the delicate Geranium himalayense ‘Derrick Cook’. In a neat circularity, after the show some of the plants will be sold in aid of the NGS at Chilworth Manor in Surrey on June 1.

Muscular Dystrophy UK Forest Bathing Garden by Ula Maria

The starting point for Ula Maria – the 2017 RHS Young Designer of the Year, making her debut on Main Avenue – and her forest-bathing garden was a conversation with someone who, after receiving his muscular dystrophy diagnosis in his early 20s, had to digest this life-changing news while sitting alone in a car park.

Ula Maria
There are 50 trees in Ula Maria's garden, which promises full nature immersion - Clara Molden

“I wanted to create something that acts as a sanctuary,” says the designer. “We know how being among trees and tree canopies affects our bodies; the physical and mental wellbeing benefits of a forest atmosphere.” After the show, her garden will be relocated to the new Institute of Developmental and Regenerative Medicine at the University of Oxford, where it will be used for patients during treatment and new trials.

Full nature immersion comes via more than 50 trees – possibly the most used in a show garden at Chelsea – including silver birch, alder and wildlife-friendly hawthorn. Underneath the trees will be lush foliage, providing a backdrop to occasional swathes of colourful planting including Martagon lilies, Geranium sylvaticum ‘Mayflower’ and ‘Ice blue’, aquilegias, foxgloves (including Digitalis grandiflora and D. lutea) and delicate beauties such as Epimedium ‘Amber Queen’, Tellima grandiflora and Geum ‘Leonards Variety’.

Echoing the Japanese forest-bathing theme, she turned to the far east for unusual plants, such as the Japanese wood poppy, Glaucidium palmatum or Peltoboykinia watanabei, a hardy herbaceous woodland plant with spires of creamy white flowers. A naturalised stream, constructed in recycled materials, will help to bring more wildlife into the therapeutic space.

Ula Maria's Muscular Dystrophy UK Forest Bathing Garden
The Muscular Dystrophy UK Forest Bathing Garden will highlight the healing nature of trees

Central to the design is a knapped flint wall, inspired by the microscopic images of muscle cells that Ula Maria discovered during her research. In front of the wall, seating has been made by Oli Carter, who uses trees that have been felled due to disease or have naturally fallen to sculpt tactile seating in ash, oak and giant redwood, which is also charred using the Japanese shou sugi ban technique to prolong its life.

WaterAid Garden by Tom Massey and Je Ahn

Tom Massey is now a familiar face on Main Avenue – he won gold and People’s Choice in 2021 for his Yeo Valley Organic Garden and this year, along with architect Je Ahn, he has created the WaterAid Garden, a design tackling increasingly unpredictable weather events.

“In this country, we are talking about water and our gardens, but a tenth of the world’s population doesn’t have access to clean water,” says Massey. “The climate crisis really is a water crisis.”

Central to the design is a sculptural pavilion that not only captures water but filters it too, while also providing shade and water storage. Additionally, Alnus glutinosa ‘Pyramidalis’ trees grow through the roof of the building.

For Ahn, whose Studio Weave works predominantly in the public realm, it was an opportunity to showcase ideas on a more domestic scale. The roof of the central structure is the driest and hottest zone, featuring tough, resilient plants such as the red yucca, Hesperaloe parviflora, which is hardy in winter but can cope with summer droughts.

WaterAid Garden Chelsea Flower Show
An artist's impression of Tom Massey's Water Aid garden, which will highlight how landscapes can work with rainwater 'rather than against it'

In other areas, Massey plays with topography to create different conditions, a simple idea that can translate to almost any outside space. In damper zones, planting includes water violets and bog bean, a marginal plant with white flowers.

“Even in a small garden you can dig a pond, disconnect your rainwater downpipe and discharge it into a small depression,” says Massey. “It’s about thinking about all the various different habitats that you could have in your garden. Landscape can work with rainwater rather than against it and utilise it in many different ways.”

Stroke Association Garden for Recovery by Miria Harris

Stroke survivor Miria Harris’s soothing design for the Stroke Association Garden for Recovery boasts uplifting blocks of colourful planting, an enclosed seating area, winding paths, lime-rendered hemp block walls and a clay-lined pond – which, like many of the materials here, has been chosen as a sustainable alternative: in this case, to using a plastic liner.

There are metaphors threaded throughout, including the gnarly ‘imperfect’ Pinus sylvestris trees that dominate the space, which were previously discarded and nursed back to health at Deepdale Trees. The garden will be relocated to the Stroke Unit at Chapel Allerton Hospital in Leeds.

National Autistic Society Garden by Sophie Parmenter and Dido Milne

Designer Sophie Parmenter has collaborated with architect Dido Milne on the National Autistic Society Garden. This tactile garden with cork-block walls, textural wooden boundaries, mossy stepping-stone paths and a glade of Betula nigra, with its beautiful papery bark, surrounds a central cork-walled sanctuary featuring a kinetic sculpture by Robert Moore.

The National Autistic Society Garden Chelsea Flower Show
The National Autistic Society Garden will feature colourful, sensory planting

The idea is that here, an autistic person, who has to ‘mask’ in the outside world, can be themselves. Planting is equally sensory, too, with ferns, drifts of camassias, jewel-toned flowers and dogwoods, as well as blueberry bushes and Japanese plum.

Eco-minded materials and processes underpin the entire ethos of the garden – the central structure’s roof panels are coloured using vegetable dyes, while the cork is recycled from waste and by-products. The garden will be relocated to Catrine Bank, a National Autistic Society supported-living site in Scotland.

Flood Resilient Garden by Naomi Slade and Ed Barsley

Water is a key theme at this year’s show, and Naomi Slade and Ed Barsley’s Flood Resilient Garden shows on a domestic scale how gardeners can mitigate the effects of extreme weather. A central swale channels surface water through a bog (planted with rodgersia, astilbe, irises and water mint) and then into a pond, while storage tanks (that can be operated using smart technology) are reimagined as ornamental ponds. A gulley area uses woodland plants including Ranunculus acris, Angelica sylvestris and foxgloves. Dense planting helps to slow the flow of water and absorb excess moisture.

Moroto no IE garden by Kazuyuki Ishihara

Kazuyuki Ishihara’s small perfect worlds are always a big attraction at Chelsea, and this year he has designed a family garden complete with a tiny house shrouded in green walls, and planting that focuses on the vivid colours of acers. It’s all set around a waterfall that feeds into a central pool. Additional planting draws on Japanese landscapes with pine, Farfugium japonicum, iris and mosses.

Kent Wildflower Seeds

Wildflowers have been an increasing presence at Chelsea in recent years, but this year they are the star of the show in one Floral Marquee stand by first-timers Kent Wildflower Seeds.

Kent Wildflower Seeds
Discover ideas for using wildflowers in a garden setting in the Floral Marquee

Partnering with the organic Somerset-based fragrance firm Ffern, they will have a painted backdrop created by Claire Basler, and a scheme designed by Tabi Jackson Gee that illustrates how to use wildflowers in a garden setting.

Balcony and Container Gardens

The balcony and container gardens that were introduced to the show in 2021 are always packed with clever small-space ideas. This year’s jewel-box plots pick up on wider themes, including water conservation (Sam Proctor’s Water Saving Garden) and drought-tolerant planting (Lucy Mitchell’s Changing Tides Garden).

The balcony gardens highlight how city and town microclimates can provide shelter for tender plants including bougainvillea and citrus (Michela Trinca’s La Mia Venezia), mini jungles (the Addleshaw Goddard Junglette Garden) or a no-waste garden (Tsuyako Asada’s Tomie’s Cuisine the Nobonsai).

World Child Cancer Nurturing Garden by Giulio Giorgi

Chelsea first-timer Giulio Giorgi has created a garden that’s all about escapism for children undergoing cancer treatment, and their families. The innovative design uses perforated clay blocks slotted together to create raised beds, illustrating how a garden could be moved and reconfigured.

Giulio Giorgi's World Child Cancer Nurturing Garden
Giulio Giorgi's World Child Cancer Nurturing Garden will be donated to one of Young Lives vs Cancer's 'Homes from Home' after the show

Silver-leafed plants including Sorbus lutescens, Elaeagnus commutata, Buddleja glomerata ‘Silver Service’ and cardoons are contrasted with colourful Californian poppies, scented pelargoniums and the vivid blue flowers of Salvia chamaedryoides.

The garden will be relocated to CLIC House, Bristol – one of Young Lives vs Cancer’s Homes from Home that allows families to stay together while a child is undergoing cancer treatment.