LONDON -- Nothing could have prepared me for the wonder of the Chelsea Flower Show. I was lucky enough to visit in May for the 100th anniversary of the show. It was Disney World for gardeners times 100.
One of the first things to floor me was an outdoor display of 30 wheelbarrows with their handles in the ground and wheels up high, forming a triangular piece of garden art. Most were painted hunter green, but the point of the triangle featured three bronze ones, two silver and one wheelbarrow of gold. It was the start of a day I'll never forget.
It's the formal garden displays that draw many of the visitors and might be the thing the show is most known for, at least to Americans. The crowds were sometimes five deep surrounding the perimeter of each. But the Brits are so polite; they would patiently wait for a chance to make their way to the front. Once there, they would spend a couple of minutes studying the garden, maybe shooting a few photos and then working their way back out through the throngs of people.
There was no pushing or shoving. There was a laid-back feeling, and camaraderie between gardeners. It was fun to ask and answer questions while standing next to strangers who were also in awe of beautiful designs and wonderful use of plants. Each one of the formal gardens had a plant list, which helped immensely. One plant that was in nearly every garden was cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris). The variety I was most interested in was 'Ravenswing.' I'd never seen it before; the 3-foot purple stems were topped with small lacy white flowers. It's basically a biennial weed hardy to zone 6 as it self sows freely. It resembles Queen Anne's lace or hemlock, which covers fields and roadsides in Western Pennsylvania. Cow parsley produces foliage the first year and then adds flowers the second. If I can find seeds, it will be part of my garden next spring.
I expected the majesty of the formal gardens and knew they would be spectacular, but I never anticipated what was on display in the Great Pavilion. Every flower or plant you could imagine, at its peak. UK gardeners could buy tubers, bulbs and plants right there or place an order after examining the plants.
The first display I saw was filled with 8-foot-tall blue and white delphiniums in full bloom towering over the biggest red begonia flowers I had ever seen. Next door were thousands of daffodils in vases, 30 flowers of each variety. I was flabbergasted to see an arbor completely covered in clematis forming a tunnel for visitors to walk through. I walked around it many times, trying to figure out how growers did it. A hundred different primrose and lupines were shown on shelves in booths, all in their most spectacular form; it was unbelievable.
Each plant from lavender to lady slipper orchids had its own display, and each was perfect. There's also an area showcasing every garden product you could imagine. Seeds, garden tools, ornaments and so much more were for sale.
To me the Chelsea Flower Show is the gardener's Super Bowl. I hope to see it again one day.
The 2014 Chelsea Flower Show will be held May 20-24. Tickets, which must be purchased in advance, go on sale to the general public Dec. 1. Information: www.rhs.org.uk.
Doug Oster: email@example.com or 412-779-5861. Visit his garden blog at www.post-gazette.com/gardeningwithdoug. Twitter: @dougoster1.