Top tips for surviving (and thriving at) garden shows!

Posted on Sunday, April 29th, 2012

Ticket for this year's RHS Chelsea Flower ShowAs spring marches on we’re well into the season when garden shows are starting to bloom all over the place. With arguably the most famous garden show coming up in a few weeks (the RHS Chelsea Flower Show) we thought it would be a good time to share a few tips on making the best of your day out at garden shows this year.

Planning your day

To get the most out of your garden show visit it’s useful to do a bit of planning ahead of time. How much you need to do really depends on the size of the show, however here are some things you might want to think about doing:

  • Get a programme in advance and make a list of what you want to see; that way you can ensure that you don’t miss anything crucial.
  • If you can find a map of the show ground plan a route which encompasses everything on your list with minimal walking – even garden shows over a relatively small area can be exhausting if you keep doubling back because you’ve missed something.
  • If you’ve got a picnic to carry around with you, or are planning on making a few purchases, you’ll find a folding box trolley invaluable. These clever little carts fold up into a bag sized bundle but then unfold to provide storage space which can be easily wheeled around. Buy one in advance or wait until the day as most shows have a stall selling them.
  • The main attractions (the ’show gardens’ at most events) will be very busy throughout most of the day, so try to plan to see them when they’re likely to be quieter. If you can get there when the show opens and make a beeline for them you should just beat the crowds to it, alternatively have a lie in and plan to see them at the end of the day when the crowds are thinning out. If it looks like rain then visit the main attractions during showers of rain when most people are cowering in the marquees – gardens are made to be seen in rain as well as sun after all!
  • If you’re going with friends make sure that you either have mobile phones and/or that you arrange a meeting point in case you get separated. Remember that mobile phone reception may be limited in more ‘out of the way’ shows.

What to wear

  • If there’s even the slightest hint of rain take waterproof clothing, even if just a waterproof hat stuffed into your pocket. Don’t take an umbrella, there just won’t be room for it in a crowd. I’ve had plenty of pokes in the eye from inconsiderate umbrella-bearing people, don’t be one of them!
  • At most shows there is limited seating indoors, so stuff a couple of plastic carrier bags into your pockets to use them to cover wet seats or benches if it looks like rain.
  • Wear comfortable footwear. Trainers are ideal if the weather’s dry, walking boots if it’s wet (as you won’t be limited to walking on the hard standing paths with the crowds). TV pictures of the first day of Chelsea may suggest everyone goes there glammed up, but remember that the first day is a press event with people tottering around a couple of gardens drinking champagne, not ‘normal’ visitors who will have quite a walk ahead of them to see all the exhibits!

Food for thought

  • The food stalls at garden shows are very aware that they have a captive audience and often take advantage of this by charging exorbitant prices. At least ensure that you take a bottle of water and a snack with you, even if you still intend to buy your lunch there.
  • If you’re going to take a picnic (which is great fun as you’ll by no means be the only ones picnicking) you can always check it in at the cloakroom (if there is one) to save carrying it around all day. Just be warned that cloakrooms have limited capacities, so make it your first visit when you arrive to ensure they still have space for your bag.
  • Some of the larger shows will have on-site sit-down restaurants. You almost always need to book these in advance, and well in advance if you are a large party or want to dine at a popular time (eg anytime around lunchtime!). They’re a pricey luxury, but can be the icing on the cake of a special day out.

Grab a bargain

  • These days a lot of stalls will accept credit cards, but there will still be a proportion which accept cash or cheques only, so don’t forget to take some if you’re going on a spending spree.
  • Remember that you’re often talking to the business owner when you’re buying from stalls at shows, so it’s a great opportunity to hone your haggling skills, particularly if it’s been rainy and the show’s had fewer visitors than normal, or if it’s the last day when they may want to get rid of the remains of their stock.
  • If you’re looking for bargain plants then you’re best planning your visit for the last day of the show. You’ll often find show garden designers, and sometimes stallholders, selling off plants very cheaply to get rid of their stock so they don’t have to transport it home. Ask around to find out what time the sell off begins as you usually have to get in early for the best bargains.
  • It’s not all about shopping. At some shows you’ll find people handing out bags of marketing information. The product they’re advertising might not appeal to you, but often as not they’ll have put a packet of seeds in with the literature, so it’s always worth taking one to see what you’re getting for free.

It’s good to talk

  • Often visitors to garden shows feel they can’t bother exhibitors by asking questions, but on the whole this is nonsense! Exhibitors will have spent months preparing for this show and toiled endlessly to produce designs and plants which will delight judges and visitors alike – so someone showing an interest in all that hard work is generally much appreciated. And you can to take the opportunity to get some tips and ideas from real experts.