Chelsea Flower Show: A century of blooming color

Story highlights

  • Sue Biggs became head of Royal Horticultural Society in 2010
  • She has tried to change the image from "gardening club for posh people" to promote the society's charity work
  • Chelsea Flower Show celebrates its 100th anniversary this year

It is 6am and Sue Biggs is surveying the preparations for the 100th anniversary of the Chelsea Flower Show.

A team of 800 people has spent three weeks converting 11 acres of playing fields into the world's most prestigious horticulture show, as famous for attracting royalty and celebrities as garden enthusiasts.

Over five days each May, 157,000 visitors troop into the Royal Hospital Chelsea in west London to see 550 exhibitors displaying magnificent show gardens, new plants and new trends in gardening.

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After 30 years in the travel industry, Biggs became director general of the Royal Horticultural Society -- the charity behind Chelsea Flower Show -- in 2010, and has already attracted a record number of members to the organization.

"I was here at 6 o'clock this morning and the excitement is fantastic," says Biggs. "There's something very magical about Chelsea. If you love gardening, as I have since I was seven years old, Chelsea is the absolute pinnacle. I have to pinch myself that I'm seeing it take shape.

Sue Biggs, director general of the Royal Horticultural Society

"This has been going on for 100 years, you are very aware of the heritage, the past that's gone before and the great people who have walked this showground, whether royalty, celebrities or great gardeners.

"Whether you love the tiny detail of a plant or the great vistas of an elaborate garden, there's always something you'll find eye-wateringly beautiful."

Chelsea Flower Show takes between 15 and 18 months to prepare, so even as the final touches are being added to this year, a team is well into planning for the 2014 show.

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Extravagant displays at Chelsea in the past two years have included an 80ft "Magical Tower Garden" and a "Sky Garden" with a suspended "flying boat", both by the Irish garden designer and television personality Diarmuid Gavin. This year Gavin is not exhibiting, and Biggs says the focus is more on plantmanship, although she has promised at least one surprise.

Biggs, 57, began gardening at the age of seven when her mother gave her a packet of seeds and her own piece of garden for her birthday.

"I was smitten the minute the seeds came into flower," she says. "It takes you into another world, an oasis, it's a great wind-down for me."

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However, she was not trained in horticulture and had never worked in the industry until three years ago. Instead, Biggs went into the travel industry where she worked for 25 years for the upmarket operator Kuoni, rising to become managing director.

In 1999, when she joined the board of Kuoni, she became the youngest ever director, the first female director and the first non-Swiss director.

"I went to Zurich for a celebratory weekend with the board, and they presented me with a card saying 'Congratulations Sue, finally we have someone to iron our shirts'. They'd be shot for that now, but at the time I found it funny."

Biggs, a longtime member of the Royal Horticultural Society, became its director general in 2010 after her husband spotted an advertisement in a Sunday newspaper and suggested a change of career.

"I laughed at him at first, but he said 'you love gardening, you'd love it,' she says. "I decided to apply and by some miracle they chose me."

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Biggs has worked on ridding the 209-year-old society of its exclusive image, promoting its charity work and has pushed membership numbers over 400,000 for the first time.

"It was never intentional, but it was seen as a gardening club for posh people. We have tried to be much more open and engage people. It's helped us to achieve a record number of members," she says.

She has overseen the sale of one of the society's properties in London and used the money to invest in charity work, from promoting horticulture as a career option and funding plant research to opening an urban garden.

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"It's one of my frustrations that people don't know the RHS is a charity," she says. "We need to make people aware of the scientific research, the work in schools, prisons and communities that we do. All of that work is funded by the success of shows like Chelsea."

Back at Chelsea, Biggs is preparing for another busy day from media interviews to overseeing the start of planting once all the structures, from pavilions and marquees to rocks, boulders and hedges are in place. She is wary of treading a fine line between tradition and innovation.

"Chelsea is the most successful flower show in the world, but it needs to always have something to surprise and delight people."

Chelsea Flower Show runs from May 21-25 at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, London.

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