It’s garden show time!

What better way to spend a summer day than to visit a garden or agricultural show? There will be plenty to see, lots of cake and other eating and shopping opportunities!

Actually, there are very few shopping opportunities at Chelsea Flower Show that are bigger than a mug or smaller than a conservatory. It is a wonderful spectacle, if you can see any of it past the crowds seven deep at the show garden rails, but a good day out only for the garden die-hards.

There are several things Chelsea show gardens have in common with each other, despite their different characters. There is usually a ‘shack at the back’, a focal point to view through swathes of perennial planting. The implication is that you have your back to the dwelling of the people who have commissioned your lovely garden. However, your target client is likely to live in a yellow London stock brick terrace or a Surrey Tudor-wardian detached house, with the rear façade nicely garnished with down spouts and satellite dishes, so a Chelsea garden constructed with the view back to such a house has yet to be built.

The shack  – shed, folly, forge, hovel, conservatory, whatever –  not only serves as a focal point but is essential as a store for boxes of leaflets and the team’s handbags and lunch boxes, for there is absolutely no storage of any kind at Chelsea. If you volunteer to man a stand (which means you get in the show for free with a chance of a scoot round before the crowds descend), take a folding camp stool for a lunchtime rest in the shack, for there is nowhere to sit except on the dusty grass of the Ranelagh Gardens.

Such were the gripes about Chelsea crowding ever since its inception; the RHS developed Hampton Court Flower over 25 years ago as the answer to the moaning – it is now the largest flower show in the world with serious shopping marquees and stalls, in high summer when so much is naturally in bloom. A Gold Medal at Hampton Court is no longer second best to Chelsea, and with plenty of room to wander, shop, eat and sit down, I recommend it as a very good day out.

Closer to home is our own dear Bath and West show, also with excellent shopping opportunities but understandably more agricultural than horticultural. There are a few plant stalls, and as irises are in season, this is a good place to buy them. Best to buy early and have them reserved or they will be a nuisance to carry round all day. I tend not to buy many plants there for that reason.

Small local flower shows are usually held in August, when the vegetables are ripe, but June is the best time to go garden visiting. Over half of the National Garden Scheme gardens open in the first two weeks in June, when it is pretty difficult to make an English garden look bad if you have planted large quantities of roses, peonies, irises, geraniums, campanulas. I am happy to wander in a garden lush with these plants in any order, with a nice sit down at the end with tea and cake and a plant from the stall on my way out. The NGS raises millions for charity, and a visit is not costly.

The NGS Yellow Book is now on-line, and you can search for gardens open near you. Bear in mind that the descriptions are written by the owners, and a garden described as ‘a masterpiece’ may not actually be so.  Information for your visit will advise whether a garden is wheelchair accessible, whether they do ‘tea’ (tea and bikkie) or ‘teas’ (cakes and scones as well), a fine distinction that need translating to visiting Americans. They may be disappointed by the coffee; it is not often up to the quality of the cakes.