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What happens to the plants and gardens after the Chelsea Flower Show?

What happens to the mountains of topsoil, the heaps of paving stones, the miles of timbers and the Chelsea Flower Show gardens themselves?

Cleve West’s 2006 Saga Insurance Garden
Cleve West’s 2006 Saga Insurance Garden embedded happily at Saga HQ in Folkestone

The ringing of the bell at 4pm on the final day of the Chelsea Flower Show marks the start of the great plant sell-off. Nicely English chaos ensues. Eyes narrow, gardening gloves come off, sleeves are rolled up and bizarre folding contraptions are whipped out from back packs, pockets, even from under hats.

Buses become great mobile greenhouses, crammed with plants and horticultural ephemera, Delphiniums sway perilously out of open-topped rickshaws; huge rose heavy trellises fight their way down the tube station escalators. But what happens to the rest: the tons of building materials, the miles of timber, the mountains of soil and compost, the paving slabs, the polystyrene cups; indeed to the show gardens themselves?

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In recent years the RHS has determined to reduce waste and increase recycling and nowhere is this more evident than at the world’s most famous flower show. So it’s in with green transport, and renewable energy sources but out with materials and invasive plant species: no gas patio heaters, fossil stones or petrified wood; no giant hogweed, fairy fern or plants dug from the wild. And 100% recycling.

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Recycling at Chelsea Flower Show

Recycling begins in the show’s own back yard, literally. During build-up to the show, materials surplus to requirement are put in the “materials swap shop” for any exhibitor to use.

Tools broken or no longer needed on site are sent to Tools Shed, The Conservation Foundation’s tools for schools recycling project run in association with HM Prisons.

Once the show closes members of the London Community Resource Network swoop in and remove timber, compost, woodchip, bricks and a mass of garden material which they then pass on to community groups across London. Entire gardens have been created out of this unwanted material, most notably the Desmond Tutu Peace Garden, designed by Chris Beardshaw and opened in Grove Park, Lewisham in July 2009.

What’s left - hardcore and aggregate, soil and catering waste - is taken away by Powerday, a massive waste and recycling outfit based in North London, that boasts a 100% recovery rate (no landfill). Most of this is recycled with the remainder recovered as ‘ready to use’ fuel to generate energy from waste. Wood is shredded and sent to a heating and power plant, soil is reclaimed for land restoration projects and concrete crushed and reused in building projects.

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What happens to the Chelsea gardens?

Show garden exhibitors must now submit details of where plants and building materials come from and how they plan to dispose of them after the show. They are encouraged to use sustainable materials and to come up with a plan for life after Chelsea to ensure that every garden should live on, at least in part.

Much is sold off for or donated to charity, with gardens, structures, paving and plants auctioned with proceeds going charity.

Other plants return to the nurseries who supplied them. The gold medal-winning online plant nursery Crocus host their own Chelsea sell-off the week after the show finishes.

Some gardens are transplanted in their entirety, many ending up in public spaces, such as The Hesco Leeds City Council Garden which is now in one of Leeds' major parks. Of seven of the City Council’s previous Chelsea gardens, four can now be visited by the public at sites around the city. The Unexpected Gardener by Thrive now sits happily at the charity’s headquarters in Reading. Students of the National Pollen and Aerobiology Research unit in Worcester are now reaping the benefits of the award-winning University of Worcester Garden.

Closer to home, staff continue to bask in Cleve West’s 2006 Saga Insurance Garden embedded happily at Saga HQ in Folkestone, where it looks as wonderful as the day it won its gold medal.

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Reusing materials

Huge specimen trees and shrubs will be used again, sometimes several years over; statuary and timber go into storage, smaller plants for resale. At gold medal-winning Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants the few plants which survive sell off will be split and propagated, as for the hard landscaping they take it to every major flower show throughout the summer.

There is always some clever recycling to watch out for at Chelsea. Cleve West always makes imaginative use of recycled materials, such as the dry stone walling and his use of water in The Daily Telegraph Garden. Marcus Barnett on The Times Kew Garden has used water for foundations and fully biodegradable plastic in his building materials, while Anthea Guthrie's beautiful A Child's Garden in Wales used only waste products: bark edge planks for a pit pony shed, rusted iron bed steads and scaffolding for a junk iron fence and coal slack for pathways.

Rest assured that along with the glorious flowers that old adage of "waste not want not" is alive, well and flourishing at The RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

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