Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Chelsea Flower Show: A century of blooming color

By Catriona Davies, CNN
updated 10:49 AM EDT, Tue May 21, 2013
British artist Marc Quinn poses with his sculpture of an orchid in the Royal Horticultural Society garden on May 20, 2013. The world-famous gardening event is celebrating its centenary year. British artist Marc Quinn poses with his sculpture of an orchid in the Royal Horticultural Society garden on May 20, 2013. The world-famous gardening event is celebrating its centenary year.
HIDE CAPTION
2013
2013
2012
2012
2011
2011
2010
2008
2003
2006
2004
1976
1964
1958
1955
1937
1936
1931
1913
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
>
>>
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

Leading Women connects you to extraordinary women of our time -- remarkable professionals who have made it to the top in all areas of business, the arts, sport, culture, science and more.

London (CNN) -- 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.

Watch: Royal visit to flower show

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.

Sue Biggs, director general of the Royal Horticultural Society
Sue Biggs, director general of the Royal Horticultural Society

"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.

"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."

Growing roses with recycled water
Lesotho images at Chelsea Flower Show

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.

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."

Read: Famous daughters on what they learned from their moms

If you love gardening, as I have since I was seven years old, Chelsea is the absolute pinnacle.
Sue Biggs, director general of the Royal Horticultural Society

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.

A royal visit to the Royal flower show

"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."

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.

It was never intentional, but it was seen as a gardening club for posh people.
Sue Biggs, director general of the Royal Horticultural Society

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.

Read: Meet Saudi Arabia's first female lawyer

"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.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:07 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
In 2006 she sold her business to Estée Lauder in a reported multi-million dollar deal, five years later she started a brand new company.
updated 6:14 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs have come from women, though like so many inventors their names are lost in the pages of history.
updated 8:02 AM EDT, Fri October 10, 2014
Leading Women hosted a Twitter Chat celebrating girls in science with guests including race car drivers, software developers and coders.
updated 5:36 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
There's a fine science to running a billion dollar company. Rosalind Brewer should know -- she used to study chemistry.
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Thu October 9, 2014
Join our twitter chat @CNNIwomen on October 9 at 5pm GMT/12pm EST and look for #CNNwomen #IDG14.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
STEM experts from Marissa Mayer to Weili Dai share their thoughts to celebrate International Day of the Girl.
updated 6:32 AM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
When it comes to buildings, they don't come much different than a mosque and a nightclub.
updated 9:20 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen -- or so the saying goes.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
These 12 fashion experts have millions of followers, but who is the most social woman in fashion?
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mindy Grossman has been the driving force behind making the Home Shopping Network both hip and profitable, but she still makes time for herself.
updated 9:18 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Nelly Ben Hayoun speaking at NASA Ames research center
Nelly Ben Hayoun is on a mission to convince the world to take threats such as asteroid strikes more seriously.
updated 10:33 PM EDT, Sun August 24, 2014
Shenan Chuang turned Ogilvy China into the world's third biggest ad agency, CNN's Kristie Lu Stout asks how she did it.
ADVERTISEMENT