Competition for Space

From Sketch to RHS Chelsea Show Garden

Ever since its first inception in 1913, the RHS Chelsea Flower Show has represented the absolute zenith of the gardening calendar. Steeped in tradition with Royal association, the RHS Chelsea Flower Show sets the standard for horticultural excellence. This series on Chelsea, featuring Jo Thompson, garden designer and Chelsea gold medalist, highlights the journey of a designer (and team) in the run up to the most famous of garden shows. Starting at the very beginning; the design selection process, as to date surprisingly little coverage is dedicated to the reasons the prized designs actually make it to the show in the first place.

Granted, eligibility for designing an RHS Chelsea Flower Show garden is based on an array of salient qualifications, such being a fully fledged garden designer, previous show experience, cooperation with a dexterous experienced contractor and considerate sponsor, but in truth much of it really is down to fortitude, resilience, ambition and ample bottle. Not least to cope with the notorious and increasingly frequent ‘Chelsea nightmares’, featuring (a.o.) petrifying Playmobil galleons, fellow designer interference, upside down trees, plants replaced by cold pasta shells, perilous pine furniture, chipolatas amongst roses, and other such sleep stirring anxieties.

Despite all this, every year a selected handful of garden designers faithfully commit to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, enduring months of pressure, to the sole end of having their slick handiwork assessed by trade peers, show visitors, the media and general public. ‘It’s bonkers really’ describes Thompson. ‘It’s very much like having a baby’, she explained. Though Thompson must have forgotten any previous trials and tribulations, as she is back at Chelsea for the third time.

Boils down to minutes

Often misconceived, show gardens at RHS flower shows, are not in competition come judging day. All participating designers have the chance to win gold medals for their designs. One could argue that ‘Best in Show’ is somewhat competitive, but the only true competitive aspect of the show is the actual selection process, where designers compete for the (limited) space to exhibit.

Purple Crocus February 2012
'A Celebration of Caravanning' Jo Thompson 2012 Show Garden
Here's Doris!
Thompson's design Thrive Garden 2010 RHS Chelsea
Thompson's Thrive Garden Design 2010 RHS Chelsea
Gold medal Thrive garden 2010 RHS Chelsea
Gold medal Thrive garden 2010 RHS Chelsea
Gold medal Thrive garden 2010 RHS Chelsea
Gold medal Thrive garden 2010 RHS Chelsea
Thompson's The Reconnection Garden Gardening World Cup 2011
Thompson's The Reconnection Garden Gardening World Cup 2011
Silver-gilt Demelza Garden 2009 RHS Chelsea
Chelsea Flower Show - Proposed 2012 Garden Layout Plan
Chelsea Flower Show - Proposed 2012 Garden Layout Plan
Jekka's gnome Borage at Chelsea (Jekka McVicar)

In the show garden category, 28 applications were received for the 2012 show, only 16 (confirmed) entries were selected. Once all applications have been received, the selection committee, represented by all disciplines; landscape architect, garden designer, plant expert and contractor, deliberate for approximately 15 to 25 minutes on each design. Those few minutes determine, if the application; pushes design, shows innovation, presents the right concept & feel, works as a Chelsea show garden, and above all includes enough editorial content for the visitors on the day. In reaction to Thompson application, Alexandra Denman, Show Manager, Chelsea Flower Show said, ‘Jo is not just a great designer, but also terribly good at presenting her designs. She had the whole package’. The selection committee therefore had no problems understanding the concept and put her design through.

Though, a contest for space it may be, it is a selection process and making it through does not guarantee a gold medal. ‘That is quite a misconception’, explains Denman, ‘Some feel that once signed off by the selection panel, they are going to get a gold. That is not true. We are selecting for a diverse show and interest for the visitor, and you can’t guarantee that any of those gardens in any of those categories are going to get that medal’.

Battening Down the Hatches

The application process has been tightened to combat the huge number of entries across all garden categories. Sponsorship and contractor agreements need to be signed on application. ‘Otherwise it’s just a waste of the RHS’s time, however much they love the garden’, explained Thompson. Submitted designs, must include a complete design (perspective views), nothing conceptual. Furthermore, in an attempt to remove speculative amateur designs (seeking sponsorship) a £1500 deposit is now expected on application. According to Denman, the more stringent application process has led to the targeted drop in application numbers, and an increase in applications from garden designers, with the added bonus of improved quality across all show categories.

Mother Hen

Maintaining the Chelsea standard and hence reputation, requires not just stringent rules, regulations and Olympic level efficiency, but also meticulous consultation with the RHS. ‘The RHS are really helpful, which I previously hadn’t realised’, admits Thompson. ‘The whole thing was encouraging where instead of the simple yes or no, the RHS would come back with positive suggestions for adapting the garden, to ensure that it works for the show’, she added.

Prior to the August application deadline, the RHS is engaged in detailed consultations with the designers. ‘For some show gardens, it can actually take two to three years to come to fruition’, reveals Denman. ‘The 2011 Monaco garden took around four years to come to Chelsea, for a variety of reasons such as the timing of the Monaco Grandprix’, explains Denman. Similarly, the 2011 Royal Botanical Melbourn garden took almost two years, to ensure the desired structural plants grew to show size/standard. ‘International exhibits, or particularly complex exhibits, can be submitted years in advance for provisional allocation of space, naturally depending on the acceptance of the design’, adds Denman. During that period, the RHS is engaged with the design (team) to ensure the garden is up to standard, plants are grown and materials are specked to the right standard.

Even during the application process, consultation continues, particularly when it comes to the structural elements of the garden. Where in recent years, designers have wished to include Catalpas for example, the plantsman on the selection panel would advise against their inclusion, as Catalpas are notorious for not being in leaf in time for Chelsea. ‘Mind, this is a recommendation, not an obligation to alter the design’, added Denman. Structural issues or so called ‘pinch points’ are discussed, though needn’t result in design alteration. However, if pinch points are not taken on board, designers run the risk of their possibly causing problems come judging day.

After application acceptance, any structural changes to the brief must be resubmitted to the panel. Though as Denman noted, it is rare that designers alter structural elements of their design, which have for their very inclusion, been accepted by the selection panel in the first place.

Clever Clog

Denman relates that both the design as well as the designer are crucial to the selection process. ‘We’re looking for someone with experience, with clear understanding as to what a show garden is about, knowledge of how to design a show garden which is very different from designing a normal garden, and be accompanied by a good contractor, who has built at Chelsea before and hence understands the requirements’.

Complete Chelsea novices are rare, but there is certainly hope for Chelsea virgins keen to exhibit. A small number do get through, such as in 2009, where Thompson’s first ever Chelsea application for a Courtyard Garden for Demelza Children’s Hospice was accepted, despite her lack of show garden experience. ‘The RHS would advise starting off at the smaller shows, but it’s not a closed door’, explained Thompson. She went on to win silver-gilt for the Demelza garden and a gold for her 2010 Urban Garden for Thrive.

Submitted design applications that are good, but not deemed suitable for Chelsea are referred for application to other RHS shows. ‘We try to treat the exhibitor with their best intentions in mind so that they get the best experience. That can come across quite hard, and despite them having the skills to do Chelsea, they design may not be suitable, or they may lack the experience’. Thompson agrees, ‘I was very lucky but I think for people starting out, previous show experience helps to understand the whole RHS judging process. If I had done Hampton Court I might have been better prepared for my first garden’.

The Name is Doris

Thompson’s accepted design for a (10m x 10m) show garden for the Caravan Club, is entitled ‘A Celebration of Caravanning’. According to Thompson, the garden will evoke the very best of holidaying in a caravan or using caravans as a more permanent solution to providing extra space at home. ‘A beautiful space that is practicable and useable’, described Thompson, renowned for the creation of realistic charming spaces.

For the first time in Chelsea history, [Clarkson look away now] a caravan, called Doris, will feature at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Pivotal in Thompson’s design, the vintage Doris has very much become the mascot of the project, and hopefully will be as fortuitous for Thompson as Borage for Jekka McVicar. For those who missed the media frenzy in 2009, Borage is Jekka’s gnome, which she managed to smuggle into many of her exhibits, despite strict Chelsea rules forbidding the use of so called, ‘coloured sculptures’. I can imagine that to Jekka, Doris must present the ideal hiding place for Borage and/or an entire posse of little Borages. Though, you/she never heard that from me.

According to Thompson, the key to show garden success is team work and strong relationship with an experienced contractor, as so stipulated by the show organisers. This year, Thompson will be working with David Dodd founder of the Outdoor Room, builder of many gold winning Chelsea show gardens.

Contractors alone do not gardens make. Trees (Chinese Red Birch) will be sourced from Hillier Nurseries and plants from Roger Platts and Iris of Sissinghurst. In terms of the plants, the structural plants included in the brief are crucial in the application process, though the ground plant list (the ‘pretties’) required on application, is purely indicative. The RHS fully accepts that seasonal changes will impact final ground plant choice. ‘You have to be flexible with the plants. Last year everything was far ahead in growth. The year before, it was much colder and all my Irises were still tightly in bud because of that really cold snap’ explains Thompson. The plant list only serves the selection panel as a guide to colour scheme, look and feel of the proposed design. ‘Designers will only be marked against those (structural) plants that are highlighted to be of critical importance to the design on the brief’, confirms Denman.

On her application form Thompson stated; ‘The garden will consist of mainly perennial planting, tall naked stems providing a translucent veil through the rest of the planting. A mixed informal feel; a contemporary take on cottage and woodland edge planting’. Combined with a palette of pink and cream planting, including roses, salvias, irises and grasses, the garden will surely become the restful place Thompson intends it to be.

Main Avenue Allure

Due to space limitations, the layout of the Chelsea show ground generally stays the same. Show gardens, are situated along Royal Hospital Way, the Triangle, Rock Garden Bank and Main Avenue. Allocation of spaces is completely to the discretion of the RHS. ‘The allocation of the gardens is based on their editorial content, how that mix looks together and the aspect to ensure we show the garden in its best light’, explains Denman. The two larger plots; the Triangle and Rock Garden Bank, are used to accommodate exceptional features, such as Diarmuid Gavin’s ‘unusual’ pink oscillating pod in 2011.

‘I’m just delighted to be on Main Avenue. Though that does mean that the pressure’s on’, notes Thompson. She confirms that the crucial agreements between the neighbouring plots regarding the boundaries have already been agreed. ‘The people on site are lovely, and do take care of each other’, confirmed Denman.

Though to the delight of the press, there are exceptions. Who could ever forget the highly public row in 2004, between Diarmuid Gavin and Bunny Guinness over egg-shaped pavilions and/or rowing boats appearing over their shared boundary? No wonder that Diarmuid came back to Chelsea in 2011 with that pod, hanging well out of reach all neighbours, despite the fact that he’s very scared of heights….

Subsequent article in this series; Marathon Woman: An Interview with Jo Thompson, highlighting her passion for plants and architectural garden design.