Interview: Mark Fane, Crocus Co-Director, PGB Trustee

It is 30 years since Mark Fane built his first garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and this year will be the last. As Crocus bows out of the show, Mark reflects on their incredible legacy of designer partnerships that have delighted show visitors and viewers and inspired a new generation of designers, landscapers and nursery folk.

Written by:

Hattie Ghaui

Published on:

May 20, 2024


It is 30 years since Mark Fane built his first garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and this year will be the last. As Crocus bows out of the show, Mark reflects on their incredible legacy of designer partnerships that have delighted show visitors and viewers and inspired a new generation of designers, landscapers and nursery folk.

Tell us about your RHS Chelsea medal-winning history with Crocus.

Crocus has now built 38 gardens (including the two we’re building this year), of which 33 won RHS Gold medals and 12 won Best in Show. Before Crocus we built three gardens - two Golds and one Best in Show. The very first of these was a garden for Christopher Bradley-Hole but the first we built as Crocus was for Gardens Illustrated magazine in 2000, designed by Arne Maynard and Piet Oudolf. We had a shoestring budget but we pulled out all the stops - it’s still remembered as an iconic Chelsea garden, winning Gold and Best in Show. Not a bad way to kick things off!

We know it must be a little like choosing a favourite child, but what are your highlights?

With 38 gardens to choose from, it’s quite hard! But I’ve been really thinking about this and I think there are five from over the years that are really special. 


Tom Stuart-Smith’s garden in 2008 for Laurent Perrier with the cloud-clipped hornbeam trees was really understated but undoubtedly very sophisticated.


In 2015 Dan Pearson created an homage to the Chatsworth House rock garden for Laurent Perrier. The thing I really liked about this one was that when we visited Chatsworth to select rocks, we discovered that Paxton - the designer who built the original rock garden - had left the rocks he had rejected in the woods. They were just lying around! We brought them all the way to Chelsea, where they won a Gold Medal and Best in Show, having suffered from rejection for the last 150 years, and now they’re back at Chatsworth, showing off to all the other rocks!


The garden we built last year with Sarah Price was really spectacular. It was really a very special and interesting design, but the cool thing about it was the sustainable way it was built. The hand-crafted bowls and bricks made without cement, the straw walls…it was a fantastic achievement.


The garden I thought was really transformational was with Christopher Bradley-Hole in 1997 called the Latin Garden. It just blew everyone away. We built it with virtually no training or experience - it was really near the beginning of our careers - the water feature leaked and we had all sorts of issues with it, but it won Best in Show and is still remembered as one of those gardens that pushed the envelope for garden design at Chelsea. I love that. 


Finally, Andy Sturgeon’s garden for M&G in 2019. Johnny Woodford created incredible burnt oak sculptures that seemed to rise from the earth like geographical monoliths. It was all about regeneration - showing how nature reclaims, adapts to and colonises environments. It’s a garden I’m really proud to have been a part of and one that is inspiring lots of the gardens we are seeing come through at Chelsea five years later.

Sarah Price's Nurture Landscapes Garden at RHS Chelsea '23. Photo by Eva Nemeth

You mentioned that you didn’t have horticultural training when you established Crocus and started building gardens at Chelsea. What led you into the world of horticulture?

My Dad was a gardener and I used to earn pocket money on a nursery - it was called Waterers Nurseries in Bagshot, so I sort of grew up with gardening around. But I had absolutely no intention of carrying it on. I went off to business school, then worked in the city. But quite quickly I realised there was something not quite right about a young whippersnapper pontificating and telling people how they should run their business so I made the unwise decision of trying to do it myself. My timing was unbelievably bad - in 1992, just as the economy was crashing, I left a very highly paid job for a very unhighly paid one. My father had died unexpectedly, and everything was sold off; my brother Pete and I bought the landscaping side of the business and decided to make a go of it. We built it up into a really successful corporate grounds maintenance company before we sold it. That’s where I learned about horticulture, and it pushed me forward to establish Crocus when the internet really started taking off. 

What gave you the idea of partnering with garden designers to create Chelsea gardens?

When we started Crocus there really was a limited choice of plants available to the consumer in garden centres. We could see all the incredible plants that designers were using - we were growing wholesale plants for a lot of them - but the general public couldn’t buy them. We wanted to bring that variety and choice to people and by showcasing the latest cultivars and planting trends at Chelsea, we added a touch of glamour to the range we were selling and gave people a really easy way of recreating a little of the Chelsea magic at home.

The National Garden Scheme Garden, RHS Chelsea '24, Designed by Tom Stuart-Smith. Photo by Britt Willoughby

What purpose do Chelsea gardens play for the average gardener do you think - it is about demonstrating accessible ideas, or is it more aspirational than that?

For me, Main Avenue at RHS Chelsea is the catwalk of the gardening world. it’s about showcasing the extremes of what is possible so that people can take that idea, normalise it, and use it for their own homes and gardens. A good example this year is the structure Je Ahn has designed with Tom Massey for the WaterAid Garden - few people will have one of those rainwater harvesting structures at home, but it raises an important issue about water and encourages people to do something similar. The same is true of the plants that are used in Chelsea gardens - everyone wants to see the plant list so they can add something current to their own gardens. And designers are very reliant on nurseries to make it all happen. 

The WaterAid Garden, RHS Chelsea '24. Designed by Tom Massey & Je Ahn. Photo by Britt Willoughby.

You often talk about the importance of having a good team around you. How crucial has your team been to achieving the accolades you have over the years?

It’s absolutely everything. If you’re going to ask someone to get up at five o’clock in the morning to drive a truck to Chelsea and sit in traffic for five hours, or ask someone to put in 10 hour shifts, 7 days a week for a month, they have to completely get what you’re trying to achieve and be a part of it from the beginning. We speak to all our team about the design, about the concept, and in the case of the gardens we’re building this year, about the charity we’re building for. If they buy into the vision, then half the job’s done - everyone on the team will pull together to make it all a reality. And for most of us, it’s not just about getting the job done, it’s about winning the medal, winning Best in Show and that is a powerful motivator. 

Le Bosquet de Chanel, RHS Chelsea '98. Designed by Tom Stuart-Smith

Tell us about some of your more outlandish or unusual memories of Chelsea. 

Very early in my career, we built a garden for Chanel. On the Sunday, Karl Lagerfeld, who was creative director at Chanel, turned up with a host of supermodels in tow for the photocall. We had a gold Venus de Milo style sculpture on a plinth in the garden, and Karl turned to me and said “Just put one of the supermodels on the statue over there please.” So after a brief hesitation, making eye contact with the model to check she was OK with this, I lifted her up onto the pedestal. She was completely calm about the whole thing - I of course was absolutely terrified! 

You’re a Vice-President of the RHS, a Trustee of Project Giving Back, with so much industry experience, what do you think Chelsea contributes to the wider UK horticulture industry?

There are certain events we put on in the UK that I believe are truly world class and RHS Chelsea Flower Show is one of them. It really is where the UK horticulture industry gets to show off its tail feathers and do business with the rest of the world. From the specialist nurseries who showcase their treasures in the pavilion, to the guys who work relentlessly to build showstopping gardens in just 3 weeks, it’s a well-oiled machine that never fails to delight, amaze and deliver for everyone involved. I think it still has a long way to go to achieve optimum sustainability credentials, but it’s certainly moving in the right direction, and I’m excited about seeing how it evolves over the next few years.  

“There are certain events we put on in the UK that I believe are truly world class and RHS Chelsea Flower Show is one of them.”

It’s Crocus’s last year building gardens at the show, but in a personal capacity, will you still have a presence here? Can you assure us you’ll be here next year?!

Definitely! Of course I’ll miss the build up to it and the drama and adrenaline, but it feels like the right thing to do, for us and the business. I am loving being a Trustee of Project Giving Back and helping realise that dream and there’s so much more to achieve there over the project’s final two years so I’m looking forward to seeing that through. And I feel that going out on a high with Tom Stuart-Smith is serendipity in many ways - I started with Tom and this will be my 11th collaboration with him at Chelsea. We’ve always aspired to achieve the highest quality possible but that comes with a lot of pressure and I’m now looking forward to being able to wander around and not feel that I’m responsible for any of it.  

Want to know more about the history and work of Mark and Crocus at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show?

Follow this link

More from our journal


Interview: Rosie Atkins, recipient of an RHS Elizabeth Medal of Honour (EMH)

On Tuesday 26 March 2024, Rosie Atkins received an RHS Elizabeth Medal of Honour (EMH), in recognition of her contribution to horticulture. Rosie talks about her career and what receiving the EMH means to her.


Want to know how to attract and retain really great women? There’s a lot to learn from ‘Project Giving Back’

For the last 20+ years I’ve been celebrating IWD in the corporate world … a world where we’ve used the day to celebrate the progress and achievements being made. And that’s been important because, let’s face it, there are still today material discrepancies in the number of women in senior and leadership roles, and in gender pay. Corporates now recognise the issue and, in most cases, are working hard to address the imbalances. However, targets of 40% of women on Boards and an 8% gender pay gap shows there is still a long way to go, and it’s a nut that hasn’t been cracked.


This year’s All About Plants designs revealed

We are delighted to be supporting all six of the All About Plants gardens at RHS Chelsea this May. These small gardens use the power of plants to highlight the work of some amazing charitable causes and showcase new designers and specialist growers and nurseries.


There’s hope in a garden

Project Giving Back exists to amplify the work of charitable causes in the UK. We fulfil our purpose by funding gardens for good causes at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. The gardens are first a catalyst for engagement at the world-renowned Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show, before being relocated or repurposed to permanent sites across the UK creating an ongoing legacy and benefit to the causes and their communities.


RHS Gardens for the Future conference

Trees, water and a heartwarming dose of joy were the main topics of conversation at the RHS Gardens for the Future press conference this week.


Show & Sanctuary Gardens announced for RHS Chelsea 2024

Project Giving Back (PGB) will support 15 gardens for good causes at RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2024, including seven show gardens and two sanctuary gardens that have been announced by the RHS today.


Application process and timeline explained for 2025 garden funding

We are now accepting expressions of interest from charities and designers interested in applying to create a fully funded show garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2025. This follows our recent announcement that Project Giving Back is extending its programme of funding for gardens for good causes until 2026. Here we explain in more detail the stages and timeline for the application process.


Announcing extended support of gardens for good causes at RHS Chelsea Flower Show

Project Giving Back (PGB) intends to continue its support of gardens for good causes at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2025 and 2026. Expressions of interest for 2025 funding can be submitted via the Project Giving Back website from Friday 22 September to Friday 3 November 2023. All gardens supported by PGB are repurposed in permanent locations around the UK after the show as ongoing legacies for the causes that inspired them.


Garden Museum to present gardens for good causes exhibition

We are excited to be back at the Garden Museum in September with a two week exhibition celebrating the 15 gardens supported by PGB at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2023. All our 2023 gardens for good causes are being relocated to permanent homes throughout the UK.


Too good to miss at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show this year

My first visit to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show site during the build always blows my mind. With 25 show gardens this year, the compact site feels full of activity, machinery and a LOT of people in high vis.


2022 Impact Summary

Project Giving Back offers a form of creative philanthropy in which good causes receive a gift of opportunity rather than direct funding. Wide ranging benefits include opportunities for extensive press and social media coverage, hosting exclusive events for potential donors and direct engagement with thousands of show visitors. We asked our 2022 garden teams to tell us how their experience at RHS Chelsea 2022 has impacted their charity so far.


Here’s to a hopeful International Women’s Day

Every International Women’s Day, thousands of “Happy IWD” messages are sent and received. Don’t get me wrong, I’m at the front of the queue when it comes to wanting to celebrate the achievements of women, past, present and future, but when it comes to international anything day/week/month, ‘happy’ is not often what I feel. While I applaud organisations for using it as a vehicle for highlighting change still needed, every year, there’s a part of me that feels frustrated because the very existence of a day is evidence that equality is still being strived for.


Gardens for Good Causes podcast: Successful PR & comms campaign planning

Speaking at the PGB 2023 Exhibitor Workshop, Katie Tait, Director of Communications at Maggie’s and PGB Mentor, chats to some of our 2022 cohort about the challenges of running successful PR campaigns in the crowded Chelsea media space.


Project Giving Back and House Nine Design helped raise over £15,000 to help domestic abuse charity Furnishing Futures

House Nine Design and Project Giving Back helped raise over £15,000 to help those fleeing domestic abuse through the charity Furnishing Futures.


Full list of 2023 gardens for good causes revealed 

We are delighted to reveal further good causes we will support next year with the announcement of the All About Plants and Sanctuary Gardens at RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2023.


RHS Chelsea 2023 Show Gardens announced

Following a hugely successful inaugural year in 2022, we will support more gardens for good causes in 2023. They will be presented at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, before being repurposed and relocated to their permanent homes across the UK. These include seven Show Gardens announced by the RHS. All gardens we support are inspired by UK charities and will live on after the show as a lasting legacy for their individual good causes - as teaching gardens, community spaces and other beneficial green spaces.


Gardens for Good Causes 2022 exhibition at The Garden Museum

The Garden Museum will host a special exhibition, from 30 September - 6 October 2022, to celebrate the twelve gardens for good causes supported by Project Giving Back that were presented at RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2022.


PGB is now open to expressions of interest for 2024

To help applicants plan a submission for 2024 funding, we are sharing more information about the questions that will be asked in our expression of interest form.


Funding applications for 2024 gardens to open

From 1 - 23 September 2022, we will be inviting expressions of interest for garden funding at RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2024.


Looking back on RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2022

RHS Chelsea 2022 was a vintage year and Project Giving Back is proud to have played its part. Hattie Ghaui, CEO of Project Giving Back, reflects on the charity's first RHS Chelsea Flower Show, celebrates some of the incredible success stories, and looks ahead to the next milestone in the charity's Chelsea journey.


Charity status and new CEO confirmed

Hattie Ghaui has been appointed CEO of Project Giving Back, which is now a registered charity.


The road to Chelsea - what goes into creating a show garden

Once our charities and garden designers have had their design accepted by the RHS, then it’s all systems go. There is a huge amount of organisation involved in creating a show garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show. As former RHS Chelsea Flower Show Manager and RHS Head of Shows Development, our advisory panel member Alexandra Denman is perfectly placed to provide insight into the many things that go into bringing together a successful show garden.


How Project Giving Back is funded

It is thanks to the generosity of our Founders that Project Giving Back exists to give good causes the opportunity to have a presence at RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Here our Project Director, Hattie Ghaui, explains more about how our gardens are funded.


‘Our story so far’ with Chair of our Advisory Panel, Rosie Atkins

When Project Giving Back was first conceived at the beginning of last year, Rosie Atkins was an obvious choice to be invited to get involved. Rosie began her career in journalism at the Sunday Times and 30 years ago launched Gardens Illustrated magazine. After ten years as editor, she left to become Curator of Chelsea Physic Garden. She has ​​chaired various RHS committees and served on the boards of several charities. Here Rosie tells us what made her want to be part of Project Giving Back and why she thinks gardening and good causes are such a good fit.


New category of plant-focused gardens announced

We are thrilled to announce the good causes and designers behind four new All About Plants gardens, supported by Project Giving Back at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2022.


A first look at gardens supported by Project Giving Back in 2022

Project Giving Back will support 12 gardens for good causes at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in May 2022. Today we can reveal seven of those gardens, with more to be announced later in January. All gardens supported by Project Giving Back will be unveiled to show visitors and viewers before being relocated to their permanent homes across the UK in summer 2022.


What we loved about the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2021

For the first time in the show’s 108-year history, the RHS Chelsea Flower Show was held in autumn this year. The sun shone all week and the whole experience was one of relaxed, late summer contentment. We popped along to discover more about how the greatest flower show on Earth offers an unparalleled platform for good causes to tell the world about their work.


Project Giving Back announced

We're so pleased to be able to announce a new and unique organisation that will provide funding for gardens inspired by UK charities and not-for-profit organisations at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2022, 2023 and 2024.

View All