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Interviews

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.

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Alexandra Denman

Published on:

August 4, 2022

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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.

Q: Give us a little insight into the commitment it takes to create a Chelsea garden.

A: There is a huge amount of work that goes on behind the scenes in preparing to stage a garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show. It takes an organised mind and determined ‘can do’ attitude to successfully bring together all the elements needed to create that fleeting moment of perfection in May.

Once the design has been accepted by the RHS, which usually happens in the previous September, it is full steam ahead and amazing how little time there actually is to get everything ready for the show. There will be details of the design to refine and the design team will have to get to work on sourcing materials and producing any high-cost, bespoke items of sculpture, metal work or stonework. The designer will be working closely with the contractor and plantspeople throughout the process to keep everything on track and to tackle any challenges that arise.

Q: What are some of the main things the designer needs to consider once the application has been approved by the RHS?

A: Sourcing plants and working successfully with the nurseries that will supply them is one of the most important things. Getting plants ready at just the right time and making sure they are good enough is a big challenge. For the larger show gardens, some designers will have taken the risk of starting to grow their plants last summer before their garden was confirmed, as many plants need much longer to grow than the period from October to May. But with the uncertainty of the British weather, when we’ve recently gone from unseasonably warm sunshine to snow and frost within the space of a week, it really is a juggling act. Another challenge for the team is managing the budget, especially at the moment given how much the cost of materials and fuel have gone up and when unexpected jumps in prices go beyond the contingency they have built in.

Q: How important is team-work to the whole process?

A: The run up to the show is a major feat of project management and partnership, and I believe that the success of a garden comes down to all parties working well together. The relationship between designer and contractor is pivotal to delivering the garden and will have been cemented at the stage of applying for the garden. But a round table approach, where everyone including the charity representatives and communications team all stay abreast of everything and share ideas, will really help make the most of the opportunity and ensure the messages are consistent. When everybody has a voice and feels integral to the project, then you are going to get a really good result.

Q: What about designers or charities who haven’t exhibited at Chelsea before? What help is available to them and what should they consider?

A: For the first timer, understanding how Chelsea works is a steep learning curve to say the least. Everything from ordering passes and signage to designing brochures or leaflets needs to be factored in. The RHS has a series of deadlines to help exhibitors stay on track, but it is vital for our charities to get their heads around everything so that they can make the most of the opportunities. For example, gardens have the chance to entertain their guests in the evening – for charities, this is a unique opportunity to invite their key sponsors and donors to a very special event on their garden to boost their fundraising.

Q: How can charities make the most of the opportunity?

A: Planning the PR and communications campaign is a really important element to the whole experience, starting from when the gardens are announced in January and steadily building up all the way to Press Day and beyond. The PGB supported gardens need to have a clear and consistent message that tells the story of their good cause, but then it is about how they get that message across and engage with the public and media, because raising awareness is of course their main reason for being at the show. It is also about aligning story-telling with creating a garden that is horticulturally excellent and will delight the visitors.

Q: What’s it like to finally begin the garden build on site?

A: Once the designers and contractors move on site at Chelsea in early May to start their build, it is a huge team effort. To give an idea of the sheer scale, there are probably up to 100 people working on each large show garden if you include everyone involved in building it, contractors, volunteers and support staff. Yes, Chelsea is about plants, but I feel it is all about the people and how they work together. On the show ground, the ‘Chelsea family’ is very supportive of each other. Everyone wants the show to be as good as it can be and is ready to help out if things don’t go according to plan. It is an intense experience with long days but incredibly rewarding – and addictive! No wonder people want to be involved year after year.

From the time of application through to the show is a process of more than a year. It is all-consuming and everyone is very emotionally invested. There is a lot of pressure particularly on the designers to deliver, and because they really believe in the charities they are working with, they want to do their best. We are really looking forward to seeing the results of all the hard work of this year’s cohort of PGB teams with the finished gardens being unveiled in May before they move on to their final destinations after the show.

To find out more about our 2022 gardens, please visit Our Gardens page here.

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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.

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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.

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