THE JOURNAL FOR THE SOCIETY OF GARDEN DESIGNERS

Getting your show garden to an RHS show

Joanna Shirley


RHS Shows Judging Manager Joanna Shirley shares some insider tips on show garden selection and the judging process


When the dust has settled at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, much discussion follows about who got which medal, and why. The RHS selectors’ and judges’ decisions, as much as the garden designs themselves, provoke many arguments about what factors make a top show garden. It can seem a mystery why some gardens don’t get selected to be built in the first place, or unclear why the judges awarded Silver Gilt instead of Gold on the day. But there is a reason for everything, based on a stringent selection and judging process behind the scenes. 


How to apply

RHS Chelsea is open to all – you don’t need to be invited by the RHS to apply. If you’re working in or studying landscape and garden design, we’d be delighted to receive your application. You’ll find lots of helpful information in the factsheets on the RHS website: www.rhs.org.uk/chelseagardenapplications

When you apply, make sure to include all the relevant documentation with your application, such as plans, elevations, a cost estimate, a client’s brief and details of your contractor and sponsor. If this is your first show garden, we recommend that you employ a contractor who knows the showground. Chelsea is a small site with limited storage and a challenging build period, so your landscaper’s knowledge would prove invaluable. 

But just as oranges are not the only fruit, Chelsea is not the only RHS Flower Show. There is a broad range of garden categories available across all RHS Shows, and we also have show garden opportunities at Cardiff, Malvern, Chatsworth, Hampton Court and Tatton Park. 


Show garden selection

Whichever show you apply to, your application will be assessed by a show-specific Selection Panel. Selection Panels include designers, plant specialists and contractors, who review the applications and assess the suitability and practicality of your scheme. The panel provides feedback, highlighting any issues, and may request extra information or construction details, such as who will be building your water feature or providing any rare plants. Plant health and provenance are increasingly under scrutiny and you must ensure plants are sourced from reputable nurseries and are fully traceable. 

Being selected does not mean that your design is automatically of a Gold-medal standard, but rather that it will provide interest for show visitors and inspire debate. To be successful, you need to be clear about the ‘Big Idea’ behind your design and the message you wish the garden to communicate. Often Selection Panels will request that designs are simplified, so remember that ‘less is more’. Hopefully, this won’t be your only show garden, so don’t try to cram every idea you’ve ever had into one 10m x 22m plot, however tempting this may seem. 


The judging

Once you’ve been selected for the show, completed what will feel like an endless number of forms and, most importantly, got your garden built on time, the last challenge is the judging. At all our shows this is a three-stage process of assessing, judging and moderation. 

RHS judges are experts – garden designers, landscapers, horticulturists, plant specialists and journalists from across our industry who generously volunteer their time. Each garden is judged against nine different criteria, the first of which relates to the client’s brief (the final version of which must be submitted three weeks before the show). This is to see how the finished garden realises your design intentions. 

Next, the judges look at the ambition and choice of materials. Two criteria relate to design, both 2D and 3D, and another to the construction of the garden. The final three criteria focus on the plants: planting design, associations and implementation. 

Common pitfalls which lose marks at judging are in the planting design, with errors in composition or planting associations, or with inaccuracies in plant selection; and the 3D design, where greater spatial awareness would be required to ensure the design works as a whole. The day before judging, a team of assessing judges visits the garden to hear a two-minute presentation, usually given by the designer, about any changes to the final brief or garden that have occurred – perhaps a specimen plant had to be replaced or bad weather during the build has necessitated a change. 

The assessing judges review the garden, discuss and agree the standard achieved for each of the criteria, making notes as they go. Each standard has a numerical value assigned (e.g. ‘Excellent’ = four points), and the sum of the points results in a medal recommendation. To achieve Gold, the garden must have scored more than 28 from a total of 36 points. The notes and marks from the assessing stage are circulated to the Judging Panel the evening before judging. 

On judging day, the panel, comprising the three assessing judges and four additional judges with a senior judge as moderator, visit the garden. They will already have reviewed the client’s brief and the assessing judges’ notes. The panel will appraise the garden, the standards achieved for each of the criteria as recommended by the assessing judges, and listen to any further information reported on behalf of the designer from the presentation.     

If any member of the judging panel disagrees with the standard indicated by the assessing judges, they can call for further discussion and a re-vote. The judging panel will then agree or challenge the standards, as appropriate, re-voting as necessary to reach a final medal recommendation. Once the entire judging panel has agreed on the standard achieved in relation to each of the criteria, the medal will be proposed. The moderator ensures that the panel has been consistent in applying the criteria and approves the medal awarded. 

Following the announcement of the results, verbal feedback will be given by the chair of judges and the chair of assessors, one of whom will be a designer. A hard copy of the marks awarded is also given to the designer. 

I hope this whistle-stop tour of the process encourages you to apply to design an RHS show garden. Your designs are what make the shows, so do get in touch at chelseagardens@rhs.org.uk to discuss your ideas. RHS Chelsea 2018 show garden application deadline is 9 August 2017, and RHS Chatsworth 2018 Freeform garden applications deadline is 3 November 2017. Deadlines for Cardiff, Malvern, Hampton Court and Tatton shows to be announced.