Behind the Scenes at RHS Chelsea: A stimulating and fun morning

Alitex at Chelsea Flower Show

Thrive and Alitex welcomed Alex Denman from the RHS and Andrew Fisher Tomlin plus twenty four other lucky ticket holders to the Alitex greenhouse in the Thrive Herb Garden in Battersea Park on Thursday.

It is so inspiring and energizing being amongst two such experienced guest speakers this close to Chelsea. Plus everybody was nestled up to the benching which held all the seeds and seedlings which will populate our stand this year. We all assembled in the greenhouse as the rain periodically poured down outside creating a lovely atmosphere as we learnt of the various responsibilities and challenges that RHS Chelsea presents.

Andrew Fisher-Tomlin

Andrew kicked off the morning, relating how as a child he had wandered through Chelsea with his mum and ended up exhibiting in the 1990’s and was now on the garden selection panel as well as the judging panel. Although his most important role this year is the fact he has been appointed toilet decorator! I just love the fact that so much thought and attention is given to this kind of detail at Chelsea that we have someone as eminent as Andrew being responsible for this; after all everyone visits the loo.

The process of getting a garden to Chelsea actually begins a full year in advance. The garden selection panel starts taking applications for next year during this year’s show. Andrew and the panel make decisions on whether the gardens should come to the following year’s show by October/November. They are looking for a good brief, which is able to deliver on its’ promises otherwise it will be marked down. Purpose and theme are key issues in the garden’s plan as is horticultural integrity; is the garden achievable and realistic. Andrew related how planting had become much more important to so many of the applications as quite simply it cost less than hard landscaping and structures. For a show like Chelsea with so many plant lovers, this is clearly not necessarily a bad thing.

On the Sunday before the show (this year the 20th May) Andrew chairs the assessment of the smaller gardens, talking to the gardeners with their brief in hand. This stage is crucial to the judging process – the gardeners must explain the departures from the brief, for example the frost may have been the reason to exchange that planting with this planting etc. Substitutions must be explained if they are to not count against you with the judges. By the end of the Sunday all the evidence and detail must be passed to the judges, so a fair decision can be made.

The big day on Monday is when judging begins. The judges will be looking at the scale of the work(does it actually fit together), has the brief been realised, the impact and design of the garden and also the quality of the build. Points are awarded and the judging and voting carries on way into the night. Each judge must “pitch”, their view to the panel and also to a group of moderators who sit on all RHS Show panels to ensure continuity and consistency of standard. By Tuesday, awards can be issued and then Andrew must give feedback to designers, which can be unsettling to say the least! Andrew relayed a wonderful story about a bronze medal winner who when he went over to chat about her award burst into tears and said she’d been crying all night. Slightly discomfited Andrew prepared words of sympathy but in fact (and happily) they were tears of joy from a first time winner.

Alex Denman RHS

Alex Denman is in her sixth year managing Chelsea. Hilariously she told great anecdotes about her team of five women who all happily relied upon feminine wiles to get the job done. What that meant in practise was calming far too many crane drivers who all want to work in the same space at the same time on the same day.

The Chelsea ground is currently being marked up and over the weekend the marquees will be erected in place. The show’s infrastructure, loo’s, catering etc will be installed over the next week and by Wednesday the real fun begins. Alex related how by 7am there will will rows of lorries down the embankment in London waiting to gain access through the “bullring gates”. It is the only way in and out of the show and this was certainly a problem for Diarmud Gavin last year with his pod garden which had to be lifted over the gates, not through them!

Logistics and planning seem to be the hallmarks of Alex’s success each year. Much like the Monaco garden of 2011 which had four years of planning and plotting and ended up being a triumph.

Hilliers is the show’s largest exhibitor with 400sq m plot and occupying the central area of the show.

Alex has the greatest respect for the plants people who produce such fantastic displays though everything the weather throws at them, year in, year out, as he says:

“Chelsea is the setting for thousands of people to come together and celebrate horticultural excellence”.

By 7am on the press day Alex feels the show is ready for the world – and indeed 1,200 international press descend on the show. It is the only day in the year when horticulture takes the front page of every worldwide newspaper!

A wonderful morning, thank you for joining us, thank you to our guest speakers ans see you at Chelsea!

Click here for more information about Alitex and RHS Chelsea.

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