Why I don't care who wins gold at RHS Chelsea Flower Show

As the RHS Chelsea Flower Show gets underway, there will be great anticipation as the show gardens are judged by a team of RHS experts. Everyone will be waiting excitedly to see who has won gold, or not, and to see which garden has achieved the ultimate accolade of Best In Show. Although I love seeing all the show gardens at Chelsea, the way they are judged makes it irrelevant to me who wins what. Let me explain... 

Why I don't care who wins a gold medal at Chelsea

The RHS Chelsea Flower Show is the highlight of the horticultural year. It provides glamour and publicity for all things gardening. It sets trends. The Royal Horticultural Society have successfully used the show to promote important topics like saving pollinators, protecting wildlife and the environment, and growing your own fresh food. 

Chelsea is the source of many gardening fashions, whether it's a particular plant, landscaping material or style of garden. The trend normally starts at Chelsea, and in particular  in the show gardens.

The show gardens are the heart of the Chelsea experience. They offer the glamour and prestige. To design and build a garden at Chelsea is a career defining moment for those involved, a medal something to cherish, a gold medal highly sought after, and the award of Best in Show the ultimate accolade. 

But to me, as an onlooker, these prizes have become irrelevant. 

At the 2017 show there was some controversy when the popular designer and TV presenter Chris Beardshaw received only a silver Gilt medal for his Morgan Stanley Garden. A majority of commentators seemed to think it was deserving of gold, and it was the most popular garden with the public, voted as the winner of the People's Choice Award.  

The People's Choice award offers the public a chance to vote for their favourite garden at the show, and 2017 was not the first time that they disagreed with the RHS judges about the ultimate winner.

In fact, from 2015 to 2017, the Peoples Choice winner was not even given a gold medal by the judges, 

In 2015 it was Matthew Keightley's "Hope in Vulnerability" garden, which won the People's Choice. It received a silver gilt medal. In 2016 Matthew Wilson, who has appeared on TV and radio, won the popular vote for his Yorkshire Garden, but got only a silver. And only three of the last seven People's Choice winners have won a gold. 

Now we should bear in mind the nature of public voting. Recent history has shown that putting something to the people does not always provide the result that was expected -  public opinion has become rather difficult to predict and it seems Chelsea is not immune!

Are the public more likely to vote for a TV or radio personality's garden? Does the demographic of those who visit the show or watch on TV skew the voting towards a particular style? Possibly. 

It's certainly true that almost all of us are appraising the show gardens in a totally different way to the RHS judges.

This was evident at last year's first outdoor RHS show at Cardiff. The show gardens there provided a perfect demonstration of the difference in how I appraise a garden myself, compared to RHS judges. 

My favourite was the Cwm Caerdydd garden by Evergreen Wales. It was a representation of a rural Welsh landscape, featuring a dramatic waterfall with a cave behind it, a pool in front, places to sit, and naturalistic planting. It reminded me of trips to the Brecon Beacons, where it is indeed possible to walk behind a waterfall and walk along stony paths surrounded by beech woodland. It won a silver medal.

 Cwm Caerdydd Garden by Evergreen Wales RHS Cardiff 2018 Green Fingered Blog
Cwm Caerdydd Garden by Evergreen Wales

I also enjoyed the Reimagined Past Garden by Pam Creed, in the Regeneration Category. It had beautifully subtle colour combinations in the planting scheme around a courtyard constructed from reclaimed materials. To me it was a lovely mix of formality and informality, and was something I could happily live with for a long time if it were my own outdoor space. It also won a silver medal.

Reimagined Past Garden by Pam Creed RHS Cardiff 2018 Green Fingered Blog
The Reimagined Past Garden by Pam Creed

Also in the Regeneration Category was Disequilibrium by Mike Furse, who used salvaged materials as a backdrop to his representation of the Japanese landscape, and more recycled items to highlight the effect industrialisation has had on that landscape. To me this was an attractive Japanese style garden which additionally told an effective story. It won a silver medal.

Disequilibrium Garden Mike Furse RHS Cardiff 2018 Green Fingered Blog
Disequilibrium by Mike Furse

The only gold medal awarded at Cardiff 2018 was to the Urban Regeneration Garden by Millie Souter. It featured an upcycled water tank and other items to create a striking garden of geometric lines, softened by small areas of planting. It felt to me like a disused industrial area that had been turned into a communal area in a city. Whilst a very good example of design, using the materials cleverly and utilising the space effectively, I found it rather cold and unfriendly. It not only won gold but was awarded Best in Show.   

Urban Regeneration garden by Millie Souter RHS Cardiff 2018 Green Fingered Blog
Urban Regeneration by Millie Souter

This is not to say that it did not deserve to be Best in Show, but it is important to remember that the RHS judges are looking for different things in each garden to the rest of us. 

I am not suggesting that the judges get it wrong. They are simply judging on different criteria. Thankfully these days there is much more transparency about these criteria, and if you want to you can see them for yourself:

The judges are assessing the quality of the plants and of the design. They consider how well the space has been used, how well it has been constructed and planted. They are looking for skilled composition, clever plant associations, appropriate choice and use of plants and materials, and attention to detail. 

They make allowance for the degree of difficulty in determining the marks to be awarded. A simple design well executed will earn fewer marks than a more complex design equally well carried out. 

They are also looking for ambition, flair, theatre, impact, and atmosphere, but these all come under a single category out of the nine used. 

I think this is a significant difference to how the rest of us look at the gardens. We are more likely to simply look, all be it quite closely, at a garden and allow it to influence our emotions as we absorb it in a largely passive manner. We look, and we allow the garden to affect how we feel about it.

This is why the majority of us choose a garden we can relate to. Something that reminds us of a childhood memory, or a traditional notion of what a beautiful garden is. This is in contrast to many Chelsea gardens which are purposely at the cutting edge of design, seeking to challenge those notions we have about what a garden should be or contain.

We are naturally more inclined to enjoy a garden that makes us feel relaxed, or nostalgic, or be impressed by an exuberant planting scheme. 

A designer may set out to make us feel much more uncomfortable, or uncertain, in order to communicate a theme or a concept that may be less familiar to us. It may take a more dramatic or stark design to make the impact that is sought after. 

The judges are much less passive. They are proactively seeking out a wider range of ways to judge the gardens. And there is another crucial piece of information that they use to assess the gardens, and it's one the rest of us do not have access to - The Brief. 

Designers submit their brief well in advance of the show and are judged against the extent to which they have adhered to it. Any deviation from what was originally submitted can result in a reduced score if they cannot be justified.

A slight alteration to the plants used, the construction details, or the finer details even, can be the difference between gold and silver, and between being the Best in Show or not. Even if the overall effect appears unchanged. 

This is another difference between the public and the judges. They are judging the design principles and the execution of the original plan.

I don't judge a garden like that. In fact, I'm not really judging them at all, I'm just enjoying them. I don't think most of the people who see the Chelsea gardens are either, whether they see them on TV or in person. The judges are more clinical, they have to be. 

For those who design and build Chelsea show gardens, this is an exam in garden design and construction, and so the judges are quite rightly marking them in that way before handing out what are important accolades.

But they are also judging the execution, whereas we are tending only to seek inspiration.

If you look at a Chelsea garden you may ask yourself how inspiring it is, does it make you want to recreate all or part of it back home, does it make you feel something, or does it provoke you to think differently in some way.

The judges are also asking this but much more besides. Any judging system needs to be systematic, to ensure consistency and fairness, but by definition, and again in a way quite rightly, this removes some of the emotion from the process. It's this emotion that the rest of us are actually seeking when we look at a garden.

In most cases we simply want a garden to be beautiful, or atmospheric. But that is very subjective.

Beyond beauty, if I am "judging" any garden, I'm doing so by how it makes me feel, and what it intends to make me feel. Gardens can make you feel relaxed, excited, comfortable, peaceful, energetic, exotic, romantic, nostalgic, mesmerised, even confronted or challenged. I tend to consider how well this is achieved when deciding how good a garden is.

A design brief for a Chelsea garden may state that the garden will make people feel a particular emotion, but to score well with the judges it will also need to be perfectly constructed and planted, whereas in reality those things matter less to most of us as long as that atmosphere is created, and we can feel the way we are supposed to feel.

Show gardens have a purpose. To show case a brand, or an idea, or a concept, or a trend.

They are works of art. They are fabulous, they are fantasy. But they are more a work of art than a real garden. They are gloriously enjoyable for that.

Of course for everyone involved in creating a show garden at Chelsea it is hugely important. A medal or a Best in Show is a career ambition and a highly prized accolade, and quite rightly so. I wish everyone luck and hope it's gold medals all round. But for the rest of us looking on, forget the medals, just look at the gardens, choose your favourite if you like, but just enjoy them and how they make you feel.

                                                         Instagram Follow on Instagram