Made in Chelsea: what can garden shows teach us about performance?


For those that aren’t too familiar with the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, it’s a spectacular display of garden and floral exhibits which welcomes over 150,000 visitors each year to the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea over five days in May. It’s the epitome of a high-performance environment, with exhibitors vying for prestigious awards in a number of different categories.

To learn more about what it takes to be an RHS Chelsea Flower Show exhibitor, we caught up with our Finance Director, Justin Warhurst. Justin has been volunteering at the Chelsea Flower Show for over a decade in various different capacities. Most recently, he’s been helping Rosy and Rob of Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants who returned to RHS Chelsea Flower Show for their 27th year, adding a further gold medal to their existing 23 Chelsea gold medals!

So, what does it take to be a gold medal winner at RHS Chelsea Flower Show? Justin shares three key qualities that continue to impress him year on year…

Meticulous planning

Applications for next year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show are already open for the three garden categories: show gardens, artisan gardens and urban gardens. When submitting an application, you have to include a design proposal, so you already have to have a well thought through idea of what you want to achieve. There’s so much detail that goes into the planning of these gardens, from funding to sourcing plants to recruiting a team for the build itself, the planning for next year will already be well underway!

After those long months of planning, it all comes down to an intense 18 working days before the show in which the show gardens are built. During this time a well-oiled team of 10 to 12 people per garden will bring the designers vision to life. As an outside observer, those 18 days on the site appear like absolute chaos, so it’s incredible to see how each team works together to produce a garden to such an incredibly high standard. It looks like barely a leaf is out of place before the show’s doors open!

Resilience in spades

Resilience is probably the most important quality for any exhibitor, in the run up to the show they’ll be working 12-15-hour days, striving for perfection before the doors open. Many will be utterly exhausted when the show finally starts, but seeing their hard work appreciated by the judges and the public, make it all worthwhile.

You also have to consider that many of the exhibitors will have only just got back from the Malvern Spring Festival, and after Chelsea, they’ll be heading straight off to the Chatsworth Flower Show and then on to the Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival in early July. Continuing to ensure the quality of their displays remains consistently high is tiring work, so it’s really important they know how to remain resilient and manage their pressure over such a long and intense period.

Problem solving

The ability to problem solve goes hand in hand with being resilient. There are certain challenges that you know to expect for example, the soil isn’t particularly deep at Chelsea, so you know in advance to plan around that. However, there are plenty of variables you can’t control – the weather being the main one.

In 2011, an unusually hot April sent many exhibitors into panic as many of them lost key plants in their displays. Those affected had to be really agile and think quickly, working out what plants to swap out, freezing some where necessary. Interestingly, the previous year saw the opposite problem, with exhibitors having to put plants in greenhouses or even take a hairdryer to them to force them to bloom after the coldest winter in 31 years. So, whilst they can’t control the weather, there’s plenty of creative ideas to make it work for them!

Ultimately, no matter what happens, or how big the challenge, there’s no negotiation on the deadline. Through meticulous planning, staying resilient and solving problems as they arise, each exhibitor has to find a way to be ready for the opening day and the visit of the Queen.


Want to keep up to date with the latest news from RHS Chelsea Flower Show? Follow #ChelseaFlowerShow on Twitter and to see how Rosy and Rob get on this year, follow them on @hardyplants