Unveiling the Secrets: How to Design a Chelsea Show Garden

The Art of Creating Something Magnificent

Show gardens are a different world from ‘real’ gardens in many ways. They show the art of the possible and finishing to the highest possible standard, whilst working to the tightest of deadlines and in incredibly restricted space! RHS Chelsea every year takes a year in the planning and a cast of hundreds of people for each garden to bring it to fruition. From the first submission of a design to the show committee, right through to finishing touches just before the show opens, everything must be planned and completed to the exacting standards of the RHS and in the full glare of the media!

RHS Hampton Court is no less challenging, although the show ground itself is larger and therefore the space to work in is a little easier. For our Gold Medal winning garden, the inspiration for the design came from a visit to a tree nursery in Germany. We spotted a series of magnificent huge umbrella form contorted hazels that gave such a sense of presence and age that we knew we had to design a garden around them.


The plan was actually sketched on the plane on the way home and was developed over the following weeks into a full 3D design with a glass bridge, wonderful curved steel rills and a sunken seating area allowing seating for up to 20 people at different levels within the space. Conceived as a ‘Contemporary Spa Garden’ for one of our clients, it needed to feel private and calming, with muted colours in the planting and designed to be at its best when the clients were in residence during the early Summer each year.


The main features all are fabricated in advance off-site, so finding metalworkers, glass suppliers, stone and oak for the seating all get underway early. The planting is sourced as soon as the garden is accepted for the show, with specialist nurseries helping to grow on the plants to larger sizes than are typically commercially available and plenty of alternative varieties ear-marked to allow for the vagaries of the British weather – flowering times can be all wrong for the show! This involves visiting multiple nurseries and having selected the stock, checking on it regularly to make sure all is as it should be.

A few weeks before starting at the showground, we fabricate the garden almost in its entirety off-site so that we can iron out as many problems as possible, make sure everything fits together and check key elements such as the water feature actually work and look as intended. The construction team are then ready to roll on the first day in – with detailed excavation plans and day by day schedules. The large trees had to be planted very early on to allow the hard landscaping to go in around them and this meant very careful protection for them during the work. It also happened to be scorchingly hot and watering was an ongoing priority all through the working days.

Once the hard landscaping is in (2-3 weeks depending on the show) we can begin to plant – aiming always to have the planting completely finished several days before judging to ensure the plants have had time to perk up and grow into each other- it is amazing how much difference this makes to the overall effect. Every plant is primped with scissors to remove dead or damaged leaves and this is an ongoing process right up until the all-important judging.

Last minute cleaning, tidying and plant primping go on late into the evenings and the full build team work incredibly long hours to achieve the overall effect. Whilst working on a show garden you become entirely focused on it, although a spirit of collaboration always grows in the showgrounds, with those on neighbouring gardens often sharing tools, a joke, advice, and a few tears at times!

The end result is a garden to be proud of and a memory of an extraordinary rite of passage – at times during the build process it feels like it will never be done and every single garden always has a few dramas and problems to be overcome.