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How to Design Your Own Show Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show

We all adore the coverage of the glamorous RHS flowers shows from May onward. 

Are you hopelessly addicted to the compelling TV footage of the glorious Chelsea Flower Show or those fabulous flowers displays at Hampton Court? 

Hey, I could do that!

Do you find yourself shouting at the TV every year,  ‘Hey, I could do that!’ but have never got around to finding out how to become an exhibitor?

You may be surprised to learn that anybody, yes, anybody can stage a garden at the world’s most prestigious flower shows, so if you’re feeling brave, read on!

Who can design a garden at RHS flower shows?

Show garden 1 - Chelsea Flower Show
Show Gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show | Photograph by Lucy Summers

It isn’t just for landscape designers with an illustrious track record.

The RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) have made it increasingly accessible to all aspiring garden designers and you can even apply if you’re still at college. 

Some of the notable success stories of recent years haven’t been garden designers at all, but florists and ordinary people with one thing in common; a passion for plants and design.

If it has always been your dream to stage a garden at one of the RHS shows, follow our blow-by-blow guide to discover if you’ve got what it takes to achieve a coveted Gold Medal. 

Have you got what it takes?

It’s important to begin with a word of warning. Designing a show garden is not for the fainthearted. Whilst it may be one of the most rewarding challenges you’ve ever undertaken, be prepared for a roller coaster ride.

It is a physically gruelling, frustrating and thrilling process where emotions run high (and low) but if you can pull it off, it’s the greatest feeling in the world.

Still interested?

The flagship Chelsea show is not the only venue; the RHS offer a diverse range of garden categories with show garden opportunities at Cardiff, Chatsworth, Hampton Court, Malvern and Tatton Park.

What types of garden are eligible?

Show garden 2 - Chelsea Flower Show
Show Gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show | Photograph by Lucy Summers

See our list below for different garden categories or click HERE for more detailed information.

FYI. The main show gardens are always allocated to big spenders, but don’t let that put you off, the small gardens are up for grabs!

RHS Malvern Spring Festival

  • Show Gardens
  • Malvern Shipping Container Gardens

RHS Chelsea Flower Show

  • Show Gardens
  • Urban Gardens
  • Artisan Gardens

RHS Hampton Court Place Garden Festival

  • Show Gardens
  • Lifestyle Gardens
  • Global Impact Gardens
  • Installations
  • The RHS Allotment Gardens

Depending on the type of garden you wish to stage, application deadlines vary, but it’s safe to say you’ll need to apply a good 12-months in advance. Almost the moment one show ends, the RHS are already limbering up for the following year. (i.e. applications for Chelsea begin in August for the successive year.) Click Apply for a Show Garden for more details; you will probably be asked to fill out an Expression of Interest form.

Let’s talk money, what does it cost?

Show garden 3 - Chelsea Flower Show
Show Gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show | Photograph by Lucy Summers

Take a deep breath, because even the smallest garden construction doesn’t come cheap. 

You may get away with as little at £15,000, but the average cost of the larger show gardens over the last five years was more realistically between £200 – 300,000 and there have been gardens approaching the one million price tag. 

It’s a huge expense for gardens that take under a month to build and get ripped up after just one week. 

However, the smaller gardens are infinitely achievable and if you get the right team together and are able to raise money for the build, it can be done. 

You might also try securing local business sponsorship to help reach your target.

The Process

Once you’ve applied for your chosen show, your proposal is assessed by a Show Panel, whose job it is to assess the practicality and suitability of your scheme. 

They may request further information and provide feedback focusing on specific issues; whether it is the source of the plants, material sustainability or construction details.

 Naturally, they will want to know that your budget is both realistic and guaranteed. Understandably, they can hardly allocate a garden space if the money to build it isn’t assured.

Congratulations! You have got through the preliminary selection process and the RHS have offered you a garden space! Exciting! That’s a great accolade – go ahead, roll the ‘Rocky’ theme tune.

Key things worth considering:

Show garden 4 - Chelsea Flower Show
Show Gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show | Photograph by Lucy Summers

Documentation

It might feel like you spend a frustrating amount of time filling out endless forms, but it pays to ensure all your paperwork is completed efficiently and filed to specific deadlines. You’ll also have to do a number of risk assessments, so be prepared.

Planning

No matter how efficient you think your execution, plan, plan and plan again! A sound battle-plan cannot be overestimated. 

Ensure all your materials are ordered in good time and that you have all the equipment you need to stage your garden. You’ll need to bring your own tools, wheelbarrows, timber, screws, saws, soil and plants. In fact everything you need to build your garden.

Costs

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Garden Cabin at the Chelsea Flower Show

On top of your construction budget, you’ll have to factor in additional costs including transport for your materials and plants, delivery costs, travel expenses, accommodation (if required,) Public Indemnity Insurance, PPE, (personal protective equipment) and Hi-Vis jackets. These can normally be bought at the showground at an additional cost, but they are compulsory kit. Don’t forget food, parking and print costs for your garden marketing literature, media packs etc. You’ll also have to pay for additional specific services to your site if your design demands it, such as lighting, refrigeration, etc.

Budget

Once you have worked out a realistic budget, always factor in a contingency sum of around 10% for unexpected delays or disasters. 

Labour

Unless you have money in your budget to employ a crack team of experienced show builders, most first-timers rely on a handpicked crew to carry out every aspect of the garden build and implementation. 

Traditionally, smaller gardens are built in only 7 days, so be prepared to take time off work for build-up week, roll up your sleeves and knuckle down to an energetic 8am-8pm work schedule in all weathers.

Build your team

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Breakfast at the garden – Chelsea Flower Show

A successful team will have a number of diverse, but essential skills: carpentry, plumbing, building, administration and labouring. 

Above all, allocate team roles ahead of time so that every member of your crew knows who is doing what and when.

All chiefs and no Indians is a recipe for disaster and many a show garden experience has fallen short of expectation having falling prey to egos. 

For all its seriousness, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, so don’t forget to have fun and remember – it’s a team effort.

Plants: Have more plants than you need

Working with plants, anything can and often will go wrong! Plants famously flower too early or too late for the show, others won’t flower at all or they suddenly succumb to pests or diseases. 

You may only want three roses in your garden, but they’ll need to be in peak condition for show day. This means growing or buying more than you need so that you can pick the best when the time comes. 

The large show gardens have contract growers growing as many as 6,000 plants for them, but with smaller gardens you may need to either grow your own or make friends with a local nursery who can advise you on wise flowering choices for your show date.

Judging Day is Press Day

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Spring Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show

If you’ve chosen to exhibit at Chelsea, it’s useful to know that Judging Day is typically the Monday before the show opens to the public. 

Your garden has to be completed by 8am when you’ll be asked to leave your garden as eight judges assess your design. Eeek!

Whilst it’s a nail-biting wait to see if you’ve been awarded either a Bronze, Silver, Silver-Gilt or Gold medal, it’s a great opportunity to have a snoop at the other gardens.

Possibly the best thing about the day is that you have an almost empty showground when you can sticky beak at the other show gardens at your leisure, do a bit of celebrity spotting and see the Queen make her garden visits

Who knows, yours might make it on to her agenda!

As well as making a grand entrance, plan a graceful exit 

After all your hard labour, you’ve been awarded your medal – It’s a Gold! But this is no time to rest on your laurels. Almost as soon as the Great Plant Sell-Off happens on the last day of a show, you have less than a day to dismantle your garden and haul it all the way home again.  Good luck and may the force be with you!

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