Andy McIndoe was the man behind 25 of Hilliers gold medal-winning displays at Chelsea Flower Show. He worked for Hillier Nurseries for 37 years before leaving in 2015 to an independent career as a lecturer, writer and garden consultant. At Chelsea, he now works on Raymond Blanc’s Le Jardin Blanc. The Veitch Memorial Medal winner talks about his experience of the Chelsea Flower Show and how it’s changed over the years.
The first year that I did at RHS Chelsea Flower Show was 1979. I worked manning the Hillier exhibit on the Thursday and the Friday of the actual show week, because if you were a new boy then you were only ever allowed to do the end of the week.
Show gardens didn’t really exist, there were four or five on the rock bank and that was the show garden content. They weren’t even called show gardens really. The show was the flower show, and exhibitors were there with the the purpose of taking orders for the winter season. Back then people came with their notebooks and pencils and admired an exhibit. That was when you tried to sell your exhibits to people. That was what flower shows were about.
I think we’ve lost track of that in recent years, everyone says it is about the razzamatazz but flower shows were really a shop window. It was a time when you didn’t have colour catalogues or the internet and you were limited in the way of exposure. So the way to see things was to go to a show when a plant was performing and then order it. For some exhibitors at Chelsea, that’s still how it works.
I created the Hillier exhibit for 25 years, and the grower for Hillier’s Chelsea exhibit was Ricky Dorlay for 50 years. In terms of the preparation of the plant material, I was involved in deciding what I’d like for the show. But Ricky grew it. Back in the 1930s, Hillier would still produce something like cherries in flower for Chelsea and they might have been stored in the meat fridges at Southampton docks, because that was the nearest refrigeration. There’s a certain amount of manipulation that can go on, things can be coaxed on under glass, but realistically people have to work with the facilities they’ve got.
The Jardin Blanc Restaurant at RHS Chelsea Flower Show Gala 2019. © RHS/Georgie Mabee
How long things took to put together for Chelsea depended. 1999 was the first year I worked with The English Garden magazine and with that year, we were telling a story in advance. That means you had to be ahead of the game a lot more. Also if you wanted a more specialist range of plant materials, then you had to be thinking about that as far in advance, and that’s the same for a new plant launch. You create a story around that plant and say: ‘I’m going to be creating this at Chelsea’. If it doesn’t form, then you’re left with snookered, with something at Chelsea that doesn’t have a bloom on it.
But I would say the real preparation starts from new year onwards. Then the worst aspect of it is the six weeks before the show, once you get to Chelsea the pressure is off in a way, because it all has to happen.
The marquee stopped in 2000 and people forget it now, but the marquee made it quite a different show. You dreaded things like high winds, because it’s a bit like being on deck. The light was also low, so in a dark week it could be really dim. You’d worry about things like water supply and if your pond was going to leak. It wasn’t sophisticated like it is today. You’d make a pond out of a plastic sheet and then wonder why the water level had dropped. It was far more fun because of the risk element.
I work now with Raymond Blanc on his Jardin Blanc, and it’s a different type of role, but it’s been so interesting. There’s so many elements that have to come together to make it work. It’s an oasis outside the hustle and bustle of Chelsea. So you can dive into the show and then come back to the refuge of Jardin Blanc and enjoy fabulous food, service and a wonderful garden. You’re trying to create something that’s comparable to a show garden in a way, because it has to match with the standard of Le Manoir.
I think mine and Raymond Blanc’s likes and dislikes are quite similar, I know it’s got to have a food, vegetable, herb focus, that’s got to be part of it. That’s a challenge, getting vegetables to look good for Chelsea is a tricky one, but a lot of it comes in how you present it. But it is amazing what you can do in terms of the illusion, and that’s what Chelsea is about.