Life has been pretty topsy-turvy for quite some time, with many of our major gardening events either being postponed or cancelled. Here we are in September and only a matter of days away from the opening of the 2021 RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Is this the new normal to have Chelsea in the autumn, who can say? How will Chelsea work out as an autumn show better maybe but it will certainly be very different?


This year I feel very privileged to have been asked to be a Show Garden Judge at Chelsea and whilst I cannot divulge any information before the medals are awarded, I can offer some practical advice to those who are lucky enough to have bought tickets for the show.



Sketchbook and pen

Take a sketchbook and pen, something small that you can tuck into a pocket not only to make notes but also to do some sketches. Why are sketches better than photographs? Well, we all take our smart phones everywhere and click away, right, left and centre. But do any of those photos ever see the light of day? If instead, you stand and sketch a planting combination or a hard landscaping detail you will take the time to look, really look at what you are observing and it will stay in your mind. You will notice so much more.


Plant lists and catalogues

Remember to pick up the plant list leaflet that most show gardens will have on offer, if they are not handing out lists then there will be a website link for you to go to. The show gardens offer a wealth of information on planting combinations and so why not use this fabulous resource and learn from the leading designers. The same applies to the plant marquee, each specialist nursery will have a catalogue for sale or they will be able to send you one. These really are the best nurseries in the country and so who better to turn to for plant advice?


Lightweight waterproofs

Whatever the weather forecast says, do not forget to pack your lightweight waterproofs because when it begins to rain everyone will flock into the marquee and you will have the very best view of the show gardens! In a crowded situation umbrellas are a nightmare, you risk taking someone’s eye out, or having one poked into your eyes. Much better to have lightweight waterproofs that you can put on and do make sure you have something to keep your camera dry like a plastic bag.

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Be camera-ready

If you are hoping to get some good shots of the gardens then do read up on some top tips for getting the best garden images before you go. If you are using a digital camera switch it onto aperture priority which will allow you to easily hand hold the camera, whilst still getting nice sharp images. Shooting into the light will add drama to your photos, back lit grasses and perennials can look amazing. So early morning and evenings are the best times for those shots. Don’t forget to charge all batteries the night before otherwise you will be very frustrated if you run out of charge!


Take a rucksack

Use a rucksack to carry everything you need for the day on your back, that way you have your hands free to take photos, draw sketches and drink a glass of Pimm’s! Only take essential kit so try not to overload yourself as it may be a long day. Remember that you cannot buy plants at the show (only order them) but there are plenty of trade stands selling all sorts of things that you never knew you needed to own! Take time to visit them.

Visitors view The Morgan Stanley Garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2017.
Visitors view The Morgan Stanley Garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2017. © RHS Georgi Mabee



...Forget to read the design brief

Don’t forget to read the design brief for the show gardens, the design and planting scheme will make much more sense if you have taken the time to understand what the designer is trying to achieve. Remember that the gardens are judged against the design brief, so if you're wondering why they have received the medal that they did, it will help to acquaint yourself with the brief. You will find this information in the Show Catalogue, or on a leaflet given away from the garden. It is also written on the RHS website.


...Forget the contractor

Don’t forget the contractor, as sometimes the designers get all the show glory, so it is always worth finding out who built the garden, especially if you are looking for a good garden contractor. Their name will always be written on the show information boards and also in the catalogue. Look at the hard landscaping details and make a note of why you like it (or not) as very often new ideas and new products will have been used and this is the perfect place to do your research. Be ahead of the game!


Forget to write a list

Make sure that you don’t forget to write a list of all the nurseries or plants that you want to find, before you head off to the show. It is all too easy to get to the show and be distracted by the excitement on the day and completely forget all about your all-important wish list. Take time out to sit and have a coffee break and check your list, that way you will be sure not to leave without that precious list of Hostas that you have always wanted.


...Forget to stay organised

If you are going with a friend or in a group, it can sometimes can be really hard to keep together in the crowded show ground. So why not agree to take time out and do your own thing and arrange to meet at a certain time and place? That will take the stress away from being split up and make sure that everyone sees exactly what they want to see. Whilst you are ordering your favourite Snowdrops, your friend can be buying that new bulb planter that they always wanted. There are often various ‘show deals’ on items such as greenhouses, furniture or tools. So, if you don’t see any signage that highlights the show offer, then don’t be too shy to ask!


...Forget to Vote!

The medals will have been awarded by the time you get to the show, and you may or may not agree with the judge’s decisions. So, you can do something about it, don’t forget to vote for your favourite garden. Everyone visiting the show (including online and TV viewers too) has the chance to vote for ‘The RHS and BBC People’s Choice Award’. This is a very important award and means a great deal to the designers, knowing that the general public really appreciate what they have done. It can often be the launch of a budding career.

Enjoy the show!


Head to our Chelsea Flower Show hub page for all our coverage of Chelsea