RHS Director General Sue Biggs

Sue Biggs: the RHS director general on Virtual Chelsea and coronavirus challenges

The director general of the RHS talks about a difficult few weeks and her hopes for the future

The rapidly changing situation surrounding coronavirus and guidelines on self-isolation has meant business and organisations throughout the country have had to quickly adapt. The RHS, whose spring and summer shows would normally be just around the corner, made the difficult decision to cancel all its show until June. This includes the world-renowned Chelsea Flower Show. Here, the RHS director general Sue Biggs explains some of the challenges the organisation has faced and her hopes for the future.

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A visitor to RHS Chelsea Flower Show

In an unprecedented situation, how has it been dealing with the sudden changes and decision-making process over the last few weeks?
The speed of this crisis has made decision-making a fast and necessary requirement for any organisation. This is such a worrying and challenging time for everyone, and each day there has been new Government policy and therefore new decisions to make with the health and safety of people as our top priority.

Because of the Government announcement that they would no longer support mass gathering events due to the impact on emergency services, plus the heightened actions to encourage social distancing, we made the sad but inevitable and responsible decision to cancel all RHS Flower Shows from April to June. By the weekend we decided to close all RHS Gardens following a very busy Saturday which made it impossible to guarantee the government’s requirement for social distancing at our Gardens. Our online plant shop (rhsplants.co.uk) along with many of the nurseries who were due to exhibit at our shows continue to offer a wide selection of edible and ornamental plants, so people can continue to garden and get out in nature during this worrying time.

We will be doing all we can to help growers and nurseries and will be working with designers, landscapers and sponsors

What would you say to the people involved who have been working towards this year’s Chelsea and who are feeling demoralised?
I am truly sorry that we have been forced to cancel our upcoming shows. I know how much work had already gone in to ensuring this year’s shows would be as spectacular as ever – from our own teams within the RHS, to the growers, designers, contractors, landscapers the deep disappointment is shared by so many.

On top of that, we are very aware that our RHS Shows are important platforms for the horticultural industry, and the impact cancelling these events will have on everyone involved. These are our friends who have supported our charity and our shows for many years and we will be doing all we can to help growers and nurseries and will be working with designers, landscapers and sponsors so that we can incorporate their gardens into next year’s show. I’m sure that we’ll get through these challenging times and once we come out the other side of these terrible times, the upside will be that gardens, gardening and connecting with nature through plants will be recognised as a vital part of life.

These are our friends who have supported our charity and our shows for many years

You said in your statement that the RHS would be trying to help sell plants that were being grown for Chelsea – is there a specific plan around how this will be achieved?
We have been busy reaching out to exhibitors and will be updating our website so our 525,000 members and millions of users will be able to source the magnificent but unsold show plants from the nurseries. We are also creating a Virtual RHS Chelsea Flower Show, to celebrate our great horticultural industry and gardening heritage with ‘press day’ being Monday 18 May 2020 and the Virtual Show running from Tuesday 19 May to Saturday 23 May.

We will increase the gardening content on our RHS website, some exclusively for members only, and on other platforms too for people to enjoy and to share their love of gardening. We look forward to sharing ideas very soon.

It’s the first time Chelsea has been cancelled since the Second World War, has there ever been another year where it’s come close to being cancelled?
The RHS Chelsea Flower Show was cancelled for two years during the First World War (1917-1918) and seven years during the Second World War (1940 – 1946). To date, since the first show in 1913 there have been 98. In 1926 the show went ahead but was held a week late due to the General Strike.

Is it right that people who were due to design gardens for this year’s Chelsea get an automatic spot in next year’s Chelsea?
Subject to conversations with all those affected, Chelsea 2021 will be modelled to incorporate gardens from 2020 along with the gardens for 2021. I’m sure it’s going to be a spectacular bumper show!

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Does that mean we can expect 2021 to look and feel quite a lot like how 2020 would have been?
Partially yes, but with the additional gardens we will be accepting fresh for 2021, and the feeling of relief around the gardening world that Chelsea’s back, it’s going to be one to remember.