Tom Stuart Smith

Tom Stuart-Smith: My First Chelsea Flower Show Garden

Tom Stuart-Smith reflects on his early years at Chelsea and why the Flower Show needs to change. As told to Daisy Bowie-Sell

The Chelsea Show Garden garden I did, I now cringe with embarrassment about it. It was in 1991, I did it when I was working with Elizabeth Banks and it was done for The Daily Telegraph, when Max Hastings was editor.

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1939: The Duke of Kent at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.
© RHS Lindley Collection

It was called ‘Gothic retreat’ and it was just really pretty naff by today’s standards. I was the new boy, so didn’t have control over it and there was a nurseryman, who was very, very good, but he was a powerful character and he came along and said: ‘There’s not enough colour in this garden’. He got six giant pink rhododendrons and stuck them in at the back and the front was full of bearded irises and verbascums. The cultural clash was terrible. The garden almost made me sick to look at it.

So I don’t really put that one on my CV, but I did another one with Elizabeth Banks which was much, much better. It was was a kind of Paradise Garden with a tent in it. That was for The Daily Telegraph again, in 1992.

I learnt a lot through those two outings, and I think it’s still a good idea for people to take part in smaller shows, or learn on the coattails of somebody else. The main things I learnt were don’t try to say more than one thing because people are often looking at the garden for half a minute. It’s got to be easy to take in, the narrative can’t be too complicated. I also learnt not to compromise in any way whatsoever, because you will be kicking yourself at the end. Even if you have the most lingering feeling that something isn’t right, act now, because there isn’t a later. I think the most successful gardens at these flower shows have been an expression of a very simple idea. As soon as they’re about trying to market toothpaste, or cream crackers, they just end up making your tongue feel a bit sticky.

I began to feel disenchanted about the enormous expenditure for such a short period of time

The first garden I did which had my name on it properly was in 1998. I did a garden for Chanel with Karl Lagerfeld. I was still working for Elizabeth Banks at that point, but that was the moment where I was due to be leaving. I was completely responsible for that garden and we had over a year’s lead on it. It was meticulously planned. But at the same time, one of the exciting things for me is turning up on day one of the show and not knowing exactly how it is going to pan out. It’s like playing. I have to feel that I can change the plan completely. The RHS always asks me for a planting plan and I always refuse to do one because it’s meaningless.

But I did also have nightmares about the Chanel garden. I’d wake up at four in the morning in a sweat with the idea that somebody had built the garden back to front, or all the paving had been done in plastic. It was when I started to get these repeated dreams while working on show gardens that I realised I was doing the shows on too little time and that they didn’t mean as much to me as they had done.

There’s an irony about a flower show with a carbon footprint the size of the Titanic saying you have to grow the plants organically

I think Chelsea is an amazing thing, and it has had an enormous impact on my career. It was the most important thing for getting my career off the ground. But I began to feel disenchanted about the enormous expenditure for such a short period of time. The last two Show Gardens I’ve done, everything in the gardens has been reused, all the plants have gone back to nurseries or been sold or gone on to other projects.

I think if I’m going to do Show Gardens again, that is where we should be coming from. I realise it’s all very well for me to say that, because I’ve lived through the times when if you were short of a couple of plants four days before the opening you’d send a lorry off to Germany. But that’s in the past. I’m doing a project at Chatsworth that’s been running for three years and this year we’re doing a big planting, there’s something like 30,000 plants. We’re doing it all peat and plastic free. The only way to do that is to make sure all the plants have been ordered at the beginning of May, for planting in October. And we’ve been discussing with nurseries how to do that for the last two months. You’re growing in compost pots, which means the plants have a date by which you have to use them. You have flexibility about when you take the plants.

Chelsea’s organic message this year has been a good one, but there’s an irony about a flower show with a carbon footprint the size of the Titanic saying you have to grow the plants organically.

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I think Chelsea is driven by a wiped down idea of perfection, a bit like our need for supermarket apples having to not have a blemish on them. I hope that the show can adapt, become a bit more earthy, less polished. Over the years of working there I’ve seen glimpses of that. There was a designer called Mark Walker about 15 years ago who created a wet garden, and it cost a fraction of what normal gardens cost. It was very low budget but beautifully thought out and a great piece of design. There’s always some Chelsea Show Gardens which are excellent pieces of design, but often there’s too much product manufacturing promotion. I think it needs to recalibrate.

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