RHS consulation on the judging at Chelsea – response by Victoria Summerley

February 15, 2012

in Articles, Events, General Interest, Shows

The RHS has just held a forum to discuss and get responses to their thoughts about changing the judging process at Chelsea. Victoria Summerley attended on behalf of thinkingardens and here is her response and her suggestions. I hope that the RHS will take note of her thoughts. I have never found it quite so hard to resist putting parts of the article into bold type.

(see also Victoria’s follow up piece)

Anne Wareham, editor 

Chelsea 4 copyright Anne Wareham

Victoria Summerley:

When Royal Horticultural Society president Elizabeth Banks opened the forum on the RHS show gardens judging review on Monday, she remarked that she knew she could only be in Britain, because most of the audience were huddled at the rear of the hall in time-honoured Britannic “let’s not look conspicuous” fashion.

By the same token, when Mrs Banks remarked that the debate over the medal awards at Chelsea last year had been “livelier than most”, you knew that this was British for huge rows and screaming tantrums.

It’s tempting to wonder which particular tantrum, or garden, or medal, sparked the review. But anyway, here we all were – designers, judges, press and sponsors – to hear the proposals and give our views.

I have to confess that the news that the RHS was revising its show gardens judging procedure inspired both enthusiasm and ennui. Enthusiasm, because I’m always intensely nosey about how adjudicatory machinery works. And ennui, because I suspected that the changes would be so arcane, and so minuscule, that they would be quite irrelevant to normal gardening life and to the 383,046 members of the RHS.

I’ve included that figure deliberately, because the RHS membership is at an all-time high. It’s partly fuelled, I suspect, by the grow-your-own movement. I’m fairly confident it’s NOT fuelled by a massive interest in contemporary garden design. We’ll come back to that later.

One of the objectives of the review, we were told, was to “ensure transparency for all”. What did that mean? Did the RHS need to be more transparent about how they were going to be transparent?

I’m not being flippant (well, all right, a bit). Transparency is an uncomfortable process. It involves the whisking away of metaphorical fig-leaves, the ripping down of figurative net curtains, and it leaves people gasping and blinking in the hitherto unaccustomed glare of public scrutiny. Did they really know what they were letting themselves in for?

Chelsea 3 copyright Anne Wareham
The process of judging show gardens is possibly the most convoluted set of arrangements that has ever given me a migraine. A selection committee choose which garden designs will be included in a show. At the show, Assessors do a preliminary round of the gardens, reporting to Judges, who then make their pronouncements. These are then discussed with Moderators, whose job is to ensure a consistency of judging across all the shows.

Once the decision is made to award a gold, silver-gilt or whatever, verbal feedback is given to the designers.

As you can imagine, the verbal feedback bit is not very satisfactory. The judges say it’s difficult to pin down the designers, who may be busy with sponsors, visitors, press, suppliers – or just having a quick fag somewhere.

If a designer has done less well than they hoped, they are not going to harbour overly warm feelings towards the judges. They may feel more like punching them in the gob.

Why not have written judgements? To my astonishment, the designers in the room seemed – on the whole – to think this was worthy of consideration. “But,” said someone at the back, “if you are going to publish the judgement, you also need to publish the brief.”

Well, publish that too! Publish the initial sketch, publish a picture of the finished garden, publish the critique from the judges. Publish everything. On a website you can do all that – you don’t have to worry about printing costs.

And the reason the RHS should think about putting it all out there is not to please the designers, or the sponsors, or the judges, but those 383,046 members. Remember them?

Chelsea 2 copyright Anne Wareham
The vast majority of RHS members prefer cosmos and columbines to Cor-Ten steel. Many think of themselves as being more interested in plants than they are in design, which they regard with misgivings. Look at the People’s Choice award at Chelsea every year; it invariably goes to some exercise in nostalgia that brims with cottage-garden flowers and roses round the door.

Nothing wrong with that – but it’s hardly cutting edge. How do you educate people about design – and more importantly, eliminate the lurking suspicion that they’re somehow being “had” – without giving them the guidance that helps them form and develop their own aesthetic judgments?

I feel very passionately that the RHS should be about information and communication. That doesn’t just mean doling out bits of advice to the public on slugs and snails, or sudden oak death, or climate change every now and again – although they do that very well indeed.
It means giving people answers before they’ve even asked the questions. How do you expect them to know why a garden has been deemed worthy of a gold medal unless you tell them what the judges thought?

And how do you expect them to respect that decision unless you tell them who has come to that conclusion? All those ladies from the Home Counties who hate rusted steel and minimalist planting might think differently about it if they knew that lovely Raymond Evison, the patron saint of clematis, was on the judging panel that awarded it Best in Show.

To be fair, as part of the changes, the show garden judges will be “prominently identified” from this year onwards. And just in case the RHS definition of “prominently identify” is to write their names on a piece of paper and then secret it somewhere in the Chelsea showground shrubbery, we’ll be watching. Oh yes.

(Further thoughts on this topic from Victoria here)

Victoria Summerley is an executive editor of The Independent, and edits the Saturday edition of the i newspaper. She opens her garden in Wandsworth for the National Gardens Scheme.



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Bethan March 19, 2012 at 9:52 pm

Have the RHS submitted a response yet?!

annewareham March 19, 2012 at 11:06 pm

Not that I am aware of. Wonder how we’d know?

Matthew February 18, 2012 at 6:55 am

Matthew 7
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you

Stephen Read February 17, 2012 at 12:25 pm

The comments in general seem to revolve around the show gardens which, as Mr Colborn points out, are only a small part of the show as a whole.

Media coverage for the duration invariably centres on who is trying out the wildest idea they can get away with in the brief.

The pavilion is stuffed full of nurserymen and enthusiasts who have worked their socks off all year to create a display worthy of their reputation. Not for them the large corporate sponsorship deal, teams of minions or fawning press attention.

I love to see the gardens, but without the plants and the context of the breeders and nurserymen who grow them – what is Chelsea ?

Sacha February 17, 2012 at 2:19 pm

I agree strongly with Stephen Read but married to a nurseryman, I suppose I would! We would like to see far more of the work done by growers and breeders and while the designer gardens are interesting, the coverage they get by the media is somewhat out of proportion, in my opinion. The people who grow the plants are the bedrock of the entire operation and more time should be given to showing the work they do, how they go about it and encouraging people to support nurseries and those who run them and work in them. While garden centres undoubtedly have their place, I don’t know of any that has bred new plants to extend the range available both to designers and gardeners. Many, possibly most, nurseries propagate the majority of the plants they sell, thus offering employment to a large number of people,not just those who can operate a till and offering them training and experience in horticulture at the same time. Let us see a bit more of those at the sharp end, please.

Veronica Peerless February 17, 2012 at 12:04 pm

Great article, Victoria. I’m all for transparency for all of the reasons cited in the various comments above – and, as a journalist, it would make the show a lot easier to report on. I also appreciate the RHS’s efforts in this. But let’s not forget that the gardens are primarily designed for, and paid for by, sponsors. That must surely govern the selection process in the first place – a process that was largely glossed over at the forum. The sponsors are paying vast sums of money for a garden designed by a prestigious designer. The designer is responding to the sponsor’s brief and striving to keep them happy. For the sponsor to find out afterwards that a garden was marked down for whatever reason would mean that they wouldn’t stump up the cash again – and if that happened too many times, the show would be in disarray.

Elspeth Briscoe February 17, 2012 at 11:21 am

Do the judges have to be from the UK? Just a question. If not, perhaps it’s not such a small world?

No harm in aiming for the best in judging – and transparency of processes – even if we’re not there yet. I think open discussions like this can only mean progress for industry. A very interesting read.

Rosalind Rosewarne February 17, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Actually that’s a very interesting point Elspeth. Do they have to be ‘from’ the UK?

Benedict Green February 17, 2012 at 10:37 am

Compared to many awards and competitions in other industries I believe the RHS shows stand up pretty well for objectivity and fairness. As stated by others above, each garden is judged on its own merits with checks and counter checks and not against each other. Think of free-for-all that is the Oscars, open to politicking and ‘gifts’. The RHS system could however be more transparent for the public and I’d welcome published feed back from the judges.
As for the judging being a bit incestuous, well maybe, but UK garden design is a very small world. We need industry people to judge, I don’t accept that people outside could really help more than judging basic design principles of form and space. If we could find judges who have not taught, been taught by, employed, been employed by, are friends with, had falling(s) out with show designers and who also have the necessary skills to judge, well, good luck! Add to this someone who is comfortable enough in their position to have no interest in promoting themselves and exhibiting at a show, but can spare the time to volunteer their services to the RHS?
Maybe other larger, more profitable, industries have enough comfortable, retired experts who can help judge competitions, but I don’t think ours is there yet.

Hayley Monckton, RHS February 17, 2012 at 9:45 am

Thanks ever so much for taking time to comment on the judging forum and share your views. We’re now taking stock of all ideas and contributions, including being more transparent and plan to report back soon. Thanks Victoria for this article and for joining us at the forum – it’s been great to engage so many people and hear so many ideas and reactions to the proposals. Very best, Hayley at the RHS

annewareham February 17, 2012 at 10:08 am

Thank you, Hayley – and you will be pleased to know that this piece has been viewed by hundreds of people, who will no doubt be very keen to hear the results of the RHS deliberations.

Duncan Heather February 17, 2012 at 8:59 am

I would like to think that my heckling from the side-lines last spring added in some small way to the huge rows and screaming tantrums.

Despite this show of humility on behalf of the RHS, I share Victoria’s scepticism, as I too suspected that the changes will be so arcane, and so minuscule as to be quite irrelevant to most.

As a designer and educator, I’m not particularly fussed about the judging criteria. I tell my students that if you want to play their game you have to play by their rules. End of story!

It’s the incestuous nature of the judging and the arrogance of an organisation that considers itself beyond reproach when it comes to the judges themselves being allowed to enter their own competitions.

No other organisation in the world would allow staff and employees to be both judge and contestant at the same time and despite me and people like Tim Richardson shout ‘fowl play’ I doubt very much if this ‘old boy network’ is about to change its spots any time soon.

Nigel Colborn February 17, 2012 at 10:11 am

The Society’s employees do not judge at all, at any of the RHS shows. And any exhibits, staged by RHS employees – such as those produced by Wisley – are not allowed to be judged or to be awarded medals.

Staff are employed, during the judging process, as secretaries. They record votes, only, and are forbidden to make comments or voice opinions of any kind. In all my years of judging both gardens and floral exhibits, I’ve never heard one of them attempting to do so.

Judging panels for show gardens are drawn from experienced and accomplished designers, previous exhibitors and horticulturists. It’s not that huge an industry, so most eminent designers and horticulturists are likely to know each other and therefore, by default, form a sort of network. Why would there be a problem with that?

RHS Judges do not, under any circumstances ‘enter their own competitions’ and as I’ve now pointed out, ad nauseam, neither the gardens nor the floral exhibits at Chelsea are in any way taking part in a competition.

Finally, the RHS has gone to a great deal of trouble, trying to reform its show garden judging processes, inviting extensive consultation and recently holding the judging OPEN FORUM that this article is all about. That, I suggest, shows that the leopard is extremely keen to ‘change its spots’ and to make the whole process more open and more comprehensible, not only to exhibitors (NOT COMPETITORS) but to the general public.

The Society may have a long way to go, but I think you have to give a little credit where it is so obviously due.

Duncan Heather February 17, 2012 at 11:15 am

I regret Nigel that I don’t share your optimism.

A well known teacher and show garden judge was asked to judge his own students in an RHS student design competition and the RHS considered this to be perfectly acceptable.

That same show garden judge applied last year to design a show garden and although he design wasn’t selected I am sure its only a matter of time.

If you accept the position of RHS judge, you should automatically be excluded from competing. There are plenty of well-known and respected designers and horticulturalists out there who have no wish to exhibit at shows.

Every year RHS judges swap hats to become exhibitors and compete for medals only to be judged by their colleagues.

Until the RHS accepts that this is fundamentally wrong, they will continue to have a credibility problem.

Duncan Heather February 17, 2012 at 12:03 pm

May be the RHS could start by asking if their judges would mind giving up the right to exhibit?

You would at least then know how many new judges you might need.

Crowe February 16, 2012 at 12:35 pm

Any relevant review, consultation or change undertaken in the judging process for show gardens would see a root and branch simplification of the whole process, not adding more justification, process and C.Y.A. ‘fluffery’.

Transparency is fine, so let that include the costs; fees, PR, plants, structures, features, exhibit and so on, is there a Pandora’s Box awaiting behind that approach.

Judging will always be subjective, arguing about the outcome in such an event is part of the ‘fun’ of the show. If exhibitors don’t like the rules and regulations are they forced to exhibit? (Exhibitor equals Sponsor in the main, not Designer)

But money is behind the ‘competitive’ obsession with awards, let someone argue it isn’t. Abolish the “Best in Show” and “Peoples Choice” awards. As has already been said, it is not a competition.

“Does the tail wag the dog or the dog wag the tail?” – “K.I.S.S.”

Libby February 16, 2012 at 11:41 am

Great post by Victoria and what an interesting and important discussion!
It seems the RHS KNOW they need to change, but don’t really know HOW to go about it; I guess listening is a good start! However.. ‘Assessing Judges’ I aks you!!

I completely agree that the brief and how the judges reached their decision should be published. Whilst I’ve not yet had the courage or opportunity (nearly!) to design a show garden I have assisted and supported friends who have.

Without exception there is always much gnashing of teeth and head scratching amongst designers when it comes to the RHS’s judging criteria, especially how they interpret the brief, which is given HUGE weight by the judges. This always seems to be a frustratingly woolly area of the processs and I’m sure designers would appreciate much more clarity (have you tried reading the application pack?!) and transparency. Yet, when it comes to what the public see and are ‘told’ about a show garden the ‘brief’ is either just not mentioned or only in a cursory way. It’s always what the garden ‘means’, its ‘story’, or the ‘journey’ it portrays and, of course, the PLANTS!

The ‘client brief’ is usually completely artificial anyway! As, of course, are show gardens which can never present the set of problems that an everyday client’s garden does. So the brief is often an exercise in reverse engineering; design the garden then write the brief! And keep it as vague as possible so that the judges can’t sieze upon some minutia or other to mark you down for. So whilst I totally understand the necessity of the brief I think it would help immensely if the magic and mystery surrounding the RHS judges’ approach and ‘interpretation’ of it could be removed.

John Kingdon February 16, 2012 at 10:56 am

Chelsea is one event which I have absolubtely no desire to attend. At least they call it the “Flower Show” rather than the “gardening show”. My goal is to create a space in which I can immerse myself and enjoy the colours, scents, sounds and textures. If I visit another garden I want to immerse myself in that, touch and smell, not stand on a pathway and view from a distance.

I want to be excited by something which I have a chance of adapting and introducing into my own little plot in some way or by some skillful combination of planting. What some great metal thing looking like the eyeballs of the Martian craft in the original War of the Worlds and suspended from a giant crane has to do with gardening excapes me completely. I wonder where that thing is now?

Is it not the case that the judges’ awards are not so much for the creations as the creators? In the show tents perfection may be necessary but in the gardens, why must every flower be pristine or removed? Nature is never perfect; we may tame her but we will never conquer. The judges should be judging gardens with both their glories and their natural imperfections. Plants should be the predominant component, not great chunks of metal, volumes of stone and concrete and glass.

Revising the judging system is only part of the process. Revising the competition garden specifications needs to come first.

Nigel Colborn February 16, 2012 at 11:13 am

At the risk of sounding like a record, stuck in a groove, I repeat that show gardens at Chelsea are NOT competing.

They are all potential gold medal winners and could all receive identical scores and thus, they are not in a competition. The only competitive aspect, and in my view an extremely unfortunate one when it was introduced a couple of decades ago, is ‘Best in Show.’ You simply can’t select a ‘best’ from such a disparate lot.

Charles Hawes February 19, 2012 at 4:24 pm

The fact is, though Nigel, that a “Best in Show” garden is chosen. And a lot gets made of it, too. So it would be interesting to know who and how that decision is made. And you won’t persuade me that the people involved in making the gardens don’t feel competitive – at least with each other.

John Kingdon February 19, 2012 at 5:52 pm

And of course last year there were also “Best Artisan Garden” and “Best Urban Garden” which sound like competitions to me.

This week’s Amateur Gardening says this year will “see Joe [Swift] go head-to-head for Chelsea gold with … Diarmuid Gavin…” although later in the article Joe is quoted as not seeing it “like that”.

As long as there are “Best” or “of the Year” awards of any description and as long as magazine editorial content refers to competition, “ordinary” people who are not part of the “designerati” will see things that way. There is the thought in the back of our minds that to preserve the value of the medals, there is some unwritten agreement of sorts that no more than so many of each will be awarded. It’s like school exams – it the percentage of top grades goes down, pupils are performing poorly. If it goes up, the results are devalued because it’s easier.

The old maxim is that what matters is not that something is … but that “it is seen to be …”

Felicity Waters February 16, 2012 at 10:08 am

judgement takes place in plenty of other industries – its fairly common to publish the brief, design intent etc

role in guest judges …product designers,.architects, painters, fashion designers and how about a few digital designers – very exciting indeed

Alison February 15, 2012 at 9:38 pm

A great article and very interesting debate. Of course the brief and the judging criteria should be published, without that visitors are judging the medal awards purely subjectively not fully understanding how the garden has been marked and so the medal awarded.

Melissa Jolly February 15, 2012 at 9:03 pm

I was also at the forum and think your article, Victoria, sums up the day very well. One other thing that did come across from a few of the designers was the idea of involving a ‘guest’ or ‘wild card’ judge – someone outside of the RHS with decent design merit to their name – architect, furniture designer, graphic designer etc who could shed their fresh opinion on the design element of the gardens.

I think making the public aware of the brief would really enlighten them to the meaning of the gardens – so many a comment is overheard at the shows where the public question the medals as they don’t have a clue what the garden is all about. If you get then chance to explain the brief it often sways their initial judgement.

Victoria February 15, 2012 at 10:24 pm

Funny you should say that, Melissa! Was going to write another piece about guest judges…

Zoe February 15, 2012 at 8:01 pm

Hurrah for Victoria Stevens comment: ‘That’s the whole point of design, its not art, its about solving a ‘problem’, meeting a specification or fulfilling a brief.’

I am not alone in thinking that Art and Design are separate entities, and gardens are never ‘Art’.

I was taught by several Chelsea/RHS judges and it never occurred to me to doubt their integrity. Indeed if their integrity was in doubt, it would put the whole reputation of the RHS at stake?

As for the RHS modernising and becoming more transparent – I think we are more likely to see flying pigs in the Glasshouse at Wisley.

Victoria February 15, 2012 at 10:37 pm

I don’t doubt the judges’ integrity, Zoe. And I don’t want them to be “made accountable” (although I think that in today’s current climate, it is prudent for every organisation to try to look as objectively as possible at the way it works). I would just like to know what they think. Not so I can accuse them of bias, or say they’re wrong, or attack them in any way – I’d just like to know out of interest.
We will see the RHS modernising. Slowly, perhaps, but it will happen.

David February 15, 2012 at 7:34 pm

Although I am neither a garden designer, nor I have ever been judged on anything, let alone those seemingly delightful RHS people, it seems ridiculous that the brief, medal and any judging notes are not published for the general public like myself.

How on earth are we to learn?

mike gerrard February 15, 2012 at 7:05 pm

I like Nigel Colborn’s response the most. There is not a paragraph in it that I don’t agree with. Overall I think the RHS must try to make the best it can of a bad situation. Cor-Ten or cauliflowers? Lets have both by all means, but don’t we also need to remember that these are NOT gardens we are talking about? They are designer’s, manufacturer’s, sculptor’s and sponsor’s shop windows. Great for those concerned, but who can blame the British gardening public for stifling a yawn as they peep through the brollies and DSLRs of taller people at a window dressing. As Nigel says judging such a display will always ( and rightly) be a subjective endeavour.

Victoria February 15, 2012 at 6:35 pm

Tsk, I’ve obviously failed completely to make myself clear. My point about Raymond Evison is this. I think sometimes that the general public feel the judges aren’t really on their wavelength. And yet the judges are people like Raymond Evison – and Nigel Colborn – who command great respect. I think that if the public knew that this was the calibre of person passing judgment on show gardens, they might engage more with the debate on design.
BTW, Nigel, when they started talking about changing the name of Assessors to Assessing Judges, I felt an overwhelming urge to stand up and scream…

Sue Beesley (@suebeesley) February 15, 2012 at 7:19 pm

That’s exactly how I interpreted your comment about Raymond Evison, Victoria. Clear as a bell.

Nigel Colborn February 16, 2012 at 7:14 am

“Assessing Judges…” Well, I did heckle from the front, along with Martin Slocock but all the panel did was grin sheepishly. I often think that a bit more standing up and screaming might not do any harm.

On conflicts of interest – in my experience, judges, chairmen and secretaries have always been meticulous about ensuring that there is no conflict. Judges who are even remotely connected with an exhibit invariably withdraw.

Rosalind Rosewarne February 16, 2012 at 5:28 pm

So a garden with a judging conflict of interest gets judged by less judges/assessors?

Victoria Stevens February 15, 2012 at 6:30 pm

As a designer (in a different industry) the design of anything means nothing without context. That’s the whole point of design, its not art, its about solving a ‘problem’, meeting a specification or fulfilling a brief.

As someone who may be inclined to vote for the twee cottage garden in the People’s Choice award, that gives me all the more reason to support publishing of the brief, details of the process and any other information that would help me gain meaning from the design itself and a better understanding of what garden design entails.

Sue Hayward February 19, 2012 at 12:05 pm

I quite agree. The public often don’t realise the gardens are marked against a brief and that if it is not fulfilled to the letter then the marks go down. They see the gardens in a different light once they know. I have given endless talks to garden groups and WI’s on a personal behind the scenes view of Chelsea and they become enlightened and fascinated by the marking system.
The system as it is works. At Chelsea I went from a Gold medal one year to a Bronze medal – just, and I totally agreed with the result each time.
If you’ve already exhibited a garden at Chelsea or you are made aware of the marking system then the more informed you are to judge others objectively whether you like the garden or not.

Jilly Welch February 15, 2012 at 6:22 pm

Quick response to Elspeth…yes, I was taught by lecturers who also judge Chelsea. But honestly, I think they’d be just as frank (if not a bit harder!) with me or my cohorts.

Elspeth Briscoe February 15, 2012 at 6:29 pm

I suppose it’s down to the integrity of the individual judge. And I’m sure you’re right that they were harder or just as hard on you. But in any other industry this would be unheard of. In X Factor if one of the acts was found to have been taught by Simon Cowell or Pete Waterman previously – they’d be disqualified. It would be a complete no no. (God even I’m hating the X Factor analogy!). Sorry about that.. but you get my point. It makes it open to nepotism.

Sacha February 15, 2012 at 6:13 pm

Absolutely excellent article. If the RHS is to be rigorous in its support of both designers and amateur gardeners I think transparency in every area is essential. I really endorse, support, LOVE the idea of showing the first sketch, the original design, the brief, the finished product, the reason for choosing the winners, you name it. But – big but in this company! – I’m not going to find fault with those who don’t like cutting edge because I have trouble with some of it myself. Designers think of things from a designer-y point of view and they have my complete sympathy with their frustration at our British love roses round the cottage door. But garden owners also have my full sympathy because they don’t want their gardens to be ‘cutting edge’ if they want them to be relaxed and relaxing and as reflective of their taste as their living room, or in some cases, drawing room! Things move slowly in design land’s translation into the everyday world. Perhaps we’re not terribly into the heather beds in Surrey sort of gardening now, any more than we’re into antimacassars and aspidistras in the parlour but it’s taken a while and some diehards still cling on. But surely there’s room for cutting edge and cosy? Our house is Victorian and its garden was laid out by Edward Hyams. Imagine a steel anything in the middle of that, doing its rusting best or worst. This is where total transparency would work, in my opinion. If we, the public, see what was asked for, what was offered, what was expected and what was delivered, I think it would extend enormously the ideas, information and sheer adventurousness in gardening. I cannot praise Victoria Summerley’s article enough.

Nigel Colborn February 15, 2012 at 6:08 pm

I was there too, Victoria, but had to leave before the forum concluded. My impression was that many of the proposed changes are based on micro-management and will probably create as many problems as they solve. Much of the reform – re-naming ‘Assessors’ as ‘Assessment Judges’ for example – is simply rearranging those fig leaves to which you refer, rather than shedding them.

And yes, ‘transparency’ is a cuddly term, like ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘low-carbon’ but without any welly – a Camero-Blairian word. However, I believe the RHS really does want to be more open about the judging process and is groping its way towards that.

It is almost impossible, though, to develop a truly objective set of criteria which work for all gardens, from cutting edge installations with steel and concrete to barmy-army crane-suspended seating pods, or to cottageously mossed appletree romances. All may have merit, of sorts, but emotional reaction to each will be mixed, and will differ enormously, from judge to judge. That’s just the way we are.

Having a detailed and public brief is, I suggest, an essential starting point. And the full brief should be available to all interested viewers as well as judges.

Judging, when it takes place, must follow each brief to the letter, and assess how well it has been executed. If the garden has drifted slightly from the original brief, it should be marked down severely; if it has gone to far ‘off brief’ it should receive no award, regardless of how pretty or spectacular, or exorbitantly expensive it may be.

Feedback to exhibitors is always difficult because of timing. Written feedback for each design would be ideal, but you have to remember that all judges are volunteers, and that to create written recommendations would be far too onerous and time-consuming for them.

One final comment, if a little off topic:
Saturation television coverage has, in my view, unbalanced Chelsea to a damaging extent. The show gardens, let us remember, are merely a part of what was, originally a spring FLOWER show. They always were, and should still be, a minor add-on to the main event which takes place in the Pavilion.

Petra Hoyer Millar February 15, 2012 at 6:23 pm

Couldn’t agree more. The Pavilion with all its glory, always seems to fade in the press frenzy for designer garden coverage!

Sue Beesley (@suebeesley) February 15, 2012 at 6:41 pm

Worse than that Nigel – they aren’t being renamed Assessment Judges, but Assessing Judges, which left me shaking my head in confusion. To my simple mind, assessing judges is something you do, not something you are…

Rosalind Rosewarne February 16, 2012 at 5:21 pm

Whilst I agree that saturation TV has unbalanced the show is it not in the interests of the RHS to allow this to fill the coffers for other good works?, or is that a naive assumption about what actually occurs?

Elspeth Briscoe February 15, 2012 at 6:05 pm

Also – If I’m not mistaken, aren’t some of the Chelsea Flower Show judges also garden design teachers? So are put in the awkward position of judging their own students and ex-students? Makes it feel a bit like some sort of secret society or old boys club. A bit off putting as it currently stands for new-comers to the industry.

Would love some more transparency on the entire process. At the risk of turning it into X Factor – if the judges can’t decide, or it’s a close call – give it to the public vote. The public may surprise you and not just vote for rosey cotteagey gardens; Especially if the RHS starts to market its events to a broader demographic of people (rather than the ladies that lunch).

Victoria February 15, 2012 at 7:34 pm

Yes, that’s true. Although to be fair, I think they take the issue of conflicts of interest very seriously. More transparency would reassure outsiders, I feel.
Re X Factor, one of the judges attending the forum said disapprovingly: “We don’t want to turn this into Strictly Come Dancing, do we?” Oooh, I don’t know…might be fun!

Rosalind Rosewarne February 16, 2012 at 5:16 pm

“…they take the issue of conflicts of interest very seriously. More transparency would reassure outsiders..”
Conflict of interest IS a serious issue wherever it occurs and surely in an industry burgeoning with talent, judges could be found without a conflict of interest? might save a lot of bother!
Perhaps the RHS could think of running RHS show judging training courses to boost the numbers in the available pool!

Sue Beesley (@suebeesley) February 16, 2012 at 5:47 pm

Training and accreditation for existing and prospective judges is indeed part of the proposed new world order at the RHS, as of course it should be. And what a kerfuffle there was about that among some of the older guard. As if training was somehow unseemly for anyone over 25…

Petra Hoyer Millar February 15, 2012 at 5:49 pm

Great article. We’ll certainly be looking out for the identified judges and their judging notes. From the perspective of the ‘normal’ attending punter (pre-blogging days), medals actually mean little. Agreed, we know one is shinier than the other, but it has limited meaning. Explanation as to reasoning behind reward will be of great interest, perhaps even more so than the actual reward itself.

Jilly Welch February 15, 2012 at 5:45 pm

As a keen new designer, I’d love to submit a great design for consideration at Chelsea…but I’m still too nervous and unsure of the criteria to take the plunge.

As a member of the RHS, I’d love to understand how the show gardens are judged..and how to use elements in my own garden…Cosmos or Cor-Ten. (I get the strong feeling it’s the collision of two worlds at Chelsea: haute couture meets M&S.)

You’re right..the more the RHS at least tries to communicate what makes a great garden to live in and grow in, the better.

Sue Beesley (@suebeesley) February 15, 2012 at 5:39 pm

Speaking as someone who has dabbled their toe in show gardening with four back-to-backs and a last year a show garden at Tatton (which I’m delighted to say won, or more honestly squeaked, a gold medal), I completely agree that transparency is the way. Publish the brief – at least the first, main section. It’s only 100 words. Publish the marks, publish the feedback. Fairness is, I’m certain, generally delivered. But it must also be seen to be delivered. Educate the public, as you say, Victoria, otherwise they gain almost nothing from seeing a garden and an associated medal.

Good feedback is vital, not just for the designer themselves, but also because that is all the designer has to pass onto the public who ask why the garden got the medal it did. I have had some helpful verbal feedback in the past which has really helped me improve. I have also heard some complete nonsense which made me positively angry and which anyone would recognise as having no relevance at all to judging. The clearest example I can recall was ‘We have seen rather a lot of wildlife gardens in recent years and we are looking to encourage edgier designs’. Now, tell me that before I build the garden, not afterwards!

I was only there for the first hour or so of the show garden meeting. I knew we were in for a bumpy ride when at the opening Sue Biggs asked the five senior show judges to stand up and be thanked for their past performance. The drive for change at the top is clear. Bob Sweet was right to point out how far the RHS has already come in just ten years. Time to finish the rest of the journey.

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