RHS judging: an interview with an RHS judge by Victoria Summerley

April 2, 2013

in Articles, General Interest

It may seem difficult to believe in the current wintry climate, but the Chelsea Flower show opens in a few weeks’ time. For the past few months, while the show garden designers have wondered whether their plants will survive the winter, the RHS has been re-examining the way it awards their medals. Victoria Summerley talked to Andrew Wilson, who has been part of the judging process at Chelsea for the past 16 years.

Victoria wrote two previous pieces for thinkingardens on this topic – The RHS Consultation on judging at Chelsea Flower Show and Strictly Come Chelsea. See also Christopher Bradley-Hole on the ‘Best in Show Award’

I apologise for not naming the gardens and designers below. Time pressures. I have (rightly) been told off.

Anne Wareham, editor

Andrew Wilson portrait copyright Andrew Wilson for thinkingardens

Andrew Wilson portrait

Victoria Summerley interviews Andrew Wilson:

Back in February last year, designers, judges, growers and nosy journalists were invited by the Royal Horticultural Society to a forum to discuss whether changes were needed to the show judging system, and, if so, what these should be.

It was an interesting day, not least because of the catalyst that had set the process in motion.

The Chelsea Flower Show the year before – 2011 – had resulted in a huge postbag of complaints from designers about the judging, the medal decisions and the feedback they got. People were angry.

You might have been tempted to think that the impetus for change was the result of frustration with the same old routine. At the time, the Royal Horticultural Society’s development head Bob Sweet announced that the system would be reassessed following the end of the show season.

“We are reviewing the whole judging programme – we’ve not had a thorough review for 10 years,” he said. “There are more sophisticated ways of judging now compared to how we looked at things in the past. Floral marquee judging has moved a long way, and on gardens we can do more.”

Chelsea garden 2010 2 copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

Chelsea garden 2010 copyright Charles Hawes

Ironically, however, Chelsea 2011 HAD seen a change to the judging line-up. Andy Sturgeon, who won Best in Show the year before, hinted at this on his blog at the time, saying the problems had been about inexperienced judges, not the system. “The knee-jerk reaction from the RHS following complaints has been to change the process rather than just go back to the tried and tested system using experienced judges. I’m still not sure what was wrong with the old system,” he wrote.

You might also be tempted to think that perhaps the Chelsea judges have become slightly too small a gene pool, with very few of them having absolutely no links whatsoever with the designers. On the other hand, if you eliminated everyone who had ever worked with or trained a designer, how many judges would you have left? Not many, I suspect.

A Chelsea Garden 2010 3 copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

A Chelsea Garden 2010 copyright Charles Hawes

Tom Stuart Smith, for example, used to work for Elizabeth Banks, the current president of the RHS. Robert Myers, whose Bowes-Lyon Rose Garden has brought drama and sophistication to what was a very boring bit of Wisley, has taken over the Elizabeth Banks design practice. (She is still listed as a consultant.)

Andrew Wilson taught the garden designer Luciano Giubbilei. Mark Gregory, another Chelsea medal winner, is co-director of the garden design school Wilson founded, the London College of Garden Design.

Rosemary Alexander, head of the English Gardening School, is a regular judge at Chelsea and also taught Joe Swift and Jo Thompson. And on it goes.

Now, this is not to say that any of these people have shown favouritism or have benefited from undue influence. Far from it – they would be horrified at the suggestion. All judges have to declare an interest which may be a business connection or a supply issue.

Mark Fane of the online nursery Crocus, for example, supplies plants to some of the show gardens, but although he is an RHS judge, he doesn’t judge in that particular category. Crocus typically build two gardens in the show garden category at Chelsea which means he would probably judge at another show – Hampton Court or Tatton for example. But it does show that eliminating “conflict of interest” is not quite as simple as you might think.

A Chelsea Garden 2010 copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

A Chelsea Garden 2010 copyright Charles Hawes

At what point, asks Andrew Wilson, who has been involved in the review process, can you be deemed to have lost  any vested interest in your former students?  Two years after they graduate? Five years? Ten years? What about a former colleague?

Andrew Wilson has judged at Chelsea for 16 years, and believes that the judges have to inspire trust and faith. “It’s important to identify judges and be able to state what their credentials are, because their decisions are much more high-profile, and receive much more media attention,” he said.

When he began, he worked alongside the then chair of assessors, John Sales (now retired). He describes it as a sort of apprenticeship, and says the continuity provided by Sales and his regular team meant that there was a sort of consistency. People came to know and understand the system and how to deliver clear assessments and feedback.

A Chelsea Garden 2008 copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

A Chelsea Garden 2008 copyright Charles Hawes

Before this, says Wilson: “If a garden had a judge’s favourite plant in it, they would give it a gold medal.” (This could explain the historical prevalence of so many inappropriate azaleas.)

The Chelsea judging system is a three-fold process. On the Sunday before the show opens, the assessors look at the gardens in detail, like a kind of advance guard, and make recommendations to the judges. The judges debate the gardens in the light of the assessor notes on press day – the Monday – and make their deliberations. These are then submitted to a moderation process, which is intended to act as a kind of external examiner, ensuring that awards are consistent, and fine-tuning a decision where the judges are split.

After the medals are awarded, the judges deliver feedback, if it is requested, to the designers.

Wilson admitted that he is not totally happy with the moderation part of the proceedings. He feels it’s a grey area and that the job of the moderators should be to monitor the judging process, rather than get involved in medal decisions.

Feedback, he thinks, is a delicate and diplomatic process for judges, who face having to tell a designer (and perhaps their sponsor) why they didn’t get a gold medal. “Some people worry that they will get it thrown back at them.”

Wilson believes that the solution to this is to move towards a criteria-based marking scheme, rather than a numerical one. “Let’s say you’ve just invented the Chelsea Flower Show. What process would you use? How do I assess my students, give one an A rather than a B?

Chelsea garden 2010 copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

Chelsea garden 2010 copyright Charles Hawes

“At the moment, we award marks, but that can be a bit meaningless. Someone might give planting for example 22 out of 30, someone else might say 24. What do these different numbers mean? How do you calculate a difference of one mark? It’s better, surely, to ask, is this a gold-medal garden – or a silver gilt or a bronze?

“The RHS should decide what it wants a gold medal garden to be, and how it would differ from a silver-gilt medal. We need to identify what we are looking for before we see it. Plant associations, for example – does this combination work, are there any dodgy inclusions?”

The aim would be to remove, as far as possible, any ambiguity, so that the award, and the reasons for it, would be clear to everyone – the designer, the sponsor and the general public.

“As a judge, you’ve got to be able to explain your decision, because a designer will be saying to you, ‘Where are your criteria for saying that? What feedback can I can pass on to my sponsor?’”

It’s natural, said Wilson, that designers might be upset by the judges’ decisions. But a clear set of criteria would eliminate many of the potential arguments and deliver a more transparent result.

“Sarah Eberle had a fantastic attitude, and she’s a good example of someone who uses feedback well,” he said. “When she won a gold medal and Best in Show for her Mars garden, she still asked for feedback.  She had discovered that she’d got 96 per cent and immediately quipped, “well, what did I do to lose 4 per cent?” She wanted to use the feedback to improve.”

Chelsea garden 2010 copyright Charles Hawes

Chelsea garden 2010 copyright Charles Hawes

Interestingly, a gold medal garden – even a 96 per cent one – is not necessarily a best in show garden, said Wilson, and it seems that even the most sophisticated criteria might not be able to validate this particular award.

“A gold medal garden is a head decision, a Best in Show garden is more of a heart decision,” he said. “You’re looking for a level of achievement that evokes an emotional response in judges – completely unpredictable.”

Victoria Summerley with thanks to Andrew Wilson

Victoria’s blogs = Tales from Awkward Hill (with puppy pictures) and Victoria’s Backyard

Victoria Summerley portrait for thinkingardens copyright Anne Wareham

Victoria Summerley with wheelbarrow



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Adam Hodge June 3, 2013 at 10:41 am

I recommend that the judging of the gardens by a small panel of people be disbanded.

The designers who are also instructors and judges see design from their own particular perspective which seems really quite same-y and trendy . Why not have it decided by the paying public who attend the show? The entrance ticket can have a detachable piece- the vote, which is deposited in a box by the relevant garden,[a bit like placing your green piece at Waitrose into your chosen good cause receptacle].

The conclusion will then reflect what the public like as opposed to some current opinion or trend being foisted on joe public by the designer’s tutors.

matt appleby April 6, 2013 at 5:17 pm

wrote this in 2011 when Victoria was at Indie after talking to some designers about judging.

Sue Moss April 6, 2013 at 12:19 pm

Some interesting points raised here – it’s always fascinating to read how people view flower shows from different perspectives.

It’s no secret that the RHS has, in the past, had a reputation for being a little stuffy and old boys network, but that now seems to be asserted without any knowledge of the real processes involved. The RHS is working hard, and succeeding, at being an inclusive charity which pushes the field of horticulture and is accessible to all. It is easy to criticise high profile events and their organisation, but where else in Britain do you find a festival of horticulture of such high calibre?

How to judge without using judges who are aquainted with the designers? Almost impossible, and certainly undesirable. Landscape and garden design is a small world with close connections between the best. I would much prefer a show garden of mine to be judged by someone at the top of their profession and with experience of garden building. Of course we can trust the integrity of Andrew and the many other RHS judges in different fields, they are all professionals and at the top of their game. The judging process is most certainly objective to the appropriate level, and fair. It will be interesting to see how the new judging process works this year.

From a public involvement and education point of view it would be interesting to see some of the key judging points by the gardens, although these are always noted on the television coverage.

What are show gardens? Theatre? True – they are not a true reflection of garden (well – planting) design, but they are a wonderful spectacle and ( I hesitate to use the word by do so advisedly), art. It may not be what the public would transfer to their own garden, but why create the everyday at a fleeting event when it is all around us and freely accessible? Show gardens are for-the-moment wonders to be enjoyed, they are inspirational and sometimes cautionary and educational. They are also the only window by which some of the population view our profession.

Anything which aids horticulture in gaining an increased profile should be celebrated, and Chelsea’s television coverage is a big event. It helps us market ourselves to the world and it pushes us to be better, the two things that the horticultural world needs most of all. That is why it matters.

Sacha Hubbard April 5, 2013 at 12:28 pm

We rarely go to shows but when we do, we often see some very impractical planting that looks good for a Show but won’t last, or will suffer from e.g. being too closely planted. It may make an impact at the time but it isn’t a good example of practical gardening knowledge for most visitors to shows. I hope this is also taken into account when judging. We visited a very famous garden in California and were told that having designed it, the designer then had to go off and learn about plants, which seemed to us to be a somewhat skewed approach! Indeed, while we were there, part of it was being dug up and new planting was planned as the original had been unsuitable and was dying. As to judging, as long as any possibly conflicting interests are declared, I can’t truly see that it matters much who judges whom. The public tend to make their own minds up so perhaps it’s all rather over-hyped! Should the RHS introduce a requirement that if a designer has worked for or with a judge within the last 5 years, they must declare it? It may be heresy to say so but I feel that designer gardens at shows are the equivalent of the catwalk at fashion shows. Interesting to look at, creating a good deal of debate/controversy but probably not what the majority are going to do in their own garden or wear in real life for reasons of cost and practicality.

Jane Stevens April 5, 2013 at 10:25 am

I feel a bit like Charles, none of this matters too much to me. But I gave up going to shows – nothing intentional, it just fell off the bottom of my things worth doing list, about 4 years ago. I relate it to the money and the stuff, there seems to be so much stuff. Money looking for places to be spent is my feeling.

Anne is right, it’s more like flower-arranging and the rules and criteria are becoming just as arcane. Fair enough, carry on. Personally I’d like much more simplicity and focus on one good, interesting or lovely thing per garden. That would be a good rule, and certainly add confusion to confusion.

Charles’ photographs struck me as doing just that, picking out a good thing. Each garden should not have to have the supposed requirements of a whole garden – I don’t even know if that’s a rule or a tradition. The French ones do seem to do that concentrating a bit better.

Patrick Regnault - Interactive Landscapes April 4, 2013 at 10:57 pm

Some garden show, like haute couture, are there to represent what can be done creatively with a seemingly endless fund of money and time. These have a raison d’etre insofar as they can inspire a creative spark in professionals and non professional alike. Like haute couture when it comes to the mainstreet is where the true inspiration comes.
Great designers like great architects generate ideas. Those ideas are put into 3 dimensional form by experienced practical people who, in general, will adapt them so as to still be standing and growing in many decades.
Show gardens have rarely inspired me and the comments I heard from other “spectators” as they look at them is very insightful and amusing.
Maybe, there should be categories of garden designs based on budget. The public could then relate to the garden on its creative merit relative to the pecuniary investment.
Designing and building garden for a variety of people and budgets is chalenging and rewarding. A more limited budget is much more challenging creatively than a large one.
So, yes, show have their place. Like the Paris or Milan couture show they are there to show what can be done, not always what should be done.

Sue Beesley April 4, 2013 at 5:36 pm

As a regular show visitor and small time exhibitor at Tatton, my main request would be to give the public more insight into the judging. Compressing all the areas considered during the lengthy judging process into one of four wide medal bands does little to inform the public. More information would enhance their appreciation and capacity to critique show gardens and thus their ability to learn what constitutes good design.

If you go round the WI marquees at somewhere like Cheshire Show, the scores for craft work are are displayed quite clearly e.g ‘7.5/10 for design, 8.0/10 for technique, 6.5 /10 for interpretation of brief’ along with comments such as ‘superb finish around the edges, however left hand side not as even as the right’ etc. And this isn’t village fete stuff – at these county shows the competition is regional or national. Being so transparent is difficult, but it helps everyone, not least the visitor who at first sees apparent perfection. Transparent feedback enables closer engagement and the chance to understand exactly what constitutes top quality work.

Visitors to RHS shows are left shrugging and guessing (wrongly) most of the time, or relying on comments made during TV coverage. I’d say open the whole thing up, make the primary comments public (a sentence on each main area), and in particular publish a very short summary of the brief. Having to think about writing down the main points of the feedback would also solve one of the problems in verbal feedback of flippant, irrelevant observations such as ‘we have seen rather a lot of wildlife gardens lately – we’re after something a bit more edgy’.

On the question of fairness, I don’t think it matters a jot if a person is a judge one year and a competitor the next, or in different categories in the same year. As Andrew said, professionalism and objectivity are skills we must train judges to have and trust that they use.

annewareham April 4, 2013 at 10:56 pm

Yes – great idea!

annewareham April 4, 2013 at 4:32 pm

I find myself more and more interested in wondering what on earth these ‘show’ gardens are? They are mostly like flower arranging – temporary, artificial, only to be looked at.
So why are they judged by garden designers? What do professionally designed gardens have in common with ‘show’ gardens? And what do either have to do with what people have at home?

Patrick Regnault - Interactive Landscapes April 4, 2013 at 11:02 am

Perhaps the question is not about how or who judges but what and who is a garden show for?
Is it to show what the profession has to offer in plants, design, ideas? Is it for the general public, to insire a new generation, to promote the benefits of gardening?
Shouldn’t that be the priority?
I understand designers, contractors and sponsors invest time and money into the project and want a return in the manner of clients or enhanced reputation.
I also can see that being a judge can be rewarding in many ways.
What cannot be forgotten in the debate is the general public, enthusiastic amateurs and other garden and landscape professionals who go to these show out of professional curiosity.
In 2011 I went to a show near Paris. All the exhibitors were passionate and that made the show a great success. Their enthusiasm for their plants, supplies and concepts was contagious. When I go to a show that what I am going for.
The medals? Not relevant!

A Designer April 3, 2013 at 1:20 pm

Great article Victoria – and we should thank Andrew for answering so honestly. The main problem is that garden design is such a small world, note that I felt it necessary to with-hold my name as I may wish to build a garden at Chelsea in the future. It is surely a simple case of clarity? If you have a garden at Chelsea and know the judge both should declare it and the go ahead on weather they can judge the garden should be made by an outside party. If the head judge wishes to design a garden, that is his business but if I were an RHS judge I would not want to judge it. The RHS needs to look at business connections – who gains from the designer getting a gold?

annewareham April 3, 2013 at 2:20 pm

(I have accepted this anonymous. I prefer not to have anything anonymous on the site unless there is good reason and I know who it is.)

Andrew Wilson April 4, 2013 at 4:03 pm

Dear anonymous designer
Nothing should prevent you from submitting a design for any show and withholding your name is quite unnecessary. The whole process is very open and transparent.
I am not the head judge at Chelsea or at any RHS show although some misguidedly choose to call me that. I know most of the exhibitors in some way and actually don’t see a problem in that. The ability to judge successfully in such situations stems from being professional – a word and a discipline that seems these days to count for little. If they were a business partner or we had some shared financial interest then of course I would declare an interest if I were to be judging their garden.

As I am a professional garden designer first and foremost I see no reason why I cannot design a show garden. If the show garden were to be in the section of the show I normally judge then obviously I would withdraw as a judge. This year I am designing (together with Gavin McWilliam my fellow Director) a Fresh garden at Chelsea. As I have nothing to do with judging in that section of the show then there is no conflict of interest. This is based upon the recently published findings of the RHS judging review.

I’m not quite sure what you infer by the term business connections. Anyone with any business connection to me in the judging panel will have to declare that interest and stand back from the judging of the garden.

Otherwise, the design of a show garden is open to everyone. Under the current system someone has to judge these gardens and the RHS and exhibitors need to feel that they can trust or respect their judges. On a personal and professional level, if I felt that either of these parties had lost that respect then I would of course retire from judging and assessing.

On a wider note, the new judging system I’m proposing is all about transparency and clarity and will be trialled later this year. Judges are selected for their experience in different fields and often also for their experience in creating or designing show gardens – a highly relevant capability. The RHS has a system in place for selection and training. There is nothing covert or “old boy network” about this at all. As a pretty ordinary guy from St Helens I find the latter suggestion quite amusing. Whatever happened to those old fashioned notions of honesty, ambition and ability?

Charles Hawes April 3, 2013 at 12:58 pm

Why does any of this matter? It seems to me that the only people who really care about the medals awarded are the garden designers (and their contractors) and the sponsors. The designers are obviously concerned about how they are rated for their reputations sake and in order to attract more business. The sponsors want to be associated with gold-medal winning gardens. Why should the public care? These enjoyable/boring/exciting (you choose) pieces of theatre have precious little relevance to what is happening in non professional garden making. Mores the pity, you might think. Lets not indulge the competitive bitchiness of those involved in the judging and garden making by taking the process too seriously.

Julieanne Porter (@GwenfarsGarden) April 3, 2013 at 11:02 am

Interesting to read about the judging process as just a keen gardener and member of the public who goes to Chelsea and other RHS shows. I do feel there should be more transparency in how decisions are made. If I was a designer (and I’m not), I would want to know the criteria that I’m being judged upon etc, just like I would for any other competition I enter.

I do wonder about how judges are chosen. This isn’t clear. Is it self-selecting or do you have to apply to become a judge? What skills do judges need to have? I mean, what qualifies someone to be in such a powerful position to judge others work?

I don’t have a strong feeling about whether the RHS gets it right or wrong, but I do feel that clarity around criteria when judging, and transparency about how judges are chosen, could only be a good thing for the RHS, designers, judges, sponsors and the public.

Sue Moss April 2, 2013 at 4:13 pm

This issue raises controversy every year – and will continue to do so. Judging of any art is necessarily subjective and gardens are no exception. The question is whether we would rather see judging carried out by industry professionals rather than a band of profession critics. The latter does bear some merit. Other subjective concerns (eg food and theatre) certainly benefit.

The introduction of this style of system into horticulture would be fascinating and I’m sure good for the profession, however, currently a structure does not currently exist and so professionals are surely the best option?

Duncan Heather April 2, 2013 at 2:26 pm

Andrew Wilson still doesn’t get it, or at least won’t admit to getting it!

RHS Show judges should not be allowed to judge gardens one year and enter the competition the next. They should either be competitors or judges. They can’t be both and then expect the public to consider the process ethical or transparent.

And to suggest that the pool of judges is too small for this, is ludicrous.

There are hundred’s of designers and architects out there, who are more than qualified to judge a show garden, who are also more than happy not to want to compete.

The problems arise when judges, such as Andrew Wilson, Mark Gregory, Andy Sturgeon and Andrew Fisher Tomlin to name but a few, want the prestige of being be a judging one year, and the accolades of being a medal winner the next.

All this rubbish about former students and vested interests is just a smoke screen.

There are £100,000’s of sponsorship money at stake here. Ask yourself if your were a sponsor, who you would choose to design a show garden for you, an RHS judge or a talented new designer?……………no wonder we see the same old faces competing year after year.

The old boy network is very much alive and well. No other organisation in the world would allow this interchanging of poacher and gamekeeper; and the sooner the RHS wake up to this, the better.

Andrew Fisher Tomlin April 2, 2013 at 9:56 pm

Yawn. Yet again people can’t get their facts right about RHS judging in an effort to get some self serving coverage.
I last exhibited at Chelsea in 1996, I first judged at Chelsea in 2008. What is wrong with this?
Equally, I can’t remember when, if ever, Andy Sturgeon has judged at Chelsea. I can however remember some superb inspirational gardens that he designed there.
Please, before you put pen to paper check out the RHS judging rules and get your facts right.
I’m so fed up with this retreading of the same old untruths, I might even do a garden at Chelsea next year.

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