RHS Chelsea Flower Show’s Tom Harfleet offers a unique perspective of the world’s most famous horticultural event. This year the event will mark the Queen’s 90th birthday with spectacular floral and special exhibitions. Here’s what else to look out for in 2016…
Words: Mark Kebble
Tom Harfleet, Show Manager for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, knows a thing or two about the hands-on, practical elements of gardening. A garden designer by trade, and an exhibitor at the flower show in 2013 with his brother, he has ‘been on the other side of the, fence as it were’.
‘This is my second Chelsea Flower Show in the position,’ says Harfleet, ‘but before it was only ever as an exhibitor and a visitor. That’s very good experience to have because, when it gets to crunch time, you are pushing the boundaries of garden design and construction – and it’s not in an ordinary garden setting – so it’s good to know about the stresses and strains. I am able to relate and hopefully guide them through it so we have a better show.
When it gets to crunch time, you are pushing the boundaries of garden design and construction, so it’s good to know about the stresses and strains
‘We have two new plots on Royal Hospital Way, so can show up to 17 show gardens,’ Harfleet explains. ‘We are also hosting two very large exhibits in the floral marquee, which as far as I am aware hasn’t happened before.’
Bowdens, the Devon-based multi-RHS Gold medal winning nursery, are taking on a 6,000 sq ft space, with the centrepiece of their exhibit being an 80ft long carriage from a 1920s Belmond British Pullman, with the idea to take visitors on a plant seeker’s journey.
Then there’s Millais Nurseries, who will celebrate the centenary of the Rhododendron Society, which held its first AGM at Chelsea Flower Show in 1916 – their walk through exhibit will compare large growing plants that were favoured 100 years ago, to the modern, compact varieties better suited to today’s smaller gardens.
There will also be an acoustic garden inspired by world-leading percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie: ‘When we hear about ideas and buy into a concept, we make sure they have a team that can deliver it,’ says Harfleet. ‘We always pick the best applications we get, so I am sure it will be an amazing garden.
It’s also the Queen’s 90th birthday, so we have floral arches at each of the entrances that will be spectacular and photographic exhibits
‘It’s also the Queen’s 90th birthday, so we have floral arches at each of the entrances that will be spectacular and photographic exhibits. We have also got poppies from a project called the 5,000 Poppies Project coming over from Australia that will be laid out on the lawn of the Royal Hospital.’
As a garden designer by trade, Harfleet feels Londoners can take inspiration from all aspects of a show that continues to get bigger and better. ‘Ten metres by 22 metres is our largest show garden, which is the larger end of the gardens in London, but you can definitely take away elements from all of them,’ he concludes. If anyone knows, it’s Tom Harfleet.
1 M&G Investments
Multi-award winning designer Cleve West’s returns to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show for sponsor M&G Investments with a garden inspired by a memory of the ancient oak woodland on Exmoor National Park where the designer spent his teenage youth.
Diarmuid Gavin, who won Gold with a multi-tiered garden in 2011, will present ‘The British Eccentrics Garden’ in 2016, sponsored by Harrods. He has designed a beautifully gentle garden of terraces and topiary complete with octagonal folly and a sunken Italianate pond.
3 Brewin Dolphin
Great Pavilion veteran Rosy Hardy branches out with her first show garden, ‘Forever Freefolk’, sponsored by Brewin Dolphin. It is inspired by endangered chalk streams, which provide a rich habitat for aquatic plants, insects and wildlife, but are slowly disappearing.
4 Watahan & Co
Combining stylistic elements of the East and West, Chihori Shibayama & Yano Tea create their first Chelsea Flower Show garden for Watahan & Co. The design reflects both the manicured minimalist Zen gardens of Japan while incorporating informal UK planting styles.
RHS Chelsea Flower Show runs from 24-28 May. See rhs.org.uk/flowershows