Things were blooming at Chelsea Flower Show for Prince Harry's visit

Peter Dowdall on the work that goes on behind Chelsea Flower Show, organised by designer, Tom Harfleet.

Things were blooming at Chelsea Flower Show for Prince Harry's visit

There’s only a month to go until the highlight of my gardening year, RHS Chelsea Flower Show. The showcase event for all that is gardening and garden design in this part of the world.

Ireland enjoyed huge success at the show last year, with garden designer, Paul Martin winning a gold medal for his main avenue show garden. Each year the third week in May sees a pilgrimage to the Royal Hospital in SW3, and its not just gardeners.

This is as much a social event as it is horticultural, and is firmly established as one of the society events to be seen at, in the London calendar.

Tom Harfleet took over the running of the show in 2015. Somewhat of a spring chicken in gardening terms, Tom was appointed as show manager having worked in the industry for many years and having been the recipient of gold medals himself as a designer at Chelsea and Hampton Court Flower Shows.

“RHS Chelsea has always been the pinnacle of gardening and it is an incredible honour and joy to manage such a fantastic event,” he says.

“As a world famous flower show, RHS Chelsea sets the stage for summer by showcasing the latest trends in gardening and landscape design. With thousands of visitors flocking to the showground in May, it offers a truly unique horticultural experience and is a hugely exciting and rewarding time for everyone involved.”

During the last two years, Tom has worked and continues to work on changes to keep the 103-year-old show, vibrant, interesting and ‘cutting edge’ whilst at the same time ensuring that it retains its status as the top show of its kind in the world.

In that context, Tom and the RHS in general, face many challenges in terms of promoting gardens and gardening as relevant to the next generation. In a world where digital technology and social media rules, it must be difficult to exhibit the virtues of gardening and garden design as a pursuit worthy of dragging yourself away from the smartphone or tablet.

Chelsea is all about the spectacle and in the same way that a top fashion show wows with ‘off the wall’ designs, so too does Chelsea with its Main Avenue gardens. These are essential to offer a platform to the world’s top designers.

However, over the last few years much more attention seems to be focussed on many of the smaller gardens, which are by their very nature more accessible and real to the majority of homeowners and gardeners.

For me the real highlight of Chelsea is the Great Pavilion which is populated for the week in May by the world’s top plant and flower breeders. Imagine Crufts for gardeners — each allium and orchid is preened to within an inch of its life to make sure that it shows itself off at its very best .

Chelsea takes place each year in the Royal Hospital in SW3, London during May and thelogistics of organising and constructing such a vast exhibition in the centre of one of the world’s largest and busiest cities must be a huge challenge to Tom Harfleet and his staff. Gardens worth hundreds of thousands are built within weeks, with features craned in, topsoil trucked to site and plants by the nursery-load, wheeled-in to create this most breathtaking of all garden shows.

I shudder to think what it must be like to organise the build of just one garden of this scale in Central London, so what must it be like and what must be involved in organising the entire event?

Think of all the designers, the landscapers, growers, floral exhibitors and then think off all the sponsors. This is a big money event, show gardens can cost north of £300,000stg. High stakes and large egos makes for a lot of feathers for ruffling and a lot of people to keep happy.

To manage such a show takes someone who has to be an expert horticulturist, a designer, an event manager and diplomat all at the same time — no mean feat.

Tom will be telling his story and sharing his secrets along with his dreams and aspirations for the show over the next few years when he speaks next weekend in Dublin at the Best in Fest ICON event which takes place on April 27 in the Aviva Stadium.

He will join a gathering of iconic individuals from global festivals and events gathered to share their stories and inspire the audience.

  • Best in Fest ICON takes place on April 27th at the Aviva Stadium and speakers include Michael Eavis of Glastonbury, and Gary Graham of Bloom amongst others. See: bestinfest.ie

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