Judging at Hampton Court

by James Alexander-Sinclair

Sometimes it seems that the public perception of the RHS judging process is that it involves a lot of crusty old men, chuntering on...

Detail of show garden at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show 2009I spent all last week at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, where a good time was had by all. I was particularly busy this year, as I had three distinct jobs: filming for the BBC (swanning around, blethering about Henry VIII), compering the Daily Telegraph Theatre and judging show gardens for the RHS.

Judging is always interesting and much more fun than one would imagine. Sometimes it seems that the public perception of the RHS judging process is that it involves a lot of crusty old men, chuntering on like Rowley Birkin (relevant section of clip starts at 2'25") and only giving medals to their chums. Fortunately, this is not strictly correct.

First off, on the day before judging the gardens are assessed by three very experienced judges. They look at five distinct areas (the Brief, Overall impression, Design, Construction and Planting) and prepare recommendations for the judges. Each area carries a set number of points: if you get more than 75 points then you get a gold medal.

On judging day a team of about seven judges meet up for bacon rolls at about 7:30 in the morning. The judges are a mixture of designers and plantspersons - most, but not all, are male. They then trundle off round the show, visiting all the gardens on their list. At each garden the assessors make a brief presentation and the various merits (and flaws) in the garden are discussed. The Judges then vote on the medal.

After a couple of hours of this they retire to a tent somewhere for moderation. This is where the three moderators (really big cheeses) can dispute any of the awards made by the judges. More votes are taken and, eventually, everything is sorted, ready for announcements to the designers and the press.

So you see, the process is pretty exhaustive with plenty of opportunities for discussion, dissent and disagreement. I think, having witnessed this undertaking a few times now, that it is generally fair.

Obviously there will always be people who disagree with the process (and, indeed, the whole idea) but generally if there are to be medals - and most people want to be judged - then this is a pretty good way to go about things.

Two of my favourite gardens at the show were both a bit unusual: The Best Conceptual Garden, It's Hard To See and The Quilted Velvet Garden.

The first was a square hole lined with mirrors and beautifully planted. The mirrors gave the illusion of never ending planting stretching way back underground. It was designed by Rebecca Butterworth, Victoria Pustygina and Ludovica Gianneschi.

Tony Smith's second garden in the trilogy he is creating for Quilted Velvet consisted of 30,000 young oak seedlings surrounded by beautifully made oaken structures.

We gave both gardens gold medals. (I also loved the mosaic in the Beekeepers Garden and the Winchester Growers' very classy allotment garden.)

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Gardeners' World Web User 16/07/2009 at 16:53

hi my wife and i visited hampton court for the first time had a fabulous day we loved everything about it pity we couldent buy any plants

Gardeners' World Web User 17/07/2009 at 16:41

Hello! I am so new to this - not sure this is the right approach but here goes: - we have here in the northwest (Waterloo outside Liverpool) a set of the most beautiful gardens built in 1918 in the Arts and Crafts style. They have been sadly neglected for many years and just recently we as the residents have decided to get involved in trying to get them back to their original glory. Crusty old men are involved as well as a number of younger more active humans. We need help - input - and some ideas - would you be interested in looking a bit more in depth? I hope so - although I don't originate from this area - the gardens really could be spectacular - waterfalls, fountains, arts and crafts beds all waiting to be restored! Hope to hear from you.

Gardeners' World Web User 17/07/2009 at 18:26

I have got a orchid which has got tendrills coming out of the pot wot do i do with them any ideas. Thank you

Gardeners' World Web User 17/07/2009 at 18:32

I think we should be told how much the BBC pays you to blether on about Henry VIII. I feel a Freedom of Information request coming on.

Gardeners' World Web User 24/07/2009 at 16:43

Hi, I'm new to gardening and was wondering if anyone could advise me about my compost bin. I've recently emptied it and it smelt faintly of manure and it was muddy rather than crumbly. What am I doing wrong?

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