Jodie Jones talks to the man who runs the greatest garden show in the world
“For a show that has gone on so long, I have been surprised to find that there is still massive room for change,” says Tom Harfleet, gearing up for his second year as RHS Chelsea Show Manager. “And 2016 looks set to be an interesting year. The biggest development will be the two new plots, bringing the number of show gardens to 17. It’s the first time in 103 years that we’ve added gardens.” First to occupy the new spots will be Jo Thompson for Qatari Diar and Chihori Shibayama and Yano Tea for Watahan. “I can’t wait to see how these gardens look,” says Tom.
The most visible change this year has been the removal of the shrubbery in front of the Royal Hospital building. “It has made a dramatic difference,” says Tom. Alan Titchmarsh VMH was part of the consultation group, as a commissioner of the Royal Hospital, and the site has been redesigned by George Carter as an homage to 17th-century formality. “Finally we’ve got this Christopher Wren building looking like it is part of the site.”
The most talked about changes have been to the system of judging. This year the judges will hand each garden designer a feedback sheet (see interview with Roger Platts) and, in another first, the contractors will get a chance to compete for recognition, although Tom confesses to mixed feelings about the new Contractors Award. “You could say that being chosen is honour enough. But it is great to recognise the amazing skill these guys show.”
As a former RHS Chelsea medal winner himself, Tom knows exactly what everyone involved in creating the show will be going through. “There’s bound to be pressure. There are nearly 160,000 visitors, a BBC audience of millions, and over a billion people picking up on the coverage worldwide, so it would be weird if that didn’t get to you.”
His remedy for exhausted exhibitors? “A pocket full of Haribos,” he says. “They’re RHS standard issue at show time.”