How does a garden design win a Gold Medal and be judged Best in Show at Chelsea?

Judging garden designs for gold medals and Best in Show at the 2010 Chelsea Flower Show

Judging garden designs for gold medals and Best in Show at the 2010 Chelsea Flower Show

Alan Titchmarsh set the scene on BBC2 (8pm on 25.5.2010) ‘Today at the world’s foremost gardening event… the eyes of football fans may be focussed on South Africa and the World cup… but… a garden medal here at Chelsea is as prized as any footballing trophy’. He then asked the Chair of the Judges, Michael Balston: ‘What makes this garden stand out as best in show for you?’. Balston replied ‘Well it satisfied all the criteria we need in order to make it a good garden in terms of impact in terms of design and planting and for us the colour works so well – I mean the contrast between the corten and the verbascum is something which just wow-ed us.’ Andrew Wilson, writing in the Telegraph from the standpoint of Chair of the Assessors explains that ‘The marking criteria include allowances for originality and the level of ambition inherent in what the designer is trying to achieve. They include percentages for overall design quality or character, the sense of theatre which is important in show garden design (these are not real gardens) which is often to be viewed from outside the garden boundary. Marks are also given for construction and the appropriate use of materials in accordance to the brief and for planting design, associations and quality. All of these considerations are related back to the brief and the fundamental design intention as identified by the show garden designer, not simply decided at the whim of individuals or panels of judges. In this way the system delivers a mainly objective view rather than a wholly subjective response.,,. The panel is made up of designers, contractors and horticulturists.’
My respones to the above are (1) Michael Balston is a designer but his criteria are inadequate: good gardens should have the Vitruvian virtues: Commodity, Firmness and Delight (2) John Sales was neither a designer nor a design critic (3) Andrew Wilson is a designer and a critic but wrong in his view that design judgment can be ‘mainly objective’ (4) the designer’s ‘brief’ is a red herring which should not feature in the assessment process (5) considerations relating to use of plants and materials are akin to judging a World Cup team by its turnout and strip (6) all the members of the judging panel should be design critics (7) I would not want the Pulitzer Prize to be assessed by printers or the Turner Prize to be judged by paintbrush manufacturers (8) there should be no contractors or horticulturalists on the judging panel for the Chelsea Show Gardens – unless they are also good design critics
See review of 2010 Chelsea Flower Show

15 thoughts on “How does a garden design win a Gold Medal and be judged Best in Show at Chelsea?

  1. Adam Hodge

    Tom. Your comment that the Judges should all be design critics fills me a bit with fear and trembling that one might end up, after the anticipated wranglings of different opinion of what is a great design,with a grey decision.. a fermentation of a huge scope of strongly opinionated judges. It is bad enough reading the critics that fill the pages of The Thinking Garden..[the slightly arrogant sniping of different creations isnt altogether helpful], and although I have strong opinions when I see different gardens, I just wonder if there is an absolute ‘right or ‘good’ design. One only needs to go to Wisley to see some ex-Chelsea stands that,quite frankly,[in my view] are so naff, cheesy and dated it is a wonder they were ever chosen to grace the RHS grounds!! It just demonstrates how design opinion is ever changing..dare one suggest inconsistent.
    So, perhaps the addition of horticulturalists and contractors to the judging panel helps to add a broader perspective,and reduce the possible conflicts of the ‘good taste brigade’.

  2. Tom Turner Post author

    Remembering that art critics rarely cover themselves in glory, I see your point. But if the ambition is to put on ‘the world’s foremost gardening event… [with] … a garden medal here at Chelsea is as prized as any footballing trophy’ then they have to have the highest standards and these can only be maintained with the best critics. So far as I know, they do not have brickies, chippies or decorators on the assessment panels for the The Pritzker or Stirling Architecture Prizes. Mistakes will be made and there may be a Salon des Refusés – but at least (1) we will know what the best judges think (2) we can make fun of the judges in later years when they have made mistakes.

  3. Adam Hodge

    Ooh.. you are a hard man Tom !! brickies, chippies or brutal of you !!! Is not the assessment of a show garden also about its horticultural merit and perhaps ewen the calibre of construction as well as the [previously discussed] considerations of design ?

  4. Tom Turner Post author

    Construction, planting and materials all add to the quality of the finished product and, as an amateur brickie-chippie-decorator, I am full of respect for polished craft skills. But the Big Tent is the place to judge horticultural quality as an independent variable. One does not look at a bronze statue and think ‘its banal… but lets give it a Gold Medal because bronze is a wonderful metal and the casting is excellent’. And I think it must have been this line of thought which led the 2010 judges to give a canal lock by Leeds City Council a Gold Medal, though it is very well built.
    I often wish I had become a carpenter, instead of a scribbler, and mean them no disrespect. It’s just that design and construction and two different things. Some carpenters are excellent designers but skill in carpentry has no necessary connection with skill in design – or in design criticism.

  5. Adam Hodge

    I have to agree with you about the Leeds contribution. Nevertheless I still fear that a judging team made purely of design critics could lead the judgement criteria nearer to the realm of the Turner prize and the mystery joe public struggles to understand about the identity of Art. Will they start puzzling.. what is a garden? Would we end up with contributions of the nature found at Chaumont or Westonbirt as was?

  6. Adam Hodge

    Are these comments, in essence, about the balance between two elements..craftsmanship and style. Great art, sculpture, food, gardens, films, books etc etc are from those who have been and are especially skilled at their craft. The commentators as to what is good, bad or indifferent are just that..commnentators. The creators surely are the most qualified to comment, more so than someone with the gift of good copy. Is the judgement of good design a mask for fashionable opinion? Should’nt the merit of a creation, be it film, a garden, a good meal, a picture or a commercial product i.e. a car be judged as much by its creation of revenue as by its form ? Is the critic really more competent to comment than the creator ?

  7. Tom Turner Post author

    I wish the RHS were asking, and answering, the questions you have raised.
    Here are a few answers from me (1) some creators are also brilliant critics (eg TS Eliot and Andrew Motion) but others are not (eg because they are not interested or because they are self-centered or because they lack generosity) (2) I don’t see much evidence of garden designers behaving like Turner Prize assessors and if they did then I think we would have to put up with it – as we do with legal opinions from the best QCs and Judges (3) I think the question ‘What is a good garden?’ is very important.

  8. Christine

    A few things I think all good designs possess are:

    1) the Aaghh factor (perhaps this is like the X-factor)
    2) the element of surprise (innovation rather than novelty)
    3) the sense of obviousness (once you have seen it, seems so obvious and so right)

  9. Tom Turner Post author

    Though I agree, it would be difficult to include these in a list of criteria for the judges. I wonder if there are published criteria for literary competitions?

  10. Tom Turner Post author

    I did a little research on juding literary prizes:
    – The Whitbread has simple judging criteria: which of these books would you press on a friend and implore them to read?
    – For the Man Booker an advisory committee is formed, which supports the inclusion of an author, two publishers, a literary agent, a bookseller, a librarian and a chairperson appointed and overseen by the umbrella group – and guardians/treasurers of the Booker’s legacy – the Booker Prize Foundation. Then the baton is passed to this advisory committee to determine a judging panel for the year ahead and to see them through the process of nominations and shortlisting. These judges are hand-picked from high profile and respected literary critics, writers, academics and notable public figures in the main, whose undertaking it is to sift through the nominees.
    – There are no specific Pulitzer Prize criteria for judging each of the entries. The definitions of the categories are used to narrow down the submissions for each category, but the final judging is left up to the juries.
    – For the Pandora Poetry Prize Judges will be looking for the poems in each grade category which best exemplify one or more of the following:
    1. The poet knows and cares about the topic of the poem.
    2. The poem evokes response in the reader, appealing to emotions and / or intellect.
    3. The form and content of the poem complement one another.
    4. The poet uses language in a fresh way, avoiding clichés and forces rhymes.
    5. The poet pays attention to the sound of the words.
    6. The poet uses language precisely and economically.
    7. The poet maintains a consistent voice.

  11. Sue Tallents

    Ah gotta love Alan Titchmarsh (with or without wooly jumper). I didn’t make it to Chelsea this year, but it’s been such fun getting involved in the past. Excellent post by the way – for the record, I really don’t envy the job of judging at Chelsea, especially with so many people pushing the envelope in terms of the interface between pure design, and a garden in the true sense of the word.


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