How to win a gold medal at the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show

A crucial date in any gardener's calendar, the world-famous Hampton Court Palace Flower Show takes place every July. Here, Tinx Newton speaks to one of the RHS judges, Andrew Wilson, who lives in Surrey himself, to find how to win a gold medal

When it comes to gardening, we are fortunate in Surrey to have not only an abundance of beautiful gardens to explore, but also one of the world’s best flower shows to excite and inspire us.

Always high on any gardener’s list, Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, which takes place against the spectacular backdrop of Henry VIII’s glorious royal palace, runs this year from Tuesday July 5 to Sunday July 10. Set along the borders of the palace’s stunning ‘Long Water’, it’s no surprise really that the festival, now in its 21st year, has become one of our largest and most popular annual flower shows.

Run by the Royal Horticultural Society, the event attracts a staggering 160,000 visitors each year and has become as internationally famous as the Chelsea Flower Show. However, Hampton Court has a strong identity of its own and is often considered a bit more alternative. This year, with a record number of entries in the Conceptual Gardens category, the blend of art and horticulture will be particularly evident. The judging processThe remarkable standard of entries in all categories certainly presents a demanding job for the judging panel who begin their selection process the winter before the show.

“The same process applies to all RHS shows, beginning with a detailed form submitted by the garden designer, which gives a clear statement of their intent,” explains Andrew Wilson, award-winning garden designer and judge for the RHS show gardens.

“At this point, the judges have to consider, what will the garden deliver at the show? Remember, these are ‘show gardens’; not domestic gardens. After the selection has been made, the chosen entrants develop their designs and have three weeks before the show opens to construct and plant out their gardens.”

Once the gardens are in place, an assessment panel looks at the entries in great detail before making their recommendations to the judges. The official judging then takes place on the Monday before the show opens. The marking criteria includes allowances for originality and the level of ambition undertaken by the designer.

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"There is no limit to the number of medals that can be awarded in each category – any number of gardens or exhibits can be awarded the much-coveted gold medal,” says Andrew. “Each exhibit is judged on its own merit and they are not compared to each other.

“A sense of theatre is deemed important in the show gardens, and the judges constantly refer back to the original idea submitted to ensure the brief has been adhered to. In this way, a mainly objective view is gathered; not just a subjective response.

“The final stage in the judging is undertaken by the moderator panel who look at all the gardens and decide if the judging seems fair.”

Andrew, who has been judging RHS gardens for over 15 years, observes how the style of gardens has changed, particularly with the growth of conceptual designs at Hampton Court Palace Flower Show.

“Conceptual gardens can breathe new life into a show,” he says. “As judges, we need to study the thinking behind these designs, and not just judge them at face value. These represent the pure aspect of design, and are not just a load of pseudo mumbo-jumbo. People have really warmed to the idea of conceptual gardens at the shows and there is a financial incentive for the selected designers who get support from the RHS to build their design.”

Another important theme these days is the importance of sustainability and bio-diversity and this is taken into consideration too.

“It is certainly very much in our minds,” says Andrew. “It has to be a good thing that people are not encouraged to force plants any more, and plans for planting that wouldn’t work ecologically or in reality are always questioned. Designers are much more aware of saving energy, working more sustainably and using naturalistic combinations.”

Roots in Surrey soilAndrew, who has lived in Chertsey for over 25 years and designed a range of gardens across the county, has his feet firmly embedded in Surrey soil.

 “We are blessed with a fairly benign climate in this corner of Britain,” he says. “People associate Surrey with Gertrude Jekyll and the archetypal glorious English garden, but the lack of rain in recent years and warmer weather is causing real concern. 

“We really have to re-think our more traditional planting palettes and seriously consider using plants that can tolerate drought. I always advise gardeners to buy from local nurseries whose plants have most likely been propagated in similar soil conditions to their own gardens.”

Many Surrey gardens have been given the Andrew Wilson touch, including Foxhills country club, in Ottershaw, and the stunning Rose Garden at Savill Garden near Virginia Water, which is part of the Royal Landscape. The design creates an intense sensory experience as the deep aroma of the roses naturally rises and visitors can enjoy the perfume and stunning views across the garden from a walk-way that appears to ‘float’ above the Rose Garden.

But as the flower show season comes into full swing, Mr Wilson must put his designer’s hat aside for a while and dig out his favourite panama that he likes to wear when judging. “Even though I’ve been doing this for many years, I still get very excited about judging,” he says. “I love Hampton Court Palace Flower Show – it very much has its own personality and despite its popularity, it remains a relaxed, friendly affair.

“This year, I am particularly looking forward to the conceptual gardens – Surrey’s Tom Harfleet always delivers interesting ideas – and I am sure the Poet’s Gardens, introduced as a theme for 2011, will prove very popular with show visitors.

“I will, as always, go to the show with an open mind. Once I’m there, I know the excitement of the occasion will grip me. I love the very first moment I walk into the show – the incredible spectacle of all those wonderful jewels, the breathtaking quality of planting. The mystery and surprise of the whole event never ceases to excite me.”

Andrew Wilson has been a Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) assessor and judge for 15 years. He is an award-winning garden designer and a director of the Wilson McWilliam Studio (, a lecturer, and director of The London College of Garden Design (

Flying the flag for Surrey

Here, we meet just a few of the entrants who will be representing the county at this year’s Hampton Court Palace Flower Show...

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine July 2011

A crucial date in any gardener’s calendar, the world-famous Hampton Court Palace Flower Show takes place every July. Here, Tinx Newton speaks to one of the RHS judges, Andrew Wilson, who lives in Surrey himself, to find how to win a gold medal

Photos: RHS

Discover who won what at the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show 2011 in August's Surrey Life magazine.

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