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Here come the judges: Meet the Scots gardeners choosing best in show at Chelsea

© Andrew CawleyScots judges Dougal Philip and Lesley Watson
Scots judges Dougal Philip and Lesley Watson

In a riot of colour and bloom, the Chelsea Flower Show opens this week to celebrate the spectacular green-fingered inspiration of Britain’s most creative gardeners.

This year, like the last 20, Dougal Philip and Lesley Watson will have the daunting task of helping choose the finest show gardens, created in just three weeks, in the prestigious game of high-stakes horticulture.

The husband-and-wife team are two of the best-known names in gardening in Scotland after establishing New Hopetoun Gardens, the award-winning garden centre in West Lothian, and through Watson’s presenting role on TV’s Beechgrove Garden.

The gardens are a Chelsea highlight for the royals, celebrities and everyday gardeners who flock to the show in west London.

For the gardeners, growers, landscapers and designers who spend more than 18 months planning and delivering their showcased, themed gardens, and then just three weeks to build them, the most nerve-racking moment will come on Tuesday morning when they receive their awards on live TV.

Philip and Watson are already on site, part of the small team of experts who have been scrutinising every element of each garden from the quality of the stonework, fences and water features to the choice of plants and how they’ve been used in the design.

It takes an eye for detail to spot the minute flaws that can scratch points off the scorecard but, says Watson, it’s important to see what works and what could have been done differently.

“Chelsea is the top flower show in the world and it only holds that position because it maintains the highest standards,” she says. “So while the public might not notice if the walls aren’t built properly or if drought-loving plants are sharing space with plants from damp areas, it is the job of the judges to point these things out.”

© James Veysey/Shutterstock
Dame Judi Dench with Chelsea Pensioners as she opens the RHS Queen’s Canopy Garden last September

This year, Watson is judging a new category called Sanctuary Gardens where the emphasis is on tranquility and relaxation, while Philip is on duty in the Main Avenue, where all the big show gardens are created. He’s hoping not to repeat the mistake of a few years ago when he was so caught up in the process of judging that he fell into one of the water features. “The Queen heard about it and asked me if I was wearing my kilt at the time!” he recalls.

The Queen, Princess Anne and Princess Alexandra are just a few of the royals whom the couple have met at the show while they have also rubbed shoulders with a long list of celebrities who visit to have flowers named after them and be photographed in the gardens.

One of Philip’s favourite garden-loving celebrities is Shakespeare In Love star, Dame Judi Dench. “We had a very good friend in common and after he died we had a long chat about him in the midst of the chaos of the show,” he remembers.

But the real stars of Chelsea are the gardens and the process of judging them takes place over a number of days, with the judges each scoring them individually and then working through their overall score for each plot.

“We like to see the gardens on wet days and dry days and also once they’ve just been planted and then again when everything has had a chance to settle in, because this can make a huge difference,” says Watson.

“We also get to wander around the gardens, whereas the public only ever view them from the edge, and some improve from this close scrutiny, whereas others lose some of their appeal.”

There’s a lot at stake for the designers and their sponsors and so they are often very nervous about the judging process.

“They have an opportunity to talk to us before we make our final judgment. Sometimes they look terrified and read out some lines that they’ve written down, whereas we just want them to have a conversation with us,” says Watson.

But the truth is that, by the time the judging takes place, those who lived and breathed their design and construction are absolutely exhausted and they’ve still got to make it through the annual Monday Press Day, ahead of the Tuesday opening, when they swap their work gear for fancy clothes.

“Once the results are announced we meet with the designers and give them feedback, but after that the matter is closed and the rule is that we don’t talk about the judging again,” says Philip.

That doesn’t stop Monty Don and his fellow presenters from having their say, however, and the judges’ decisions are discussed on BBC every evening throughout the show. Over the years Philip and Watson have seen lots of beautiful gardens and more recently they’ve seen the fashions change from formal plots to flower-filled meadows.

So who do they predict will be the winners this time round? Philip says: “We make a point of not reading anything about the gardens in advance and see everything fresh.”

How to grow a blooming show-stopper

Dougal and Lesley have five rules for every great garden.

  • Fit the brief: All the designers at Chelsea submit plans and lose points if they deviate. At home, stick to one theme and don’t cram in too many features.
  • Be creative: The best gardens have a sense of theatre, so don’t be afraid to express personality.
  • Pick the right plants: Get this wrong and not only will the overall effect be unsettling but your garden will fail to thrive.
  • Pay attention to the details: Are fences straight, decking freshly-painted and your flowers dead-headed? Get these right and your garden will look better.
  • Everything should be well planted: Prepare the soil properly and make sure the flowers go into the ground at the correct depth and are then watered in to help them settle.

Designers bidding to become flower powers at Chelsea

The gardens at Chelsea are divided into different categories. There will be 13 massive show gardens created by high-profile designers; 12 smaller sanctuary gardens; nine bijou balcony and container gardens and, new for this year’s show, four “all about plants” gardens, where flowers and foliage will take centre stage.

Visitors can also view the BBC Studios Our Green Planet and RHS Bee Garden, where the emphasis will be on ecology and the environment.

Chelsea can always throw up surprises but two gardens worth watching are the RNLI garden by celebrity designer Chris Beardshaw and the new Blue Peter garden by Juliet Sargeant, who has been carrying off gold medals at Chelsea for more than 20 years.

The RNLI garden will feature statement trees and classical oak pavilion that will reflect the charity’s origins in the Georgian era, while the Blue Peter Garden will offer visitors a chance to “listen” to the compost heap and will include a subterranean chamber for observing what goes on underground.


The Chelsea Flower Show runs from Tuesday until Saturday with BBC coverage starting today and running all week