Show garden payback worth all the stress

Building RHS show gardens is worthwhile for the commercial opportunities they bring - despite the huge stress the hectic schedule can place on business and personal life, landscape contractors say.

Sam Ovens’ Cloudy Bay: built by David Dodd, the overall showcase proved to be commercially viable
Sam Ovens’ Cloudy Bay: built by David Dodd, the overall showcase proved to be commercially viable

Steve Swatton of Swatton Landscapes won Best Contractor at the Chelsea Flower Show last month for Cleve West's M&G Garden. The garden was Swatton's 11th at the show, all on Main Avenue.

Financially speaking it's certainly been worthwhile, he said. "It's just the best platform to show your work off and show who you are and express yourself, because nearly every designer will come to Chelsea at some point and walk along Main Avenue.

"If your work is hopefully of a standard where it's noticeable, they will take a note and years down the line they might say, 'You did So-and-so's garden in 2012 - I remember that garden'." It's worth as much as a website and glossy brochures to push you forward because there's nothing like seeing it in the flesh."

However Chelsea is also incredibly stressful, and tough on family life.

"I've spent many years travelling up and down motorways, with a very understanding wife and two girls. It's difficult finding a balance in your family life but they have always been hugely supportive."

Swatton said he would not keep coming back to Chelsea if he didn't have a core team that he enjoyed working with.

"I call myself lucky that every garden I've built at Chelsea, when I've walked down Main Avenue, I felt that my team were on the right garden for the skills that we have. That's predominantly challenging stonework, and it may not be the Best in Show but we're building the right garden."

David Dodd, of The Outdoor Room, often takes on several gardens at one show - at Chelsea he built the Modern Slavery Garden for Juliet Sargeant, Sam Ovens' Cloudy Bay garden and Ann Marie Powell's RHS Greening Grey Britain garden. He said it's important to make the overall show schedule commercially viable.

"The Modern Slavery Garden we did at a much more reduced rate because we thought it was such a good cause and message to send out there. And (Powell's) Macmillan Legacy Garden at Hampton Court last year, again we made a loss on that one -so if it's a good enough cause, we'll do that as cheaply as we can.

"But we make up for it with the big commercial ones. Someone's making money somewhere and I think that should be filtered down to the contractors."

Dodd puts his staff up in a hotel every year and was expecting a £25,000 hotel bill at the end of the show, with a £10,000 food bill.

"You've got to keep them happy in the evening. They're working 13-14 hour days sometimes so you've got to make sure they're well fed and watered."

Show gardens require "totally random skills" which keep things interesting, he added. "I've never been asked to make a door stand on its own hovering in midair (as in the Modern Slavery Garden) so I became a bit of an engineer. I think that's the same for every garden as the designs are pushed more and more. It's exciting."

But he warned other contractors thinking about getting into shows that it can be "disastrous" if things go wrong.

Dodd admits things got "a bit panicky" at Sam Ovens' garden on the triangle plot after Thames Water said the sewers underneath would require emergency reinforcement. But a solution was found with the help of the RHS and the build turned out to be remarkably easy, he said.

"There's no point in having hissy fits and tantrums; it doesn't get you anywhere," he said.

"It's very difficult for new contractors breaking in because the RHS are obviously under pressure, there's so much stress, and they need to know the contractor is going to be able to cope. If things start to go wrong has that company got the resources to pull in more staff?"

Landform Consultants managing director Mark Gregory has now completed 150 gardens for RHS shows including Chelsea, Tatton and Hampton Court.

Gregory said RHS shows are an excellent tool for staff recruitment as well as profiling and benchmarking the company. Having spent more than three years of his life on site at Chelsea, Gregory has asked himself many times if the endeavour has been commercially worthwhile.

"If I had spent as much energy on my business, would my business be better off? I don't know. But have I enjoyed it? One hundred per cent."

Yet he added that Chelsea "still frightens the pants off me".

"The thought of trying to do something and not pulling it off, and the commercial suicide that would happen: you're putting your head in a lion's mouth every time and you cannot afford not to deliver."

Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus

Read These Next

IoG Saltex 2016 - show preview

IoG Saltex 2016 - show preview

This year's Saltex will be looking to build on the success of last year by packing in a multitude of exhibitors and sessions over the two days, Sally Drury reports.



These tidy evergreen trees are not just for Christmas and come in a range of shapes and sizes, writes Miranda Kimberley.

Tree lifting, moving  and planting

Tree lifting, moving and planting

Successful relocations can see even big trees flourish while costing less than buying new stock, says Sally Drury.

Horticulture Jobs
More Horticulture Jobs

Are you a landscape supplier?

Horticulture Week Landscape Project Leads

If so, you should be receiving our new service for Horticulture Week subscribers delivering landscape project leads from live, approved, planning applications across the UK.

Landscape Contracts & Tenders

Industry Data

New: We have pooled the wealth of data from the past six months' worth of Landscape Project Leads to create an exclusive report for subscribers looking at the key development trends, clients and locations for 2016.