"Demeaning" portrayal of female RHS Chelsea designers discussed as part of Women in Horticulture event

Main Avenue garden designers at this year's RHS Chelsea have described a press article which featured them dressed-up in heels and heavy make-up as "demeaning".

The all-female panel at Open Garden Squares' event. Image: HW
The all-female panel at Open Garden Squares' event. Image: HW

The Daily Mail article photographed the designers in front of a wall of pink roses, under a 'Smashing the grass ceiling!' headline. This year there were 13 female designers at the show but only three out of 10 on Main Avenue.

The issue was one of those aired at a special Women in Horticulture panel discussion on 7 June, at the launch of this year's Open Garden Squares event, being held this weekend, which looked at sexism, encouraging more women into horticulture, pay, fees, education, changing careers and horticultural heroines.

Panel members included Sarah Eberle, the only woman to win Chelsea Best in Show and designer for four gardens and stands at this year's event and Chelsea gold-medal winners Charlotte Harris (2017) Charlotte Rowe (2014) and Juliet Sargeant (2016), who also made history as the first black person to design a show garden at RHS Chelsea.

Designers are required to do as much media as possible as part of show sponsorship. A garden designer asked the panel what they thought of the article, saying she would put a clause in any future Chelsea contract enabling her to avoid a similar situation.

"I thought it was quite demeaning" said Rowe, adding that she was shocked when she saw the piece, and she had been friends with Main Avenue designer Sarah Price for years and had never seen her with her hair down, as in her picture.

Eberle, who counts Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre as one of her clients, said she did not take offence, it was a life experience she had not taken too seriously, but admitted that it was not what she expected and that the Mail team had irritated her by putting too much make-up on. She refused to ditch her usual trousers or wear heels. "It's a shame to see a newspaper which is so behind the times," she said.

"I did it as part of what I was paid to do, it's prostitution if I'm honest about it. Jo Thompson and I being the oldest got cut off the main picture and put onto the second page."

Harris said defining women and not men by what they wear was a serious issue. "There are levels of covert sexism which is why lots of women perhaps don't move and work on-site confidently. I do have a problem with it."

English Garden magazine editor and chairman of the UK Garden Media Guild Clare Foggett said an audience at a recent event could only name male designers who had won gold medals at Chelsea. "I don't think the make-up and the dresses were necessary but the fact that female designers were featured in a Mail article is a step in the right direction," she said.

Designers gave the view that the RHS itself was encouraging to women but sponsors often opted for the same roster of male designers who they consider to be a safe way to a gold medal.

When she designed her 2017 Royal Bank of Scotland garden with an all-female design team, Harris said: "I had a member of the national press asking me if I was precocious that I should be on Main Avenue for the first time, to go straight to Main Avenue. It enraged me actually."

She responded by reeling 10 male designers who had done the same and asked the journalist if they asked them the same question. "There was silence at the end of the phone". She spoke about "the vertical ladder" of women helping other women. "It's no good just banging on at the RHS. We've all got our role to play".

Rowe said that 70% of Society of Garden Designers members were women but at events speakers were usually men. Of 250 Main Avenue Chelsea show gardens only 70 have so far been designed by women. She said the perception that "sponsors don't really trust" women to win gold medals was true but that was partly a lack of history of women winning gold. She said the last two years had been "a turning point". "I think we have to push it a bit ourselves. I think someone women are frightened of the pressure."

Harris said the fact that women are often the primary care givers of children or older relatives makes it harder for them. Chelsea is a hard slog and long hours where you are "out of life for three months". "I was broken and it was just me looking after me".

But she said women should have more confidence and encourage each other. "We can all do better, we can all raise each other up"

Designers spoke fondly of the Chelsea community and said it was not a competitive atmosphere at all, with designers helping each other out and plants even being shared. Eberle said of working at Chelsea soon after the deaths of her husband and father, "the support that the family gave me is an amazing experience". She described Chelsea as "a bit of self-indulgence" which allows her freedom of expression and was good for her profile.

Also on the panel was head gardener at Middle Temple Kate Jenrick, and Dr Catherine Horwood - author of ‘Gardening Women: their stories from 1600 to present’ who established gardeningwomen.com. The chair of the London Parks and Gardens Trust and public realm principal at the London Legacy Development Corporation Ruth Holmes was panel chair.

The event was hosted by former Chelsea sponsor Coutts in central London which was keen to show off its 400m-long Strand Skyline Garden to visitors, one of the gardens also being opened under this year's Open Garden Squares programme. The garden manages to squeeze 600 varieties of fruit and vegetables and 15,000 plants into a thin strip of balcony around the top of the building.

Coutts employs two part-time growers who work 20 hours a week and the garden is also tended by the chefs who are able to choose, pick and cook produce so it can be served to the bank's wealthy clients, including The Queen, within minutes. Three beehives on the roof produced 13 kilos of honey this year.

Fiori said he felt hugely proud of his garden and it helped attract staff, as well as being popular with both bankers and clients.

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