How garden designers can tap brands to sponsor their exhibits at major garden shows

It is getting tougher to find sponsorship for show gardens so designers could benefit from lateral thinking.

Image: HW
Image: HW

Exhibiting at one of the major garden shows can be a major boost to a garden designer's career. But they are a costly business, with the RHS suggesting a minimum of £75,000 required for a 10sq m site and the lingering effects of the credit crunch, sponsorship can be hard to come by.

A veteran of 25 seasons, RHS head of shows Steven Bennett admits: "There's not a great queue of people with money on offer right now."

But the RHS has been helping designers with free day-long seminars providing no-nonsense talk from experienced designers, contractors and RHS experts. "We explain to them about financing, how to pitch a bid for sponsorship, as well as how to deal with the press," Bennett explains.

So far the society's flagship Chelsea Flower Show is showing signs of a modest improvement on last year, with 15 show gardens, up one on 2009, and overall show sponsorship from M&G Investments already in the bag. "They're not throwing money away - for them it's a great business-to-business opportunity," says Bennett.

When it comes to individual garden sponsorship though, he says: "We make marriages, but in the end it's between the exhibitor and their sponsor. And the biggest mistake exhibitors make is that they don't ask for enough - they underestimate the complexities of the job."

The RHS will also directly support more unusual or themed designs, such as the "Visionary Gardens" at its Tatton Park show. "We invite designers, who may be students or amateur RHS members, to tell us what they want to do and why," says Bennett.

"We then select a few - the amount varies. We try ourselves to find a sponsor for this to offset our costs, but if that doesn't add up, then we will put our money where our mouth is."

Designer Tony Smith is among previous beneficiaries of such awards, including for an installation questioning the war in Iraq at the 2008 Chelsea Flower Show. "The RHS has done a lot of good in giving people a start without having to produce something commercial," he says.

"With a conceptual garden you still have to do a bit of begging and borrowing though. The RHS grant is great but it's not enough to do the full thing." For Smith, this has meant free contributions of paint and even telescopes for his seriously conceptual In Digestion at the 2007 Hampton Court show.

But there are other possible first steps onto the show garden ladder, he adds. "I have seen a lot of people doing their first show garden as part of a college team or helping out on a bigger garden - I've even had students helping me out."

When it comes to commercial sponsorship, he says: "There are two routes. If you're an established designer, sponsors will come to you. Or you might have an idea that you then try to match to a potential sponsor, though that isn't always easy or productive."

Sim Flemons and John Warland of the Piece of Green design practice took the latter route at the 2008 Hampton Court Palace Flower Show for their Porsche Garden, which featured an automated underground parking system.

Flemons says: "We approached a few different car manufacturers for the design, but it happened that Porsche was having an argument with (London mayor) Boris Johnson on congestion and had just launched a new low-emission model."

However, this has been no guarantee of future success for the practice. While the team has already had a design accepted for this year's Hampton Court, at time of writing it is still seeking a sponsor. "This year it's difficult, though we are still trying," he says. "I do think showing has benefited us long-term though."

Garden designer Geoff Whiten had exhibited at every Chelsea Flower Show for 34 years before a loss of sponsorship led to his pulling out of last year's event. This year he will feature at the Sun and Morrisons-sponsored Sunflower Street, with a rooftop garden paved with lightweight stone.

"Until last year I had always managed to find sponsorship, though there's always a lot of knocking on doors," he says. "It's like applying for a job on spec. I have even employed letter writers. You send out maybe 100, maybe two are interested, then one or perhaps none will proceed with it."

He advises: "You have to be passionate about your design, but don't go overboard or be too clever or be too prissy and put down plants that will be hard to get at that time - and keep to a tight budget. You can ask for smaller amounts from two or three companies, such as garden centres. It helps if you can say that there's a pretty good chance of it being on TV - that's an essential part of sponsorship."

A more hard-headed approach to the whole business has made it harder to put together a package, he adds. "You used to be able to borrow shrubs - it was enough that the suppliers got their names in the programme. But when the big extravaganza gardens came along, with quarter-million-pound budgets, it became more of an industry and now nurseries want to be paid.

"Some of the high-profile designers now probably look to get a wage out of it, whereas in the olden days we did it for the kudos." He adds that more opportunities for designers at smaller regional shows "would be something for youngsters to cut their teeth on, before they tackle the big RHS events".

While there is little spare cash floating around the UK economy, times are even tighter in Ireland, where the Bloom show, modelled on the RHS shows, will make its fourth appearance in June. Like the RHS, organiser Bord Bia also runs workshops for potential exhibitors, covering marketing and PR as well as sponsorship.

According to show organiser Gary Graham: "Our designers are not household names, so everyone is starting from the same point in terms of how established and credible they are.

"We are all adjusting to the world as it is now. There are no large dollops of funding, but there are opportunities to work together across the gardening industry - you need to get a team of partners together, including your suppliers."

The show has taken the approach that a high media profile offers sponsors a measurable return on their investment. "We aim to be on the front pages of the newspapers and last year that yielded an advertising value equivalent of EUR10.5m (£9.5m) - we would never have a budget like that to promote gardening," says Graham.

"We still have a lot of companies wanting to get involved that are looking for new ways to promote their goods and services. A lot of Irish companies have never been involved with a garden show before. Yet we have a very credible vehicle for brands."


Designer Tony Smith landed a deal he says "would make a lot of designers very jealous" when he showed his Quilted Velvet garden at last year's Chelsea.

The luxury toilet paper manufacturer was looking to raise its profile among a more well-heeled demographic, for which it was prepared to spend "a couple of hundred thousand", he says.

"Every client is different, but it's easier if they have come to you. The Quilted Velvet PR company asked me to do three show gardens - I suppose it was a culmination of the reputation I had built up over the previous four years. It was proper money, with no grovelling to companies required.

"They gave me a brief, which included their colours and ethos and I came up with abstract designs around that. But they didn't interfere in the artistic process - they just wanted something interesting enough to get noticed."

The show's high media profile yielded a 17-fold advertising value equivalent. "They were very pleased - it smashed their targets," says Smith.

"Once you get to the commercial end, there's quite a lot of money floating about, which for me made it worth getting to that position. But it's a lot harder in the current economic climate. In the past there have been gardens costing up to half a million pounds, but there won't be many of those this year."

Smith's next design will be an urban garden for artificial grass supplier EasiGrass at this year's Chelsea. "It's a bit of taboo breaking, though they are playing it low-key," he says. "You also have to get your design past the RHS. It might say no if it's too in your face. I have heard of horror stories of companies wanting product placements in gardens. It's a delicate balancing act."

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