Interview - Alex Denman, manager, RHS Chelsea Flower Show

Alex Denman runs the most prestigious flower show in the world. As the Chelsea event makes its final preparations for next week, Denman tells HW what visitors can expect and about the stresses and strains of the job - especially as exhibitors are being forced to make late changes to their displays this year because the unseasonably warm weather has caused flowers to bloom early.

Alex Denman, manager, RHS Chelsea Flower Show - image: HW
Alex Denman, manager, RHS Chelsea Flower Show - image: HW

Q: How much has having a professional background in horticulture helped you in your role?

A: I did a BSc in horticulture at Reading which was science based so I concentrated on landscape management under Richard Bisgrove. But the sandwich year was best for me, at Windsor Great Park and Savill and Valley Gardens under John Bond, which was about contacts and people you meet on the way up the ladder.

Q: What was it like succeeding Mavis Sweetingham as Chelsea show manager?

A: Anita Foy was between us for four years. The key thing for me is although I know the gardening world, my experience of exhibitions was quite limited. Chelsea is a unique beast and you need to go through a year and understand as much as possible. Horticulture I understand - the demands on time and plants and that experience has helped me.

Q: What's new about this year at Chelsea?

A: Every year is about tweaking. We are more flexible with exhibitors' requests, such as Diarmuid Gavin's garden this year. If a person has a show history and we know they can deliver we will try and make changes.

Q: This year has seen a hot and dry build-up to Chelsea. What will that mean for exhibitors?

A: The major advantage is for the construction guys. They have cracked on and there is an air of calm. For the plants and the Great Pavilion exhibitors, spring has definitely come two weeks early. Some plants will hold their course - herbaceous starts early and continues - but some exhibitors are bringing on their Gardeners' World Live stock. We will be seeing early flowering plants as opposed to late spring flowers. Hardy's Cottage Garden Plants are saying that temperatures are so high that even if you put plants into shade it is no good so it lets nature take its course. For someone like Millais Nurseries they have early, mid and late rhododendrons so they are bringing their later plants.

Q: Will the weather affect show garden medals?

A: Designers have a two-minute chat with the assessor on Sunday and say, for instance 'I had to change my iris because of the weather and I chose this replacement because it has a particular habit. The key thing is that it has the same feel - the plant is still used as a full stop or whatever. It would be unfortunate if they did lose a medal. Everyone is in the same boat and there's nothing you can do.

Q: Who might win best in show this year?

A: There's such as variety - potager, Cleve West's, Kew's thinking garden, a water mill, Marney Hall's wild flowers, Royal Bank of Canada's wild garden. I don't think we've had a show that's so diverse. Sarah Eberle has a great pedigree and her garden has been three years in the making so she has a good chance.

Q: Why is there more sponsorship around this year?

A: Sponsors like to be involved with Chelsea because it is a softer approach - it's an inclusive event for people who want a lovely day out. The recession is the hardest thing I've had to deal with. Yet the event has sold out earlier than ever - people want to feel good. I love Chelsea because it's not about out-competing but about achieving the best you can. You can help other people and support them by swapping resources.

Q: How well has the corporate side done this year?

A: We've had our highest sales. The gala night is capped at 5,000 tickets and is a great opportunity to raise some money for the society. It's always sold out as it's a private event with no film crews or cameras. It's a good opportunity to be themselves bumping into friends and colleagues.

Q: What does Chelsea mean for the horticulture trade?

A: When does horticulture get on the front pages? That's the big deal. It's a main focus point for the industry and that's why people want to be here. It's a good chance to get in the press and to show their latest products and get attention. This year is the launch of the RHS product of the year and we have 16 shortlisted to be judged on 22 May. It's the second year of the best plant competition too. Trade-wise it is very good. We have very strong waiting lists.

Q: What do you think is next for the show?

A: In 2012 we are changing one of the garden categories to include arts and crafts. A full announcement will be made at the show. I'm also presenting the official RHS DVD.


1992-96: BSc in horticulture, University of Reading, with sandwich year at Savill Gardens

1997-2001: Horticulture lecturer, Nantwich College

2002-07: Journalist, RHS The Garden

2007 to date: Manager, RHS Chelsea Flower Show

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