Interview - Andrew Wilson, garden designer

Andrew Wilson has designed a garden for the Fresh section of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show this year. He is also a judge for the main show garden section and has reviewed judging criteria based on his work as a garden design teacher

Q: What is the state of garden design education?

A: As with a lot of things, it has been affected by this prolonged recession. Four or five years ago, people would change careers and financially it was less of a worry than it is potentially for people now. With a lot of colleges, people are taking longer to make a decision because they are looking to their long-term future.

Q: What about young people entering the sector?

A: In recent years, young people have been coming to us direct. The core student is 30-plus and has a first degree. We have two aged 19 and 20 at the moment. One of my younger students is interested in the potential of landscape architecture to bring a wider skills base and opportunities to work in the public sector.

Q: Falmouth ended its garden design course in 2010. Are university courses on the wane?

A: University courses came in and I was external examiner for most of them. It was good to get into the university sector and Greenwich is still in there. For many British students, Falmouth is quite isolated and a long way to go to study. There's been a trend for students to be local because of funding. Falmouth also needed to attract more internationally.

Q: What are work prospects like for designers?

A: Again, very variable. I tell people they can't just look at the course as an end in itself. The ability to network is important so you have a range of people to turn towards for work.

Q: What areas are currently holding up?

A: High-end is holding up, but a lot of times they are not in a hurry to invest. They think: 'If I spend this dosh, what happens in two or three years' time when I need it?' Students have to look at the economic situation. But there is a lot of community work. Although it doesn't necessarily pay so well, there is a social delivery in terms of being in that kind of work.

Q: How hard is it to get funding for show gardens now?

A: Shows have had to modify their approach in terms of dependence on funding from sponsors. Many sponsors say they don't want to be funding gardens. Others say this is the time to expand and promote. Shows have felt the bite of recession. But Chelsea had that least because of its international kudos. For Cardiff, Malvern and Hampton, life's more difficult. At Chelsea in 2008 in the first year of recession, designers were not there because sonsors weren't there. Gardens rely on funding.

Q: Can you tell us about your Chelsea design for Cloudy Bay?

A: That came about because of the review by the RHS into judging, and one finding was that the RHS saw no reason why someone who might judge in one section could create a garden in another. That's always been a bit ambiguous. I'm judging in the main show garden section, but I have a garden in the Fresh section. Three designers made proposals to Cloudy Bay, and Gavin McWilliam and I was one of them. The RHS often puts a group of designers to potential sponsors. They want ideas and personalities that work. Some sponsors come with their own designs and others ask the RHS to help.

Q: Is show garden judging changing?

A: The main review has finished. At the moment, the RHS is using the existing system, but is trialling the new system I've put together. The main difference with the new proposal concerns what the RHS thinks a gold or silver gilt is. So rather than saying this is a good garden and it gets a gold, you say does it fit the criteria of a gold medal garden, which is much more transparent. It's not set in stone and can be discussed, but rather than deliberating in a looser way, you ask 'does this fit the criteria'. The key criteria in some ways follow closely what the judges already look at: plant quality, association of plants, choice of construction materials, quality of finish. But instead of saying this is a good quality finish, you have levels to differentiate gold and silver gilt.

Q: Did you feel under siege having to answer for RHS judging against its critics?

A: I felt a bit like that and fingers were pointed in my direction and I don't really know why. A lot of people think I'm the chief judge or assessor, but that role doesn't exist. People are looking for a person to point at. I have to accept that comes with the job - but it is a voluntary role for the RHS. I don't mind standing up and saying 'this is how it works', but what I haven't liked is people pointing fingers and not doing their research, so when someone says it's outdated.


1984: Trained as landscape architect at Manchester Metropolitan University

1989-2003: Ran Inchbald programme

1993: Founded Garden Design Journal

1993-96: Chairman, Society of Garden Designers

1994: Started RHS judging, assessing and judging at Gardeners' World Live

1995 to date: First year at Chelsea assessing and judging (every year apart from 2011, when he was a moderator)

2008: Started London College of Garden Design - first diploma programme in 2009-10

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