The Chelsea Flower Show: Hillier's Centre Piece - A Risk Worth Taking

By Alex N

Led by Learning with Experts tutor, Andy McIndoe,  Hillier Nurseries Yesterday Unveiled their  ‘Risk’ Garden at The Chelsea Flower Show Great Pavillion.

Hilliers are the most successful exhibitor in the 100 year history of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. The Hillier’s 2012 Exhibit is Supported by Beazley, the specialist Lloyd’s insurers. “Risk is the theme which links the Hillier and Beazley businesses,” explains Andrew McIndoe, Learning with Experts Tutor, and MD of Hillier Nurseries and designer of the Hillier Exhibit. “Beazley insure against risk, based upon their expertise and their depth of knowledge. At Hillier Nurseries, we have to engage all our experience and skills to overcome risk and so create successful and award-winning plants, exhibits and ultimately thriving gardens for our customers. Our Exhibit aims to be the ultimate masterclass in managing risk.”


Gardening is definitely a risky business. You have to contend with the vagaries of the weather (Risk 1) and the condition of the soil (Risk 2) just for starters. The risks are compounded when you’re creating the largest display of horticultural material in the Great Pavilion, where your 3500 trees and plants need to be in tip-top condition if you are to retain the record-breaking legacy of 67 consecutive Chelsea Gold medals.

Hilliers at Chelsea Flower Show

Plant preparation (Risk 3) is a critical, as plants risk may be behind or too far ahead for judging on Chelsea Monday. Ricky Dorlay, Hillier’s Chelsea Plant Preparation expert for over 40 years, mitigates this risk with his detailed experience of how to bring plants to the point of perfection for the key dates. His expertise will be essential with March 2013 officially the coldest March on record.


Hillier’s logistics (Risk 4 ) team manage the risk of plant damage on route from the Hampshire nursery to the grounds of the RHS hospital, their expertise honed by their deliveries of millions of plants and trees to development sites, garden centres and landscapers across the UK.

The Chelsea build was also a race against time (Risk 4). Hillier had just 10 days to create their exhibit, to create paths and ponds, build summerhouses, position 3500 trees and plants in such a way that the garden looks as though it has always been there.


This year Hillier have taken risk with colour (Risk 5). The favourite, lilting, feel-good combinations that we all feel safe with - green and white, lilac and cream, pink and purple - are contrasted with splashes of drama. Taking risks with colour raises the adrenalin levels, demands your attention and shouts loudly to get noticed.

Colour at The Chelsea Flower Show

RISK - Weather There are elements of risk in every season in the garden: frost, wind, drought, pests and more than anything lack of knowledge and experience. Over the years the gardener learns how to insure against risk by doing things in certain ways, by doing them at the right time, and by choosing the right plants for the right situation.

In recent years climate change has made this more challenging, the weather is more unpredictable. One winter frosts are insignificant, the following year plants are expected to cope with temperatures several degrees below zero for days on end.

Some survive the challenge, others do not. Some gardeners insure against that risk by protecting their plants from the challenge of the elements.


RISK - Soil Of course, in some gardens there are fewer risks involved than in others. If you garden in an area with a mild, favourable climate, perhaps with a sheltered plot surrounded by walls or hedges then you have an advantage. If your soil is fertile, well drained, but never really dries out, you are more than one step ahead.

If your garden is isolated from others you may be less likely to acquire the garden pests and diseases that have built up in the concentration of plants and crops in your neighbours gardens. Most of us however have more challenging conditions to deal with, so a little more thought has to go into plant selection and how we care for them.


RISK – Chelsea Plant preparation In many ways creating a show garden is all about risk. It is created for a moment in time. The Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show always happens in the third week in May, so if show plants are at their best in early May or June they have missed their moment of fame. It is the exhibitor’s job to insure against that risk by choosing the right plants, and then gently coaxing and holding back those plants to insure that they are at their best on the right day.

At Hillier that job falls to Ricky Dorlay; he has been preparing plants for the show for over 40 years. His experience and knowledge insures against the risk of failure. However, he would be the first to point out that we can minimise risk, but we can never eliminate it as no one has supreme power over Mother Nature.


RISK - transport Preparing plants for the show is only part of the story. There is then the risky business of transporting around 3,500 plants to London in perfect condition. These vary in size from small herbaceous perennials to vast trees growing in containers the size of a small car.

It is a risky business loading one of these onto and off a lorry with a forklift, and then coaxing it into position on the Monument Site, at the heart of the Great Pavilion. Fortunately the skill and experience of the Chelsea show team reduces the risk and achieves the desired results.


RISK - Build Time

The other major risk factor is time. The Hillier team had only one week to create the largest exhibit in the Great Pavilion – the centrepiece of RHS Chelsea 2013. It is a tight deadline to meet, and there was always a risk that it would not be finished in time.

It always has been, but will 2013 prove to be more of a risk than ever?


Risk is the theme of the Hillier exhibit at RHS Chelsea 2013. A theme that has been interpreted in planting combinations, colour, sculpture and design as only the Hillier team know-how.

We wish Andy and the team good luck with the medals today.  Whatever’s awarded – we think it was undoubtedly a risk worth taking.  A breathtaking display.  Just don’t risk missing it...

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Alex N

I'm passionate about online learning, and lucky enough to work for Learning with Experts. Most recent course: The Pie Shop with River Cottage's Tom Morrell. Next course: Container Gardening with Chris Beardshaw.

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