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Only in our dreams are we free; the rest of the time we need wages.’ - Terry Pratchett

I really did have that dream, in actual fact. It was not anything I had even considered I would or could do prior to that particular bout of life changing REM sleep. How could this imposter even think she was Show Garden material? She hadn’t even completed her design course.

The seedling was inextricably planted and it proliferated like a weed within my every waking, and many of my sleeping moments. Even conversation with others was tricky as I was permanently distracted by my mind which spun like a frantic whirling dervish.

Weeks went by. The dream still festered on.

I had to pursue it or I would never know.

I sensed that the Royal Horticultural Society show department almost laughed at me when I tentatively enquired about show garden submissions. I should have known the obvious. Applications for Chelsea Flower Show had already closed several months ago. Not to be dissuaded, I politely and persistently pressed further for application dates for the following year. ‘Not possible to tell yet,’ came the brusque response. Then a softening, ‘What about trying Hampton Court, those submission dates are still open for next year’s show but you will have to hurry - I can send you the application forms today? You only have two weeks to get everything submitted.’

The largest garden show in the world instead of the most famous? Could I?…Of course I could. And I was bloody well going to give it a go.

If I thought running a full time maintenance, design and landscaping business was hard, it was small fry compared to the volume of work that followed that life changing conversation. All this in addition to the increasingly busy daily design, landscape and maintenance tasks.

Everything, yes, everything to do with an application had to be submitted within two weeks. There was the lengthy and detailed application form, the name (surprisingly difficult to come up with), the design (in birds-eye and three dimensional views from every which way), planting plans, plant lists, the all important brief on which we would be marked, funding or sponsorship details…

Stop! Hold hard Harry! Funding details?

Hadn’t even thought about that one. Not a spare bean available.


Oh well. We will have to cross that bridge if we come to it, which of course we won’t because I am not worthy.’

I put it into the post and tried to forget about it. Job done, and simply put it to bed in my mind, reasoning that I was a greenhorn and they wouldn’t give my submission a second glance.

That was until the innocuous brown envelope dropped through my letter box.

Fuck, fuck, fuck. It’s a yes,’ I blathered to Simon down the phone through a veil of snot and tears. ‘Fucking hell. Fuck, fuck, fuck!’

The inconspicuous brown envelope that had plopped onto my doormat contained confirmation that the RHS thought I was worthy enough to design a Show Garden, even if I was much less sure. Incredibly too, they thought I could build and man it at Hampton Court Flower Show. Really? Truly?

Imposter syndrome overload or what?

And I thought preparing the submission for consideration to RHS Hampton Court Flower Show took time. That had been small fry compared to the next few months.

So commenced the eighteen hour, seven days a week grind, until ‘Build Up’ was to start some five months later. Days were spent maintenance gardening with the team, evenings and weekends saw me writing hundreds of begging letters and emails beavering away finding sponsors, fine tuning design flaws, refining the all-important brief upon which we would be so strictly marked, filling in reams of seemingly endless RHS paperwork, locating the minutiae that is part and parcel of each and every Show Garden.

Despite everything, I loved every minute. Even Simon’s cooking, as he admirably stepped in and embarked on another steep learning curve, this time in the kitchen.

This was really happening.

It was no longer a dream. The Spirits’ Garden was going to be a reality. Where there’s a will there’s a way.

All this seems like a lifetime ago now.

The Spirits’ Garden was the first small show garden we staged at Hampton Court Flower Show. It was without question the biggest rollercoaster of my life. The highest of highs and lowest of lows. One particularly low moment was when Simon returned after being off site for a couple of days during build up at the show. I had made fantastic progress with the planting and the garden was starting to look exactly as I wanted it too. As he walked onto the garden, impressed with the progress, he just happened to gently ask ‘Where are the blue lighting cables that I need to get going with?’.

Guess what? They were comprehensively buried under six inches of compost and my magnificent planting. Totally in the zone, I had completely forgotten to leave them uncovered. Devastated, I tried gently to locate them. Growing more and more frustrated, I realised that the only way to find them was to rip everything out and start again.

Which is exactly what had to be done. The garden was a state of carnage at the end and I was in floods of tears. Two days of wasted planting and prettifying. Two days then behind the increasingly pressurised schedule. Not happy at all! I fear old ‘Enery the Eighth would have found the language and volume with which it was dispensed, somewhat troubling.

Nevertheless, we got there in the end, finishing by the skin of our teeth on Sunday evening, ready for judging bright and early on Monday morning.

For all of the many highs and lows, that were eight months in the making, we achieved a RHS bronze medal.

Simon was devastated. I was thrilled. Mostly not to get the famous ‘Letter’, as in ‘thanks for turning up but…’

As the show closed, I swore I would never, ever do it again. Breaking the garden down after the show was like slaying my baby. I was physically and emotionally exhausted. Desperate for a holiday.

‘Never, ever again!’. Except…

Within two weeks of the show ‘break-down’, away on that well earned holiday I found myself completely designing the following year’s submission in my head. Inspired by a visit to a tea plantation.

The Healing Garden, my absolute favourite of our eventual four show gardens, won us a gold RHS medal and BBC People’s Choice award for a small show garden. The garden, inspired by a dear customer of mine who had recently passed away, contained many plants used in traditional and homeopathic treatments for cancer. Macmillan Cancer Support gave us free use of their name and helped man the garden throughout the show. With their name, sponsors practically fell over themselves to help. Such a contrast to the previous year.

The judges and public loved it. Phew!

The following two years saw us take a huge step up to the opposite side of the Long Water and staging the largest of all the show gardens exhibited during both those years. Sponsors approached us this time, so the work load was significantly easier to manage. We earned silver gilt medals both times, just missing out on gold medals. Even now, some twelve years further on, the infamous magic pink tap rears its head when I least expect it, ‘The iconic image of the show that year’ as the top dog head of shows christened it.

During those times we laughed and cried, experienced elation and exhaustion, frustration and fear, forged lifelong friendships, dodged the cameras, sought them out too, ate more bacon sandwiches than you could poke a stick at, mingled with the gardening royalty and top brass speaking the common language of horticulture with an ease and familiarity I loved, trimmed hedges with nail scissors, even broke out of Hampton Court grounds at midnight.

So…there’s no business like show business. The long days for months of the year on top of the day job, planning, researching, submitting, begging, thanking, sourcing, sowing, growing, tending, choosing, buying, updating, form filling, building, planting, polishing, trimming, smoothing, staging, meeting and greeting, and finally tearing it down.

The life of a show garden.

I’m glad I followed that dream but I’m happy to look back on it. Thirty years of manual labour has finally caught up with me.

Does the UK government seriously expect manual workers to work until they are 68 before getting a pension? How? 68? Are they barking mad? Have these law making people ever done a physical days work in their lives? Do they realise the significance of this for every person doing a heavy or manual job?

Physically, I’m a broken woman well before that age.

So much so that next week I’m having some metalwork built into my spine.



Hi, thanks for stopping by!

I’m Jill, a RHS gold medal winning English professional gardener, garden designer and landscaper living in South West France since 2012. This is a personal account of my gardening life, some of the jolly and occasionally not so jolly japes that ensued while working, that probably caused my subsequent back problems.

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