Eight tips for designing a Chelsea-style show garden at home

18 May 2016

RHS Chelsea award-winning landscape designers Mark Gregory and Catherine MacDonald share their top tips for creating the Chelsea show garden look in your own garden.



Mark Gregory and Catherine MacDonald from Landform Consultants are a multiaward winning Chelsea dream team. With years of experience creating beautiful spaces for both residential and commercial properties, as well as countless RHS gold medal winning show gardens, Catherine and Mark share their top tips with us on what to consider when planning a garden and bringing a little bit of Chelsea home.

Mark Gregory is celebrating his 150th RHS show garden at Chelsea this year and has spent more than three years of his life building show gardens on the iconic grounds of Royal Hospital.

Mark’s anniversary garden is the Hartley Botanic Garden and has been created by his lead designer from Landform, Catherine MacDonald. It is Catherine’s 10th year as a designer and her first as a solo designer on Main Avenue.

Both agree that there are a few simple design rules that anyone can follow that will help bring that Chelsea edge to any garden.

What happens to the Chelsea show gardens after Chelsea?

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Mark and Catherine's top tips for a creating a show garden at home

1. Make an impact visually

One of the ways that we do this is by referring back to the architecture. 

You’ll often see structures in show gardens and these help ‘regulate’ the space. These buildings all have key details that as designers and landscapers we use to help create a sense of order and therefore impact in what would otherwise just be an outdoor space. 

We’re talking about views from key windows or entrances into the garden, using these creates a basic wire frame that means that the outside space relates more naturally to the inside one.

2. All gardens need a sense of refuge

As human beings it’s a basic behavioural thing, we need to feel that we are enclosed in a space rather than exposed. There is a simple rule that can be applied to help tap into this basic instinct of shelter. 

The vertical edge of an area needs to be at least equivalent to a third of the horizontal space. So a wall or fence 1m high would seem too low for a space that is 7m wide. We always apply this natural sense of scale and its plain to see in show gardens.

3. Simplicity is key

We cannot stress this enough, the gold medals are won using this philosophy. Limit your materials, colour palette and repeat the plant species throughout the garden and it’ll create a sense of unity. A top tip is to use a similar material on the terrace to the interior flooring of the house, it’ll bring everything together and also make the space feel bigger.

4. Rule of thumb

Paths should be wider and archways taller outside. Steps should also be wider but shallower, the general rule states that the tread (the bit you stand on) should be three times the riser. 

The RHS would mark down heavily on this if the proportions are not right. When they work you can really feel it as you move through the garden.

5. Avoid one hit wonders

A Chelsea garden has to look good in early summer so the plants are chosen specifically for that time but a garden is for life not just for Chelsea so we’d advise to stick with species that have longevity in their flowering season. 

A mix of hardy perennials (come back year after year), evergreens and some show stars is perfect combination. There are many species that will flower from May to September and even have great seed heads that will look fantastic in the frosts. 

Evergreens act as the bones of a garden, they provide interest in the winter months and well placed topiary or evergreen hedging can look spectacular when the more flashy flowers are taking a break.

6. Room with a view

Framing is incredibly important on a show garden. Creating sight lines that lead the observer to a spectacular view or well placed piece of art or sculpture is standard practice that can be applied in a domestic setting. Alternatively, if there is an eyesore then disguise it with well-placed planting.

7. Edge your borders

Edging a border adds a finishing touch, it both crisps the edges and stops the lawn from encroaching. Use the more traditional wood or opt for metal for a more contemporary feel.

8. Room to breathe

The one thing I would say that is the opposite of a show garden is DON’T be tempted to overplant borders to create that readymade garden look. Plants will fill out incredibly quickly and overcrowding will affect the health of the plants and is an unnecessary expense. Think about the shapes of the flowers and make sure there is some variety there as well as balance. Planting in large numbers also creates that Chelsea look.

About Landform

Landform is an award winning company creating high quality gardens and landscapes. Their range of services spans the fields of design, construction, planting and maintenance for residential, public and commercial spaces.

Mark Gregory

A 20 time Gold medal winner at Chelsea Flower Show, Mark has won numerous industry awards for projects in London and the South East. His dynamic approach, energy and experience have earned him a reputation for innovation and technical expertise within the landscaping and horticultural community. 

As well as heading up Landform he lectures all over the country delivering workshops and seminars for the Society of Garden Designers, BALI and APL and is regularly consulted by other designers and contractors. 

Mark has been a past board member of the British Association of Landscape Industries (BALI) and has recently been appointed as a Director of the HTA and Chairman of the APL. Mark is a regular RHS Judge and Assessor, and a former member of the Chelsea Gardens Panel.

Catherine MacDonald

Catherine joined Landform’s design team in 2010 and now coordinates all new design schemes for the company. She also manages the show garden projects for Landform, working closely with the designers & sponsors. 

Catherine has project managed numerous gold medal winning show gardens and two BALI award winning domestic gardens. While at Landform, as well as designing many gardens for domestic clients, Catherine has designed two gold medal & best in category winning gardens at Hampton Court Flower Show and co-designed one silver gilt & one silver medal winning garden at Chelsea Flower Show. 

She also designed three large exhibits for commercial clients at Chelsea Flower Show, two of which won Best Trade Exhibit. Catherine qualified with distinction in 2006 and was the joint winner of the Society of Garden Designers first Student of the Year Competition in the same year.

Catherine has worked for top landscape designers Luciano Giubbilei, Christopher Bradley-Hole & Anthony Paul and so has a rich source of inspiration and experience to draw upon.

Catherine has designed the Hartley Botanic Show Garden for the Chelsea Flower Show 2016.

For more information about Landform Consultants please visit www.landformconsultants.co.uk or phone 01276 856145.

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