RHS gold – what does it mean?

by Michael John McGarr

The quest for RHS gold is a long and arduous one, and one which is all too familiar to myself.

Our gold medal achievement at RHS Tatton 2017 for the futuristic garden design ‘2101’ was a triumph, which took almost a year to plan and just a few short weeks to execute on the ground.

Scars, blood and a descent into alcoholism were just some of the by-products of achieving an accolade on the highest stage of one’s industry.

Overnight success?

The myth of the overnight success is prevalent across all industries. The winner holds up the awards for the cameras on their night of success and no thought is given to the years of training, the late night studio sessions, the tens of miles walked around nurseries eagerly listing and shortlisting specimens for projects.

Or the sleepless nights worrying about aspects of the work and whether third party suppliers and contractors will stick to their promises.

Worrying about shocked trees which look like they won’t make it until judging.

Working around the strange rules around late night working at RHS shows.

These aspects of the RHS process all add to the prestige and value of achieving on the highest stage possible

So what’s the problem?

So who is responsible for the award-winning work and who gets to claim the credit for the gold medal?

The designers create the work on paper. The plants people and nurserymen grow the plants. The landscapers construct the garden within the show grounds…

But recently, it has come to my attention that a lot of companies are claiming to have won “RHS gold”, particularly across social media and on their websites which potential clients are using to help them differentiate between the best and the mediocre.

The problem lies in the fact that everyone seems to be able to display the fact that they have won – the suppliers, landscapers, designers, labourers, tea makers and water boys.

The RHS seem to be complacent in checking companies who display the “RHS gold medal winning” words or logo.

The problem for the RHS here is that widespread usage of the “RHS gold medal winner” devalues the brand, the achievement, and the hard work it takes to achieve the medals in the first place.

It is this devaluation that leads to fewer designers taking the plunge and committing to creating a garden at an RHS show, which the charity can ill afford.

RHS Chelsea and RHS Tatton shows have seen uptake on designers creating show gardens drop in recent years and you can’t help but feel the prestige is waning.

I am not saying that displaying this gold medal winning where it is unwarranted is completely to blame here, but it is part of the wider problem that is affecting The RHS.

Show sponsorship is dropping away at the top end of the industry leaving less opportunities for designers to create catwalk creations for the horticultural shows that will delight the public and increase revenues.

So how can this be changed?

The RHS is great at screening potential applicants for show gardens and RHS Chelsea is particularly stringent at doing this. However maybe a more holistic approach is necessary and this can be remedied at the back end.

We should be fighting tooth and nail to make the gold medal standard even more prestigious. And this means tighter controls on who can display the winning gold logo, and how the logo and RHS brand are used in promotion.

A Michelin-style star system should be introduced for landscape design practices and this something the Landscape Institute and the Society of Garden Designers should take heed of.

How will this help?

This would add value to the RHS brand and make the award system more prestigious, encouraging greater performance from applicants and ultimately creating a tiered system of quality in which clients and developers and members of the public can buy into.

At the moment this simply isn’t the case where every Tom, Dick and Harry who has brushed up at RHS Chelsea can claim to have an RHS Chelsea gold winner, which does the event no favours and makes the process unappetising to burgeoning designers who wish to excel on the highest stage.

We have worked hard over the years to enhance our reputations on the highest stages possible and we will continue to do so. It is this quest for achievement within our industry and the RHS circuit that gets me up in the morning and drives me to keep searching for the best of everything that we can offer to our clients and bring to a wider audience at an RHS show.

It seems a strange thing to be pushing to make the process more difficult – but that is exactly what the process needs to be, and achievement will follow suit leading to an overall improvement in standards of design and creation across gardens and RHS shows for the future.

If it was easy then everyone would be doing it and there would be no value or fun in that.


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