‘Nothing wrong with a bit of furore’: An insider’s guide to judging the Chelsea Flower Show, by RHS senior judge James Alexander-Sinclair

James Alexander-Sinclair comes to the Country Life podcast to talk about his career in gardening, and his two decades spent as one of the top judges at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

James Alexander-Sinclair is one of Britain’s foremost garden designers and writers. He’s a regular contributor to Country Life magazine and many other titles, and a regular presence on television screens talking about gardening.

He is also one of the top judges at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show — and we’re absolutely delighted that he joins us to give a full behind-the-scenes account of the entire judging process.

James doesn’t shy away from any of the issues — or the controversies which have raged in recent years over the unconventional winners that have had many lovers of traditional gardens up in arms (not least Country Life columnist Charles Quest-Ritson).

Recommended videos for you

The 2022 winner, ‘Best in Show’ winner by Lulu Urquhart and Adam Hunt, called ‘A Rewilding Britain Landscape’, is a case in point — but as James explains, it was a worthy winner.

‘We shouldn’t just be gardening for ourselves, we should be gardening for biodiversity, we should be gardening for the greater good, we should be gardening for nature,’ he explains.

‘The furore was partly because it was difficult to see it as a garden.

‘People couldn’t go and stand in front of it and say, yes I’d like this in my garden. Whereas at all the other gardens they can go and say “Yes, this is marvellous, I’d love to have that, I’d love to have this.”‘

Jame hints that the judges knew exactly what they were doing by picking a top award winner which they knew would prove divisive.

‘Nothing wrong with a bit of furore,’ he tells Country Life Podcast host James Fisher. ‘It means that people are talking about gardens, and that’s what Chelsea week is really about.’

‘What would be really bad is if you walked down Main Avenue at Chelsea, glanced to the left of you and thought, “Oh that’s nice” and carrier on walking. That’s not an engagement. We want people to be excited and thrilled about the idea of gardens and gardening.’

A jumble of rewilding and beaver dams‘ or a thought-provoking statement about our place in Nature? The Rewilding Britain garden which was named ‘best in show’ at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2022.

James also tells the tale of how he got in to gardening in the first place — thanks to a healthy shove from his sister.

‘I had no intention being a gardener at all,’ he says. ‘It wasn’t something that interested me. It was a sort of boring thing that my parents did at weekends.’

It was while living with his sister, at a time when his sole occupation was ‘lying on the sofa smoking cigarettes’, that he ended up giving it a go.

‘She told me to go outside and dig the garden. And so I did,’ says James.

‘And that’s how it happened, basically. I dug it. I thought that’s quite fun, and I persuaded somebody else to let me dig their garden. And somebody else let me dig their garden. And long story short, 40 years later, here we are.’

You can find out more about James Alexander-Sinclair at his website or follow him on Instagram.

Episode credits

Host: James Fisher Guest: James Alexander-Sinclair

Editor and producer: Toby Keel

Music: JuliusH via Pixabay

Special thanks: Adam Wilbourn