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Bringing trials to life

How do you make sure that RHS Plant Trials are testing for plants - and not for visitors? All in a day's work for an RHS Interpretation Officer

Tulip trial at RHS Garden Wisley, April 2014Our prestigious Award of Garden Merit (AGM) is something we’re proud of in the long history of the RHS. In recent years we’ve conducted our assessments for the AGM by growing plants on the Trials Field. More recently we’ve reached out to other parts of the garden at Wisley, and off-site, in an attempt to increase the range of growing conditions.

A blaze of tulips, a colourful collection of impatiens, or a plethora of pansies – all in both beds and containers – have caught the eye of visitors to Wisley in the Hilltop area of the garden. And in 2015 we’ll enchant them with foxgloves growing in a woodland-style trial behind the Rock Garden.

Our horticultural trials have always been of interest to experts, but we also want to encourage an increasing amount of interest from all visitors. Asking visitors to vote for the People’s Choice, which focuses on eye-catching annuals such as bedding plants, has proved popular and demonstrates the public’s desire to get involved by choosing their favourites from the displays.
Now, this is all well and good, but how do we tell the story of what we’re doing to the visitors? We’ve taken a fresh approach to interpretation by trying to answer the questions people ask. 

To accompany the displays, we’ve installed clear, understandable and engaging panels to explain to people what they’re looking at, what we’re doing, and why. When it comes to our trials, visitors generally have a series of questions. We try to anticipate this with a Q&A approach, for example:

Tulip trial interpretation board What is the plant group?
What criteria is it being assessed on?
Why would a gardener want to grow it in their own garden?
What’s interesting about it?

In addition, we also include basics such as when to plant, when it performs, and so on.

But to be useful to a visitor, a panel has to be eye-catching. If it isn’t, it won’t be read. We have a standard design (that we hope is attractive) and insert high-quality images to represent some of the species or cultivars in the trial.

There’s a balance to find between supplying enough information to satisfy the reader and ensuring it isn’t overwhelming. Successful interpretation has to capture the reader’s attention for long enough to convey the message without being hard work. Images, captions, bullet points, and careful use of words should do the trick. RHS People's Choice voting slip - wallflowersSo instead of writing reams on the panel, we try to make it informative and interesting (engaging!), and direct people to other sources for further information.

People’s Choice signage takes a slightly more fun approach. It’s less formal, more photo-friendly, inviting the visitors to take part in a vote for their favourite.


See also

RHS Plant Trials blog

Trials and Awards

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The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.