Glimpse behind the scenes of RHS show judging

Senior RHS judge Martin Fish breaks down the RHS judging process and reveals how the coveted show medals are awarded

Martin Fish

Have you ever been surprised that a show garden has been awarded Gold, or felt a display in the Floral Marquee deserved more than Bronze? Every show designer, grower and florist wants to be awarded a coveted RHS medal, and the standard is incredibly high. However, the judging is often seen as a mysterious process, having been a senior RHS judge for many years, Martin Fish reveals everything you need to know about show judging.

Why is it important that the exhibits in the Floral Marquee are judged?

From a public point of view, the judging gives visitors guidance to the quality of the exhibit, and from a nursery perspective it’s about the prestige of being awarded an RHS Gold medal.

RHS judges

Who exactly is judging the plant and flower displays?

We’re called floral judges so everyone thinks we only judge flowers, but that’s just the historic name given to those of us who judge in the marquees at the RHS Shows. We cast our eyes over a wide range of exhibits, including cut flowers, cacti, bonsai, herbaceous plants, house plants and fruit and vegetables, to name just a few. The judging panels – there are generally a number of panels at the Show, each one covering a selection of exhibitors in the Marquee – are made up of an eclectic mix of experienced horticulturists, including specialist nursery owners, curators at botanic gardens, plant collectors and head gardeners.

How does the judging process work?

We have a criteria sheet and the exhibits are judged on three criteria: “Plants, Overall Impression and Endeavour”, each counting for a third of the overall score. We always start with the plants, and whoever is leading the discussion highlights the positives first before mentioning any negatives. Then the discussion is opened up to everyone on the panel of judges. We each have judging cards that we hold up with our scores and a secretary tallies them up. This process is then repeated for the other two criteria and the marks added up. A Gold needs 11–12 points, Silver-Gilt 8–10, Silver 6–7 and Bronze 3–5.

Hampshire Carnivorous Plants display in the Floral Marquee. RHS Malvern Spring Festival 2014
While we’re judging, four moderators, who are senior judges, visit every exhibit, making an assessment and marking down a score. After the judging we go through moderation, where each score is read out by the chair of each judging panel. If there’s a query from the moderators, because they think we’ve marked a bit high or a bit low, we’ll discuss our reasons and, if necessary, re-vote. This makes sure that there’s consistency across the judging panels and all the RHS Shows.

“We take objectivity very seriously ” - Martin Fish

What are you looking for when judging plants?

We’re looking at their quality, size, range and health. All naming of plants, meanwhile, should comply with the RHS Plant Finder. In those exhibits where they have created a garden-style design, we also look for plant association and relevance, so if the exhibit was showcasing drought-tolerant plants, we would expect to see only plants that could cope in that situation, otherwise it’s giving false information to the public. We also look for ‘show plants’, which are plants the nurseries have grown on for several years that are purely for showing rather than selling. These add impact to a display and show a plant as it’s maturing. Some of these plants might be five or ten years old.

What is covered by the judging criterion ‘Overall Impression’?

This looks at the design, balance and scale of the stand; its impact and creativity. We also look at props, style of labelling and the quality of the overall finish that has been achieved. Where plants are exhibited in decorative containers, these need to be in scale, clean and suitable for the display.

An RHS Gold medal from 1939

How important are innovation and difficulty in terms of the plants grown and displayed?

We look for these elements in the ‘Endeavour’ section of the judging process. It’s not always what you see at the Show that we’re taking into account; it’s what we know has had to happen to get the plants ready for the Show – some plants, for example, might not normally be in flower at that time. It’s great to see unusual plants at the RHS Shows and this does attract extra points, but if they were badly arranged, the pots were dirty or the plants labelled incorrectly, an exhibit wouldn’t get a Gold medal just because the plants were difficult to grow.

Is it possible to take personal taste out of the judging process?

We take objectivity very seriously. As a chair of a judging panel, I try to ensure that judges don’t allow their personal preferences to affect their judging. We work to the criteria given and judge what we see. This makes it easier to focus on the quality of the plants and the overall displays.


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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.