Garden Designer breaking records at RHS Chelsea

Sarah Eberle is already the record holder for most gold medals won by a designer at the annual show, held this year from May 22nd -26th.

Eberle, 61, will be designing Hillier Nurseries garden at the show for a third year in a row expecting add to the Hampshire-based nursery and garden centre group’s 72 consecutive golds.

Her other designs for Chelsea 2018 are for the British Council cricket artisan garden, a royal wedding-themed installation and a trade stand garden for Wallgarden playhouses.

Decorated garden designer

Hampshire-based Eberle is the most decorated designer in Chelsea history with nine RHS Chelsea Flower Show gold medals. She has won gold in more categories than any other designer and is the first designer to achieve the treble double of golds, three years in a row of two gold medals for her gardens, which she achieved in 2017. She also won best in show in 2008.

Four Chelsea gardens

She said: “I believe this is a record number. I’m designing four because I love the challenge and I love Chelsea Flower Show. Though the mental challenge is tough, at my age it’s the physical challenge which is actually tougher. I’m a bit long in the tooth now so I get sore feet and it’s hard to make good decisions about the gardens when you’re mentally exhausted. So, I have a rule where all decisions are made in the morning and the afternoon is the time when we get on with creating the gardens.”

Keeping it fresh

“I’m doing four because I’m a fool! No, actually I’m there anyway and when you’re doing two I find it an advantage because it gives you fresh eyes. If you look at a garden too long you can’t see the wood for the trees and can’t be objective about it. So, to look at a garden with different styles and plants gives you fresh eyes and reduces stress.”

A bit of cricket

Eberle has been to India to research her British Council cricket garden. “It is an absolute privilege to be able to create the display in honour of the royal wedding, and to expand our Chelsea repertoire beyond the main Hillier exhibit.”

She says designing for clients demands “integrity and professionalism” and client-designer differences of opinion on how commercial gardens “don’t occur” if designers are honest and upfront with clients. RHS rules eradicate the possibility of too much product placement, she adds.

The artisan made cricket balls that feature in the garden from India have got through customs, which was Eberle’s “biggest worry”. But the central plant of the display, the Himalayan poppy, which represents the blue Indian cricket shirt, may not appear because of the poor weather this spring. “I’m worried about my Himalayan poppies because they are incredibly difficult to produce for Chelsea time, or for any show. I have no contingency plan.”

She says she has learnt “only the cricket bits I need to know about” such as the size of the stumps, crease and ball, which form part of her design – “the technical side rather than playing it”. Eberle visited India for the first time in February, seeing Bombay Gymkhana sports ground, saying: “Cricket is there because of colonialism really.”

Female designers

On the RHS’s promotion of women “breaking the grass ceiling” at Chelsea, where half of designers are female for the first time following many years of the event being male-dominated, Eberle says: “People have talked to me about it a lot. I like to think I’m judged on who I am, rather than my gender. I never felt discriminated against. You make of it what you like. There’s always been more men than women designers but this year it’s 50/50, but I think that’s down to luck rather than anything else.

“The reason I think more women don’t do Chelsea is because they have a better life balance. It takes over your life if you’re not careful But garden designing is not the only profession where there are more men than women at the top. Most chefs are women but the high-profile ones are men.”

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