George Hillier on the Importance of Chelsea

GOLD MEDALS, CRAB APPLES AND YOUNG PEOPLE ARE ALL PART OF THE HILLIER MIX AT CHELSEA FLOWER SHOW

An interview with George Hillier of Hillier Nurseries


After 71 consecutive Chelsea Flower Show Gold Medals, the event’s most successful exhibitor in its history, Hillier, still regards it as “the single most important event in our year”.

Hillier’s garden in the Grand Pavilion has been a fixture at the show for almost 100 years and is a ‘must see’ exhibit for visitors.

“When we first exhibited is still open to debate,” says George Hillier, the great-great grandson of the founder of the business. “We know we were there in 1922 as this is the first time we were listed in the Chelsea catalogue, but we are pretty sure we were supplying plants even earlier than this. A young Hillier apprentice who worked for the company between 1910 and 1913 is even recorded as saying ‘I missed going to the first Chelsea Show, but I helped prepare some plants for it’.”

The company was founded by Edwin Hillier in Winchester in 1864, two years after the first RHS Great Spring Show, the forerunner of Chelsea.

“With our long Chelsea heritage, we are as much a part of the event as Pimm’s and strawberries and cream,” says George. “The prospect of our 72nd consecutive gold is very exciting but we are not allowing it to blow us off course. Our mission is to inspire the creation of green living spaces for now and the future, and our Chelsea gardens are designed to reflect that aim.”

Exhibiting at the world’s most famous flower show is vitally important to the company for both its national and international markets. It is the one opportunity for the business to involve all aspects and departments within the firm in a single, common cause.

Sarah Eberle is designing the 2017 exhibit and garden for the second year running. Working alongside her will be Caitlin McLaughlin, the winner of the RHS Young Designer of the Year 2016.

“Supporting young people is a key feature of our business and will be the focal point of our stand on the Friday of show week.  We have again invited students from Writtle College to work alongside younger members of the Hillier team from across the business. These include members of our management trainee and apprenticeship programmes.

“Our Chelsea gardens always help formulate the public’s perception of the company.  They reflect our horticultural expertise and the extensive range of plants, shrubs and trees for which we are internationally recognised. These gardens are the perfect opportunity to put all of this and our staff together for the public to meet,” adds George.

Chelsea Flower Show remains extremely important to the company as it is the platform from which it launches new plant varieties.   It is clearly a policy that pays dividends. In 2016, £143,000 worth of additional new business was generated by the company’s plant wholesale division for the new plant introductions at the show.  One of the new plants in 2016 was Lavandula ‘Silver Line’ that was launched in collaboration with Dame Esther Rantzen’s Charity The Silver Line.  Hillier Nurseries donated £1 for every plant sold, resulting in Hillier donating £13,000 to the charity.

“We have four new plant introductions this year, including a very exciting and unusual weeping crab apple tree.  But for us, the success of Chelsea is measured by being able to give a very public face to our business, showing to the world the passion we have for our trees and plants,” says George.

He first visited the show more than 30 years ago as a 10-year old boy and has been attending almost without a break since then.  He has many memories but picks out two which, he believes, best reflect the Hillier role at Chelsea Flower Show.

“All of the grandchildren took it in turn to take Lady Hillier around the show in her wheelchair. I was about 14 or 15 when I was on duty.  My abiding memory is the time it took because we could never take more than four or five paces without either being stopped by a well-wisher or my grandmother seeing someone she wanted to talk to.  She knew almost everyone at the show.

“You can imagine our team at the show is large. One of the most difficult jobs is positioning the very large trees and manoeuvring them into a very precise position on the stand.  It quite literally takes hours.  When it is completed, late on the Sunday evening, we are exhausted but happy.   Then my Uncle John appears, with a pair of very long handled loppers. Can you imagine our panic? “Don’t worry, he always shouts, just clipping off a few brown leaves.  I just know it will happen again this year and, once again, we will all panic. But that is the huge value and benefit of being a family business. We all know what our roles are,” says George, dashing off to check yet another aspect of the plants and trees that will be Hillier’s Chelsea Stand 2017.

“Don’t worry, he always shouts, just clipping off a few brown leaves.  I just know it will happen again this year and, once again, we will all panic.   But that is the huge value and benefit of being a family business.   We all know what our roles are,” says George, dashing off to check yet another aspect of the plants and trees that will be Hillier’s Chelsea Stand 2017.