Meet the Chelsea Growers

Jo Fell (Head Grower) and Peter Gill (Section Grower)

Ensuring thousands of plants are in the perfect state of bloom for RHS Chelsea Flower Show is no small task. We ask two of the growers on our nursery; Jo Fell and Peter Gill, about timings, techniques and their own passion for horticulture.

J = Jo Fell

P = Peter Gill

What are your day-to-day positions at Hillier and role in respect to Chelsea?

J: I’m the head grower for our Brentry site in Hampshire. I’m responsible for leading the production team, ensuring all plants are grown in the correct environment to receive the necessary nutrition, watering and cultural techniques. I also lead the team on the nursery for all plant production and preparation for Chelsea. It’s my job to ensure all plants are at their peak for the one week of Chelsea, ensuring we can bring the designer’s vision to life.

P: I am a grower for the section of the nursery that grows the majority of our herbaceous crops. In a normal year, this section will turn over around 200,000 plants of all shapes and sizes. I am also involved with preparation for all the plants and trees for Chelsea. This involves lots of different tasks, including making sure the crops are put in the cold store at the right stage, plus potting, watering and pruning.

How long have you worked in horticulture?

J: My parents worked in horticulture, so I would often help them with propagation during school holidays. I joined a nursery at 19 and worked there for almost 10 years before joining Hillier.

P: I have been in the industry for around 4 years and all of that time at Hillier. I have had a huge amount of career and training opportunities since I joined, including completing a level 3 management course.

What made you want to work in this industry? And why growing specifically?

J: After I left school, I started a diploma in agriculture, so I have always had an interest in growing. I struggled to find work that was arable based, so decided to go into horticulture instead.

P: I realised my original career path was not for me and I was more suited to being outdoors than on a computer. Hillier gave me the chance to try nursery work, from then I have never looked back. Growing is the part I really enjoy — seeing the gradual change to the finished product is really rewarding.

On to Chelsea Flower Show. Roughly, how many plants are grown for a Chelsea garden? And how many make it to the show?

J: It depends on the size of the garden and planting area. Once we know this from the designer, we can roughly work out how many plants we will need - and add a little bit more! This year we will require between 3,500-4,000 plants. We will grow an extra set percentage for each crop, depending on their difficulty, to allow a selection of the best for the finished garden.

How do you work together with the designer and Chelsea team on plant selection & review?

J: We start with monthly meetings from around September, focussed on plant selection. We start with lists and pictures of plants previously used on exhibits, our nursery production lists, new introduction lists and the ideas and requests from the designer. We then visit our container tree nursery, Broadmead, to make tree selections and walk our plant nursery where we have designated Chelsea growing areas. As we approach spring, the meetings become more frequent, happening weekly just before we are due to lift the selected plants ready for the build.

What are the timings – from start to finish – to try and make sure plants are in perfect bloom at Chelsea?

J: To give you an idea, we have already started talking about plants for Chelsea 2020!

Once a Chelsea show has finished, we bring back certain stock which we keep year on year. We have some 20-year-old acers for example - I’m not sure how many Chelsea appearances each of them has made!

For the mid-size to smaller shrubs and herbaceous, it depends on the weather. We may need to bring plants on or we may need to hold them back using our cold store. It can be a little bit of trial and error. We may have to put several batches of one plant into the cold store at different times - being too late or too early could mean it is no longer of show quality.

P: My part in preparations normally begins around October when we do the first load of potting. After this we have numerous potting dates and cultural tasks to get the plants ready, which involves a huge amount of pruning. Our cold store is a life saver, as large amounts of the flowering stock needs to be held back. By the beginning of May we have normally filled around 200-300m2 of cold store space!

By early May, Chelsea plants fill the cold store 

What are the main growing techniques you use to get plants to their best for Chelsea?

J: We have many varied growing environments on our nursery. For Chelsea, we ensure the plants we are growing are situated in the environment which best suits them – shade-loving plants grown under shade, anything that needs protection from a late frost grown under cover etc. The right growing environment, being pro-active to weather changes and constant monitoring is key!

P: The main difference for Chelsea compared to normal production is the forcing on of plants or having to hold them back. A lot of the plants that look the best for Chelsea have either needed to be put in a hot house or kept back in a cold store to prevent the flowers from going over.

What is the most enjoyable part of the Chelsea experience?

P: I love the final stage of loading. I really enjoy the rush of trying to get all the plants up to the show on the 14 different lorries and working with the team on the nursery to achieve this. It’s always a challenge trying to fit some of the 16ft ornamental trees onto a 10ft lorry but it’s all part of the experience.

J: For me, it’s working in a fantastic team made up from all different divisions of Hillier and, at the end, being able to step back to see the finished garden and know that all the blood, sweat and tears was worth every second. It’s quite an emotional time once the garden is built! Then it’s fingers crossed for a gold award …

What is your favourite plant to grow?

J: Can I say all of them?! What I love is that all plants have their own characteristics and challenges. My favourite plant in general has to be Lilium formosanum var pricei, this beautiful scented flower is my all-time favourite summer smell.

P: Mine has to be our Hellebore range. I have been growing these for the last three years and every year it has thrown a different challenge. This is a crop that requires a lot of attention and care, which is the main reason I find enjoyment in it.

Lilium formosanum var pricei 

What is the most challenging plant to grow?

J: This year, it has to be Thalictrum. It is quite tricky to grow - this could be the year we crack it!

P: The prunus trees for Chelsea are always a challenge, because they need to be held back for about four months. They move very quickly once they are removed from the cold store, so trying to take them out at the right time so they are in full bloom for the show will be a test!

And finally … why should more young people consider a career in horticulture?

J: The horticultural industry is so vast, with many opportunities in different areas ranging from wholesale production, retail, amenity, garden design, landscaping, just to mention a few. It can be mentally and physically challenging, working in all weather conditions, but what an environment to be in, surrounded by beautiful nature and plants!

P: This is a career I never thought about while in education but since starting, I have never looked back. There is such a huge variety of job roles in horticulture, which is great because there is space for all different types of people.