Rob Hardy on mentoring new exhibitors

Abi and Tom’s Garden Plants, Abi and Tom Atwood

I met Abi in 1998 when she came with her mother to the Holker Hall flower show which was a week after Chelsea. She said she had lost a Verbascum 'Gainsborough' which is one that needs good drainage. They were living in Cumbria where it rains a lot, so unless you have a really free draining soil you might not be able to keep it through the winter.

I explained to her about how you could take plants like that and make root cuttings. So, having listened to Rosy at her propagation courses, I showed her how to make the Verbascum cutting the right way, first cut flat on the top and make an angled cut at the bottom. This ensures it doesn’t get planted upside down.

Abi was fascinated by this and gave the impression that despite her only being 16 at the time, she was quite keen on gardening. So, I asked her mum if she would like to come and help Rosy put a display together? So, in 1999 Abi worked at her first Tatton Park Flower show. She came down the day before the show opened and busily helped Rosy put the display together, taking in all that Rosy was doing. Selecting, labelling and placing the plants then top-dressing the display.

Roy Lancaster walked up and I asked him if he had a couple of minutes? “ This young lady would like to go into Horticulture, what does she need to do?” Well for ten minutes she stood there listening to all the great advice Roy gave her about getting good exam results, then either going to work at a botanic garden or go to university and get some science-based qualifications. Her mum and Dad opened their garden for the National Garden Scheme and were well known for their Auriculas. Abbie carried on helping us and the week before she got into university at Oxford, she met a handsome young man called Tom. He was going to do his diploma at Kew for 3 years.  

The relationship bloomed and there was a lot of travelling between Kew and Oxford to meet up. When they had both finished their studies they moved back up to Cumbria. Abbie helped her mum with her little nursery.  Tom was working for one of the Church of England Gardens and helped to redesign it. A year later they were married and Rosy and I went to the wedding.  A few years later a very run-down nursery in Halecat, Cumbria, became available for rent. The gentleman that owned the site interviewed five couples and gave the tenancy to Tom and Abbie because they said they would close the site to do some much-needed refurbishment. They were also doing other landscape work to keep themselves going.

They’re the sort of people we need to bring through into this industry. They have purchased a second site in Grange over Sands in Cumbria and sell a bit more by way of sundries which makes it a good destination for tourists visiting the Lake District.

“I first met Rob at the Holker Flower Show (our local show until it wound up) in 1999 (I think, Rob will be able to confirm!) as a shy 14/15 year-old, and his kindness and enthusiasm for nurturing my interest in plants and the nursery world were instrumental in getting me to where I am today. Although my parents are very keen gardeners and plants people (and now have a specialist Auricula nursery of their own) and were hugely supportive of my interest in plants and growing, the education system I was in did not see it as something to be nurtured and encouraged.

The fantastic introduction that Rob gave me to the nursery world, by inviting me to help them at the first ever Tatton Flower Show, numerous shows at Holker and time spent with them on the nursery at Freefolk made me realise that growing plants could be more than just a hobby but a brilliant way of life to work towards.

Under the encouragement and guidance of Rob I began showing at the Holker Flower Show first with my parents and then with my husband, Tom, when we set up our nursery at Halecat. My parents then went on to show at Chelsea and Malvern with their nursery and I’m sure that one day (once the years of bringing up children as well as plants are passed!) that we will continue the trend and show at Chelsea too.

The two weeks I spent with Rob and Rosy on the nursery in the Summer of 2000 opened up a whole new world to me. It gave me a focus for my future and the vision of what I wanted to work towards.”


In the Garden, Holly and her mum Nikki

I met them for the first time three years ago at Chiswick Flower market. They were doing something totally different from anything I’d seen before. In London many people have flats and apartments and very little, if any, outdoor space. There’s also a lot of movement between temporary accommodation. People like to have some plants but want to be able to take them when they move. Holly and her mum have a great supply of containers in different materials, all sorts of shapes and sizes. They plant them up ready for sale and people love the instant impact that offers, but they will also plant peoples existing containers for them, either in the shop or they go to site and plant them in situ.

Potential new exhibitors are invited to go to Malvern Spring Show for a day before it opens and they are shown how the exhibits work and also how the judging is done. They get a chance to go around and see all the exhibitors while they are constructing their displays and talk to them. Each one will explain what, why and how they build and run their displays, how they approach their customers and any other relevant information. This gives the attendees an overview of what its like to exhibit at a show.

After some encouragement Holly and Her Mum Nikki put in an application for Hampton Court and decided to focus purely on indoor plants. They set up their display to show a range of plants suitable for shady indoor rooms to sunny rooms. However, despite all of this they were starting to panic, so I suggested they make the display look like a room in a house, so they added furniture and designed it beautifully.

They came in on the Tuesday morning to find they had won a gold medal with their first display and later in the day the Director General of the RHS came along and awarded them Best Design Exhibit in the marquee. The joy on their faces was wonderful.

Sometimes you meet people who have obviously got the ability and you just need to guide them in the right direction and push them to do a little bit more with what they have.

" Rob's invaluable knowledge about the process (RHS Shows) and encouragement gave us the belief that we could create something wonderful. Rob is supportive every step of the way and we are very grateful for his time."   RHS GOLD MEDALIST 2023! Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival for our 'Houseplants and Container Gardening' exhibit in The Floral Marquee

At Chelsea this year I was helping Lincolnshire Ponds who have done other shows, but I was helping them with the logistics of getting everything onto the Chelsea site, and showing them how to make the most of press day. 

On press day the exhibitor needs to get the best out of the 700 members of the press who will be there, making sure that they pick up on anybody coming through their area, celebrities and press alike.

When the press come to your exhibit, have a subject prepared that you can talk about and make it bright and breezy. This year Lincolnshire Ponds had a chap dressed up as a frog. Its just a bit of fun but it brightens up the day and makes sure the exhibitor gets the maximum benefit from the exposure.

From when it opens at 8am on the Tuesday, until it closes at 5pm on the Saturday, the exhibitors should be there all the time, greeting & talking to people. There are still some exhibitors who sit back and wait for the public to talk to them. You cannot do that, you need to be out there greeting people, even if they’re not specifically interested in your product. They are more likely to come back and have a second look at stands where they were made welcome. For Chelsea, my role is logistics and how deal with the incredible pressure from meeting deadlines and getting sponsorship etc.

Previously, I had helped Kitchen Garden Plant Centre, Neil and Niamh Jones got their first Chelsea gold medal last year as well as three other RHS Golds that year.

Graham Austin of Home Farm plants specialises in Elatum Delphiniums. He got his first gold last year at Chelsea and another this year. Again, we spoke to him and his team 3 or 4 months before the show, helping to settle them down and made sure they were all ok. By the time of the show they came up with some wonderful ideas.

Recently I spent a bit of time with a new exhibitor, garden designer Camilla Flint who was undertaking her first non-judged display at Hampton Court. She had come to collect her plants from the nursery and was obviously getting very stressed out. I explained that she needed to have faith in her own judgement and take on the advice from the judges who would come and offer constructive comments and ideas, but most of all she should enjoy the experience.

“Rob encourages you to embrace your own ideas. He ensures that you’ve given thought to the combination of plants and composition of the planting. He also reminds you to enjoy the experience and be open to learning, observing and interpreting from those more experienced around you! “


 I try to help as many people as possible and bring new exhibitors into the shows.

It’s about giving people who have the talent, confidence enough to try and also those who have no idea how to get started or where to go. We see it here with the youngsters coming through on work experience or part time contracts who have great potential and when they gain some confidence, they go on to greater things.

Rob Hardy can be seen at almost all of the shows and plants fairs we attend and a full list of these is available on our website. Hardys Cottage Garden Plants (