Alex Denman, 37, is show manager at RHS Chelsea Flower Show. She lives near Windsor with her husband Neil, a fund manager.
The build-up to the Chelsea Flower Show is intense – we only have 19 days to build 500 exhibitions – so my team and I decamp to a hotel close to the show. When my alarm goes off at 5.15am, I shower and get dressed in jeans and boots – the showground is basically a building site during the construction phase, so I’m surrounded by diggers and dirt. My background is horticulture so my remit is to look after all the exhibitions, with responsibility for finding new designers and sponsors and making sure that everything looks its best.
I start planning 15 months in advance of the annual show in May – we get three times as many applications as we have space for, so they are selected by a panel of experts. We’re really excited about working with Stylist and Nikki Tibbles to create the stunning magazine cover display that will appear at the show this year. We’ve never done anything like it before and the detail is just incredible. Other highlights include garden designer Jo Thompson’ ‘staycation’ garden featuring a Fifties caravan and pretty British countryside planting. And Trailfinders garden, presented by Fleming’s which is a modern Sydney-inspired backyard with an outdoor shower, pizza oven and plunge pool.
I have breakfast with my team on site at 7.30am – during the rest of the year when I’m based in my office, I have Weetabix but during the building phase I often succumb to the show’s infamous breakfast of crumpets with Marmite and raspberry jam with cheddar cheese on top. My days are spent working with my team to solve problems – for example, one exhibitor may have planned their garden with a 1.2 metre high boundary, while the exhibit next door has planned it to be two metres high. This year my biggest concern is weather – we have a bore hole so won’t be affected by the drought but if the soil gets wet it’s a nightmare to move
“This year my biggest concern is weather – if the soil becomes wet it’s a nightmare to move”
Every exhibit has to be completed by the Sunday night ahead of the opening press day on Monday, so we often work until midnight to get everything perfect. Because I’m so exhausted it’s easy to slip into bad eating habits – my team and I loved it when my husband Neil brought KFC for us one night last year. Press day is the busiest day – we have 1,200 of the world’s media focusing on us and it’s so thrilling to see gardening making front page news. I do various interviews for radio, TV and the official DVD and then after the press leave at 3pm, we welcome the Queen and royal family for their private viewing. Last year I was in the party that showed Prince Philip round, which was really exciting. The RHS is a charity so at 7pm we host our major fundraiser, a gala preview evening with canapés and champagne for 5,000 guests.
While the VIPs are safely tucked away at the party, my team and I get together for a casual dinner. At that point it feels like we’ve finished the show as we’ve done as much as we possibly can to get it ready, even though we haven’t opened to the public.
The next day the medals are announced – I love seeing the designers’ faces when they win – before the doors open at 8am to our 35,000 visitors daily. During show week I deal with any problems that arise, but my main focus is next year’s event so I meet with designers and sponsors and attend networking events.
I’m often at work until 11pm but throughout the rest of the year I typically leave work at 5.30pm. When I get home in the evening I love getting my hands dirty in my garden. It’s very British-country style – I love it at this time of the year when the apple blossoms are out. I find gardening really therapeutic; I’ve noticed that my stress levels have dropped greatly since we got our own plot.
Neil and I enjoy cooking and try to use vegetables and herbs that we grow ourselves before going to bed at 10pm. We’re so busy during the week that we often don’t get the chance to see friends so we catch up with them at the weekend. Everyone thinks that my job is all about plants but it’s not – for me, the highlight is the people.
RHS Chelsea Flower Show, 22-26 May; rhs.org.uk