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Harkness Roses at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show

PUBLISHED: 11:14 15 May 2017 | UPDATED: 11:14 15 May 2017

New for this year, 'Carmen Rose' (photo: Philippa Pearson)

New for this year, 'Carmen Rose' (photo: Philippa Pearson)


As Hitchin’s Harkness Roses prepares for the biggest flower show in the world, Philippa Pearson goes behind the scenes to find out what it takes to be a medal-winning exhibitor

Harkness Roses exhibits around 1,400 plants at Chelsea (photo: Philippa Pearson)Harkness Roses exhibits around 1,400 plants at Chelsea (photo: Philippa Pearson)

Held in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea in London since 1913, RHS Chelsea Flower Show is the world’s most prestigious plant show and Harkness Roses has exhibited there nearly every year since the event began. In the last 50 years, Harkness has won Gold more than 25 times.

The Harkness family has been breeding roses since 1879, moving to Hitchin from Yorkshire in the 1950s. In its early days, garden designer extraordinaire Gertrude Jekyll was a prominent customer and Harkness is renowned throughout the world for breeding reliable roses with outstanding flowering performance, good disease resistance and that are suitable for all types of garden requirements. Breeding roses is not for the faint-hearted though, it takes several years from selecting promising ‘parent’ plants to the production of a new rose, and the painstaking process involves many hurdles along the way.

Chelsea is the main event in the gardening calendar for new plants to be launched, and this year Harkness is planning to introduce at least three roses at the show. But it’s not all about showing new plants, Harkness displays many of its varieties at Chelsea, creating a living catalogue of its flowers.

Preparation for each year’s show is a year-long process explains managing director Philip Harkness. ‘As soon as RHS Chelsea is finished and we’re back in Hitchin we sit down and have a debrief of that year’s show, and start planning the next year’s one.’

Philip Harkness helps to get the exhibit ready (photo: Philippa Pearson)Philip Harkness helps to get the exhibit ready (photo: Philippa Pearson)

Roses which the company wants to display at Chelsea and other major horticultural shows it exhibits at are selected and grown in pots of compost with slow release fertiliser, then left outside at the nursery over autumn before being brought under glass from January. All the plants for Chelsea are kept in one glasshouse while roses for other shows are left outside and gradually brought under glass for later events. Harkness is exhibiting for the first time at RHS Malvern Spring Festival in Worcestershire, which takes place early this month, and its show plants have been in a glasshouse over winter to bring them on – not an easy process so early in the year. ‘We’ve chosen lots of early flowering varieties for the Malvern show,’ says Philip. ‘It’s been quite challenging to get plants in bloom earlier than usual, but things seem to be working.’

Back in the Chelsea glasshouse, more than 2,000 plants are grouped in variety sections and inspected on a regular basis, almost daily as the show approaches, by Philip and his small team of dedicated horticulturists. They look at how each plant is developing and whether the variables and unpredictability of the weather has meant that some need to be put under shade to slow down growth or need a bit of heat to encourage more growth.

‘Each year is totally different with every type of rose,’ Philip explains. ‘And we can’t rely on what we’ve done in the past to achieve the same results each year. We are always learning!’

Some practices are adhered to, though, such as each plant being individually watered by hand to ensure the correct amount of water and feed reaches them.

It's all hands on pots to get the exhibit ready in time (photo: Philippa Pearson)It's all hands on pots to get the exhibit ready in time (photo: Philippa Pearson)

On the Tuesday – a week before Chelsea opens to the public – the framework of the show stand is transported down to the Great Pavilion and assembled – a two day job. Large specimen plants arrive on Wednesday, then on Friday the remaining plants are delivered.

‘Out of the 2,000 plants we have grown on, we’ll use around 1,400 of these for the display. And depending on the spring weather, we might have to quickly redesign some of the layout depending on whether we have more plants available than we anticipated or less.’

On the Saturday before the show, the roses are displayed by the Harkness team. It takes over 12 hours. On Sunday, the exhibit has any finishing touches put to it and is completed by the end of the evening ready for judging on Monday - press day at Chelsea. Medals are awarded first thing on Tuesday morning, the day the show opens.

‘It is a real team effort,’ says Philip, ‘and a lot of long days for everyone, and it’s wonderful to receive a medal.’

'Here Comes the Sun' - a new rose for Chelsea 2017 (photo: Philippa Pearson)'Here Comes the Sun' - a new rose for Chelsea 2017 (photo: Philippa Pearson)

New Harkness roses for 2017

Look out for these plants that will be launched at RHS Chelsea Flower Show

‘Jane Austen’ - The Jayne Austen House museum at Chawton, near Alton where the author lived and wrote some of her works, have selected an orange floribunda to commemorate the 200th anniversary of her death. This free flowering bush rose has a fruity perfume and is good for borders and containers.

‘Here Comes the Sun’ – This exciting yellow flowered climbing variety has fantastic disease resistance and repeat blooms with lots of flower. Ideal to grow on walls, fences and arches. It’s perfume is light and musky.

‘Carmen Rose’ - This floribunda marks the 500th Anniversary of The Worshipful Company of Carmen - the transport livery company – and has a wonderful rich red colour with contrasting darker shades on the outer petals. The lightly perfumed flowers are produced in clusters which gives the plant a long flowering period in the garden.

Visit Harkness Roses

The Rose Garden, Cambridge Road, Hitchin SG4 0JT

0845 3313143.

RHS Chelsea Flower Show takes place from May 23-27. For further details and ticket information, visit


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