How to Design a Winning Show Garden: A Judge’s Perspective

The Show Gardens are the centrepiece of Bloom and with over 110,000 visitors flocking to the Phoenix Park to view them each year, the pressure is on to create standout designs.

We spoke to Show Garden judge Paul Maher about what it takes to stage a winning garden at Bloom. Paul Maher is the former Curator of the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin and Kilmacurragh, Wicklow.

Paul, how long have you been involved with Bloom and when does the judging process start?

I have been involved in Bloom from the very beginning, judging and assessing the Show Gardens for over 13 years. It’s a busy job that starts in November when the judges sit down to read all the designers’ briefs and review the drawings for the following year’s gardens.

From then until the show we are in regular communication with the designers and the Bloom organisers, providing feedback on the plans and preparation for the gardens. There are seven Show Garden judges on the jury and we all have different areas of expertise so the designers have a wealth of experience to draw from. Our role throughout the process is to support the designers and help them create the best garden they can. We do not want them to fail.

Can you tell us what a typical Bord Bia Bloom Week looks like?

Assessment Day is held on Tuesday before Bloom opens. This is when we meet with the designers at their gardens to discuss how their plans have come together. Judging Day on Wednesday is very different and everyone is cleared from the Show Garden area to allow us to examine each garden closely.

Primarily we’re looking to see if the designers fulfilled their brief. If they say it is going to be a tranquil, outdoor space for families or a rural garden with a woodland theme, do they deliver on that? Then we look at the construction. Is it a well-finished garden?

Finally, we examine the planting. We want to see that the plants are well spaced and not wilting. At all times we are mindful of good horticultural practice. We don’t want visitors to see something in a garden and think ‘that’s a good idea, I’ll try that at home’ when in fact it’s a very bad habit!

How do you and the other judges choose the winners?

When we have examined the garden we vote on what we think is a suitable mark. We can award Bronze, Silver, Silver-Gilt, and Gold Medals along with awards for Best in Category, Best Planting and Best Contractor. There are also awards for Designers’ Choice and People’s Choice, which are voted for by the designers and the public. All the designers are getting so good now that it is rare that a garden doesn’t receive a medal.

Can designers ask for feedback on their garden?

If the designers would like feedback, we meet with them on Thursday – Bloom’s opening day – and I do think that has contributed to the rising standards of gardens at the show. We want to encourage the designers to keep going and to try again the following year and we’ve found that the top performers are the ones that have taken our feedback on board.

When you’ve finished judging, how do you like to spend your time at Bloom?

Once my official duties are performed, I stay on site at Bloom for the five days of the show. I love taking off my badge and heading in to the Show Gardens to listen to what people have to say about them. Often members of the public have a completely different view of something than we professionals do and this is invaluable information.

Why is it important to hear the visitor’s opinion?

I believe that gaining the perspective of visitors makes me a better judge. As judges we have a huge responsibility to the designers, the Bloom organisers and to the show’s visitors. We agonise about our decisions and we always want to make sure we make the right choices.


The closing date for applications for show garden designers and for the Cultivating Talent initiative is Monday 20th November 2023. For more information visit www.bordbiabloom/participate/garden-designers.

Bord Bia Bloom takes place from May 30th– 3rd June 2024.