We have never been to the Chelsea Flower Show and have no particular desire to go. We went to the NZ equivalent, the Ellerslie Flower Show maybe three times, just to keep in touch. Maybe we are just too cynical about show gardens.
A six-way discussion on this topic recently illustrated the division. The four hands-on gardeners around the table felt there was little cross-over from show gardens whereas the two academics with a design focus (whom I do not think ever allowed dirt beneath their finger nails) argued that show gardens were trend setters. I guess the divide may be whether one thinks designers are more important than gardeners.
We were at the Royal Horticultural Society flagship garden, Wisley (near Guilford) for a couple of days and their installation of model gardens in the area they call “Witan Street” suddenly took on new meaning. These are show gardens, all measuring a uniform 9m x 6m, designed by members of the Society of Garden Designers and installed between 2004 and 2008. Where else are you going to see what show gardens look like up to ten years on, after being given only a moderate level of routine maintenance?
“I don’t think much of these,” sniffed a passing garden visitor, dismissing the whole lot in one sweep of the hand. On the contrary, we thought quite a lot about them. What these gardens showed is that good design lasts, fashion items don’t. A well designed show garden can mature gracefully and become a softer-edged back garden appropriate for a domestic setting.
Perspex panels were not a good long term option. The clear perspex example was a bit grungy and in need of a good clean. The coloured perspex panels no longer looked cutting-edge contemporary in style. They looked like outdated, tacky gimmickry.
The full length mirror also looked grubby and unappealing. We never liked this idea, even when it was promoted in this country. “Make your garden look larger and reflect light”, some suggested. Mirrors are best in bathrooms and bedrooms. They are a bit contrived in a garden setting, in my opinion. It appears they don’t age gracefully either. We felt further vindicated when an English gardener commented on how dangerous mirrors are for birds who can fly into them at speed. No garden mirrors here, thanks.
I am keeping an open mind on the use of stainless steel. It looked okay in Dizzy Shoemark’s “A Garden of Contrasts”. It did, but I would want to see it in another decade before deciding whether it is legitimate long term material or fashion item.
Flat planes of colour on boundary walls can date a garden quickly but are relatively easy to update – if you notice. The danger is that the aubergine, Mexican gold or solid blue that looks so sharp and edgy when first painted then stays on well past its use-by date, in danger of achieving floral carpet status over time. The owner can become so used to seeing it there, that he or she fails to register that it is now tired, faded and dated.
I fear that the Rill Garden by Roger Webster showed too much bare concrete to achieve its aim of “a sensual and social space evocative of a warm climate”. But I would bet money that in its original concept, all that expanse of concrete benching was luxuriously encased in the many scatter cushions that featured in most show gardens of the day. Without said cushions, the seating looked cold, damp and very hard to the derriere.
Water is clearly problematic and much depends on design and installation. Some water features looked decidedly stagnant and unappealing whereas others were standing the test of time. Water is not low maintenance and you need to get it right – or live with the consequences of mosquitoes, in our climate at least.
I think the maturing block planting had achieved the status of being dull in ‘Intersection” where the designer states: “Blocks of yew and box reflect the geometric design of the garden and contrast with the more informal drifts and random planting that flows around the static elements.” I have seen it done better and the square blocks were not inviting as a back yard option.
But some of the gardens had mellowed out to charming effect. These gave lie to my dismissal of show gardens. Yes you can learn from them. They demonstrate trends and fashion and focus the mind on design. I just think they are a lot more interesting a few years later if given the chance to settle in, lose the hard-edged perfection and to actually grow.
First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.