Dare I say it? I missed Diairmuid Gavin’s habitually controversial design madness at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show this year. Chelsea is all about the unexpected, and no one quite caters for that quite like the ‘bad boy of garden design’. Having said that, be it the English countryside inspired garden by Christopher Bradley Hole, the avenue of dead trees in Jo Thompson’s lovely Fera garden, Adam Frost’s delectable edible garden, or Nigel Dunnett’s roof top wonder, the show did meet innovation expectations, be it in a slightly subtler manner, without bright pink oscillating pods, baubles on sticks or nutter magical tower gardens…..
Before digressing further, I must declare my complete and utterly biased opinion of the Fera garden, which as proud member of the fabuous Jo Thompson planting team, and hence fellow squad consumer of a staggering number of biscuits during planting week, is naturally favoured above all else, and is hence my ‘bestest ever-est in show’ garden.
The good and the not so good
An abstract representation of the English countryside, Christopher Bradley Hole’s Telegraph garden was refreshingly modern. Admittedly, for one who favours burgeoning herbaceous borders, it took me a while to appreciate the minimalist look, but like it I did. Delightful grasses, Melica altissima ‘Alba’, Sesleria autumnalis, Deschampsia cespitosa and Luzula nivea softened the irregular taxus, hornbeam and box cuboids in the garden. Clever use of colour through Peony ‘Buckeye Belle’, Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’, Rosa ‘Tuscany Superb’ and an array of favourite umbellifrae; Ammi Majus, Ammi Visnaga and Orlaya grandiflora further softening the effect. The oak colonnade and barrier were personally somewhat imposing and on the heavy side, boxing the garden rather abruptly, but at the same time I suppose, rather comfortable to lean on. Not a splinter in sight…
Chris Beardshaw’s Arthritis Research UK garden, mapped out out his personal journey in coping with rheumatoid arthritis was a marvel. Positioned on a rather undesirable sliver of Main Avenue, his design incorporated three elements; the ‘Veiled garden’, the ‘Lucid garden’ and the ‘Radiant garden’, reflecting the different stages in the journey of a patient diagnosed with arthritis. Three stunning sculptures, uber sophisticated hard landscaping features, including a remarkable glass structure (built with the assistance of DIY Emergency’s very own Nick Knowles), and generous plantings of colourful Echium pininana, Euphorbia ‘White Swan’, Lupinus ‘Masterpiece’, Escholtzia californica, Angelica archangelica, and Papaver sonniferum, made this a very attractive formal, yet delicate garden.
Much publicised, Jinny Blom’s Sentebale Forget-Me-Not Show Garden did what it said on the tin. Forget it, one cannot. A stranger to Lesotho I may be, though very much the product of 17 formative years in Kenya, I found Blom’s design a poor African pastiche, and about as accurate a representation as Herge’s ‘Tintin in the Congo’. Just as the African landscape is diverse, Lesotho’s landscape confounds expectations of an ‘African’ landscape yet sadly the design went no further than the stereotypical ‘garden with hut’. Africa is rich in culture, art, people and staggering geographic beauty, the source of inspiration for many. Picasso’s cubist movement was inspired by the Kuba cloths of Central Africa, and the masks from the Dan region. Surely more original inspiration could have been found in the landscape, the people and the art of Lesotho? Blom admitted to have committed the school girl error of submitting the design prior to having visited Lesotho, which is unfortunately rather evident. To her credit, the planting to the left of the garden was charming, but the rest was not particularly inspiring. Also, one couldn’t fail but notice the convenient white boards that appeared on press day to allow, the Royal and celebrity visitors to actually get into and around the garden. Seems that having paths through the garden, was a bridge too far.
Noel Kingsbury wrote a rather marvelous post recently, in which he outlined his reasoning for giving RHS Chelsea a miss this year. Kingsbury argues that the show is no longer about garden design or gardening anymore, rather ‘a big media event’ and Blom’s garden is unfortunately a testament to that. More press coverage than any other garden (with a little help from Prince Harry), yet the reasoning is questionable.
Main Avenue Negligence
Arthritis Research UK are no strangers to RHS Chelsea’s Main Avenue, where much successful publicity has been generated for the cause over the years, yet not quite enough it seems. At a recent (non-Chelsea related) dinner, a distinguished and well-known couple, talked with much enthusiasm about their long history of Chelsea visits over the many years. Unfortunately, due to her severe arthritis she is now unable to attend the show for the astoundingly simple reason, that there is absolutely no seating at Chelsea, not in the (Arthritis) show gardens, nor importantly on Main Avenue, for much needed repose. True, the various food establishments offer seating (post purchase), but without the view of Main Avenue, and are situated quite a distance from the entrance and Main Avenue. ‘Some simple benches would do’, she requested demurely. Surely that is not too much to ask?
Kingsbury’s article on Chelsea, argued that the media hype is followed by a trail of money, distorting the actual purpose of the event to show case, garden design and gardening further. Unfortunately Chelsea and money go hand in hand, particularly when it comes to show gardens, where budgets can vary from £75,000 to (estimated) £500,000.
The Brewin Dolphin garden, as beautiful as it was, wore its ‘big budget’ badge with honours. Everything was immaculate, sophisticated and oozing with Monaco-esque expense. Looking at it reminded me of that wonderful expression by Sir Thomas Lipton who once said of yacht racing, resigned one to ‘standing under a cold shower tearing up fifty pound notes’. Can’t help but fear that clipping those box balls, will have the same effect.
The pressure for designers to attain a Gold medal is enormous, with sponsors awaiting in the wings to see a good return on their, rather larger, investments. This year a staggering number of gold medals were awarded, and one can’t help but wonder if the budgets were set equally, what the outcomes would be. Christopher Bradley Hole’s recent reported arguments2 about the ‘Best in Show’ award not being ‘fair’, is perhaps more than simply a dispute over unfair comparisons of ‘apples and pears’, but more a question of resource in budgets of ‘pennies and/or golden nuggets’?
Not sure he’d win that argument…
- The Telegraph, 22nd of May 2013