The Garden Guide

Garden designs at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2012 - a review by Tom Turner

Thinking about the show gardens, I heard many comments to the effect that '2012 was not a vintage year', and I agree. One could keep on blaming the recession but I prefer to look elsewhere. Here are some possible explanations (1) the sponsors of the show gardens are inexpert clients, often spending other people's money instead of their own money (2) the RHS exercises poor leadership on design matters, by choosing too many judges with more interesting in gardening than in garden design - this is like asking builders to judge architectural competitions (3) the designers have a weak foundation in design theory - they work more with 'instinct' and cliché than with design principles. Fortunately, there are exceptions to every generalization.


The Lands' End Garden, designed by Adam Frost, seems to have been guided by the sponsor, which is a catalogue clothes retailer. It shows sensitivity to materials and it is a comfortable space. These are very welcome qualities. But the design also exemplifies the designer's belief that 'I don’t believe that garden design is about producing some wonderful art form.'


The Caravan Club Garden was designed by Jo Thompson (and the photograph appears to show Alan Titschmarsh 'in his element'). Caravans have a certain charm, particularly if they are small and cosy, but they do not belong with the slickness of Thompson's design. It seems to draw more from her background in teaching and drama than from sound design principles.

The World Vision Garden, by Flemons Warland Design, is an appealing conceptual design but you have to work pretty hard to find the claimed relationship with the sponsor's aim 'We visualised the ripple effect that the work of World Vision creates' and I find it VERY DIFFICULT to understand how sponsoring a luxurious garden at Chelsea contributes to the sponsor's mission: World Vision works to make a serious and sustainable impact on poverty and its causes, especially as they affect children.'

The Brewin Dolphin Garden, by Cleve West, is just the kind of garden which should, and could, have been designed in 1929. I do not know whether this reflects the sponsor's approach to investment ('Brewin Dolphin delivers investment solutions for private clients and professional advisers and offers investment management and financial planning services.') The RHS judges considered it the Best in Show. It's like wearing brogues. I like them well enough but as symbols of a bygone age. The word "brogue" was first used to describe a form of outdoor, country walking shoe in the early twentieth century.[5] At that time the brogue was not considered to be appropriate for other occasions, social or business.'


The Arthritis Research Garden, by Thomas Hoblyn, has nothing whatsoever to do with Arthritis or Research. Though in modern dress, it is a 1920s 'sunken pool' backed by a verdant fountain which is a slight echo of the Villa d'Este. Arthritis is a nasty disease which merits a particular approach to garden design. As with the World Vision garden, one wonders if the 'little old ladies' on street corners knew they were collecting coppers for this type of design. I need not wait till I get arthritis to know that clipping hedges will be a difficult and unrewarding activity

The M&G Garden, by Andy Sturgeon, would definitely have received the Gardenvisit Award for Best in Show, but for the designer's crackpot explanation. Here is the Telegraph's summary: ‘The M&G Garden’ 2012, a ‘New English’ garden harking back to the Arts and Crafts movement, but with a modern-day twist. Featuring monolithic blocks of stone, a 98ft free-form ‘energy wave’ sculpture and a mix of formal, asymmetrical designs and informal cottage-garden planting, the garden truly reflects the values of M&G.' It is the design equivalent of a recipe for hash. But I like the design!


The Telegraph sponsored Sarah Price to design a garden which 'evokes the beauty and romance of wild places in the British countryside'.  This is very much what William Robinson would have wished. Sarah Price has done the job much better than Robinson would have done but I am doubtful about it being the right job to have done. Charles I, on his scaffold in Whitehall, stated that 'A subject and a sovereign are clean different things'. I would say the same of countryside and garden, though I love both.

The Westland Magical Garden, by Diarrmud Gavin, was sponsored by Except for the fact that they have an ugly website it is difficult to understand why they should have commissioned an ugly design.  Its only redeeming aspect was the idea of inviting Chelsea pensioners for a group photograph. Calling the pyramid a 'retreat for garden lovers' is absurd.

Trailfinders Australian Garden is 'claimed to be a snapshot of contemporary Australian urban design by Aussie personality and landscaper Jason Hodges'. This sounds all too true. I know better, but it's enough to make the average Brit think the Aussies are a bunch of boozy bozos.