For me, the Chelsea show gardens are the big attraction, though I enjoy a stroll in the big tent and seeing new products on Royal Hospital Way, Pavilion Way, Western Avenue, Eastern Avenue and Southern Road. It worries me that there are many fewer show gardens this year. It's time for a re-think and, perhaps, more choreography. Should the garden categories be revised? Should the distinction between ‘gardens’ and ‘product displays’ be revised? Should there be more emphasis on design throughout the show? Should there be there be more online integration? ‘Yes’ is my answer to all these questions.
An enjoyable 2018 visit to Chelsea Show also left me thinking that the designers tend to be strong in planting and construction and weak in the writing text for the notice boards displayed beside their gardens. They’re awful. I know garden design is a complex and multi-faceted art, but the RHS would do well to include the text in its judging procedures.
I’d like to have a garden like this, preferably on a penthouse in Docklands with a southward view to the Thames. And if you ask, ‘Yes - I’d like to have 4-masted galleons sailing out on the ebb tide'. The notice describes the garden as ‘A reimagining of inner-city life, the garden combats air-pollution and improves well-being in a visionary model for a sustainable future. A replicable blueprint for an integrated high-rise terrace harvesting solar energy, generating nutrients, improving air quality and providing tranquility and escapism while using clean energy’. OK. But don’t most city gardens do this, except for the energy generation (I assume this takes place out of sight on the pavilion roof? Essentially, the design is Bauhaus modernism brought up to date.
Sarah describes her beautiful and elegant garden as an ‘oasis’. A web search on desert oasis reveals that this is not how most people envision an oasis. The search terms which bring up the nearest, though inferior, comparators of Sarah’s design are ‘desert landscaping’. They form an ugly phrase while indicating a truth: this is the type of place a designer would make in a desert. It would be an appropriate design style for a luxury boutique hotel in the Gulf. I heard a visitor remark that it’s like ‘a really nice former industrial site.’ A Duisburg Nord, perhaps? The ditty which entered my head was ‘Something old and something new something red and something blue’.
I love the relationship between rusted steel and purple-white lupins. But the design has rather too much going on and it would never have passed through my mind that ‘This garden portrays man's interaction and involvement with his environment over time.’ All gardens do this, to a degree, but such a portrayal is not a distinguishing feature of this garden. Mostly, it is a shop window for David Harber's screens. Displaying them with such good planting is a thoroughly good plan - but the design says nothing about the history of human-environment interactions.
Chris won the Best in Show Garden Award for 2018. The notice states that 'The garden provides a metaphor for the emotional transition in a child as they experience support from the NSPCC. It is a healing and restorative space with a rich sensory environment designed to evoke a sense of safety, security and strength.' I agree about the rich sensory environment and assume the judges enjoyed it. But I do not associate large acid-loving flowering shrubs with safety, security or the prevention of cruelty to children. ‘Goings on behind the bushes’ have different connotations for me. So there is a disconnect between the design ambition and the design achievement, however high its quality.
Trailfinders is a travel company and the garden does a good job of advertising the attractions of South Africa and its wine, which is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. The notice states that the garden is ‘set within the Cape Winelands of South Africa, the garden features a traditional Cape Dutch homestead and parterre garden.’ Traditional buildings do look like this. But traditional parterres do not look like this, despite the pattern and the use of box. From Trailfinders point of view, I also wonder if there could have been more in the garden about the comforting security of having a travel agent as an intermediary between the traveller and hazardous DIY bookings with airlines, car drivers, hotels etc. Why not allow it?
This garden won a Best Construction Award,which makes me wonder if the judges, like me, would like to see more use of traditional materials and techniques in gardens. The notice states that ‘The garden is inspired by the Yorkshire Dales, a picturesque area of the country, world famous for Yorkshire Wensleydale cheese, buttercup meadows and rich flora... Dry limestone walls dissect the meadow land and separate the bothy, with its cultivated cottage garden from the natural landscape'. OK. But ‘bothy’ and ‘cottage garden’ suggest features as ancient as the dry stone walling technique. Modern owners might well use these terms but what we see is a chic country retreat made by a yuppi family with a fondness for country living.
Nice name, nice garden and a good theme for a design. The text states that: 'The garden highlights the importance of gardens and gardening to the millions of displaced people trying to rebuild their lives around the globe. Lemon Tree Trust supports refugees to create gardens, to grow plants and crops and to promote resiliance, wellbeing and community'. This tells us something about the Trust but is a bad fit with the design.
For those who know not, Seedlip is a producer of distilled, non-alcoholic herbal drinks. Peas are the garden theme and may also be used to make drinks. I could not find out. The design is gay, rather in the style of a primary school or children's play centre. But the text tells nothing of why the garden design: 'The garden celebrates the pea, Pisum sativuk and three men (Mendel, Lamborn & Branson) responsible for pioneering its cultural, culinary and scientific significance. The planting, forms and colours create a conceptual and contemporary installation in praise of one of the nation's favourite vegetables. Peas & Love.' The green screen can be read as 'peas', but with some difficulty.
The design of myeloma garden has a sophisticated metaphorical relationship with the blood cancer after which it is named, with the blue perspex sculpture modeled on one of its victims. The site notice cannot do justice to the sophistication of the design: ‘The themes of the Myeloma UK Garden are care and hope. The garden has been designed to raise awareness of myeloma, the second most common form of blood cancer. There is no defined path through the garden - mirroring the situation many patients face.’ In a way, it parallels the design of war memorial. But the category ‘Space to Grow’ is unsuited to a cancer charity garden.
For its use of a difficult site, this garden deserves a special medal.The notice describes the garden as ‘A communal garden for year-round use designed as a modern interpretation of gardens and architecture of a London square. A calm space with shelter and privacy from surrounding buildings while incorporating pollution resistant planting and energy harvesting technology to provide positive clean air for visitors.’ I like it. But it’s hard to image the space in ‘communal’ use. It has a Roman quality and could be a place for an emperor’s family gathering, or a seduction.