More than once Mark Gregory, winner of The Peoples’ Award at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show, said that all of Chelsea was about the theatre, the spectacle and putting on a show. And, as yet again, people ask “what is a garden?”, isn’t it time to stop worrying about definitions and practicality and just enjoy the performance?
Of course the market for a canal-based garden design is very niche but the Peoples’ Award showed that the visiting and viewing public at Chelsea loved this show garden. And why is that? There’s the sheer ambition of building something as monumental as this and then the artistry of making it look like it’s always been there. And finally, the romance of the wild-meets-cottage-garden planting. As a piece of escapism it couldn’t be beaten, just like watching an episode of Downton Abbey at the end of a good weekend.
Every garden at Chelsea needs a bit of drama, just so that we sit up and pay attention. Who can deny the unexpected fabulousness of these black oak spines running through Andy Sturgeon’s garden?
Or the bright red bridge in Jonathon Snow’s Trailfinders garden? Much better in real life than on tv.
However, one significant intervention is not neccesarily enough if the rest of the design can’t match it. The rather lovely David Harber sculpture was not enough to carry the rest of Andrew Duff’s somewhat lacklustre design.
Not all the drama is man-made, as Chris Beardshaw showed with his charismatic Pinus nigra which cut an unruly dash across his otherwise impeccable garden.
And of course, it’s important to make sure the garden isn’t all drama with no plot or character. It’s a fine balance, do you think Sarah Eberle pulled it off? The judges thought so.
As for the rest of the show gardens on Main Avenue, it wasn’t always possible to tell if there was any drama or not, if there was it was hidden away. In the case of Jo Thompson’s Wedgwood garden it was hidden in the shadows behind all the pillars and in Kate Gould’s Greenfingers garden it was either hidden in the sunken bit or on the roof. Maybe you could see it on tv but you couldn’t see it in the flesh. And as for the Duchess of Cambridge’s Back to Nature garden you could only see if you were prepared to wait in a very long queue and I’m afraid I wasn’t.
Helen Elk-Smith’s design for Warners Distillery seemed to focus on product placement (bottles of gin liberally spread across the garden, but just out of reach of the viewing public) and kept the dramatic falls of water fairly well hidden. The tv cameras did a lovely job of picking them all out, particularly when lit at night, but many of them were hard to see with the naked eye from 10 metres away.
And finally, sometimes the drama is not about the big idea but all about the small dramas played out in the foreground, like the interactions of the very fine planting in Tom Hoblyn’s garden. It may not be quite what he intended but sometimes it’s the minor characters that steal the show.
As ever, there were long queues for everything at Chelsea but at least the line for the ladies loos was fast-moving. It was crowded, the food and drink were expensive, but would I go again? Oh yes..