Andy Sturgeon: Best Show Garden, Chelsea 2016

‘May the best man win.’ And so he did, at least in my book. It’s just been announced that Andy Sturgeon has been awarded Best Show Garden, 2016 for his ‘The Telegraph Garden’.

Andy Sturgeon: The Telegraph Garden Gold medal

Andy Sturgeon: The Telegraph Garden Gold medal

I was surprisingly unexcited when I saw his ‘Gold Medal’ certificate first thing this morning. There was just zero element of surprise. But I’m truly thrilled to now hear that he has achieved the ultimate accolade of the show. Chelsea is many things, but it’s the only place in the world that brings together so many top garden design bright stars and is hence the place we rely on for forward-thinking, garden innovation.

Innovation is (relatively) easy, as is beauty. But true innovation without a compromise to beauty is only achievable by a handful of genii.

Andy Sturgeon: The Telegraph Garden

Andy Sturgeon: The Telegraph Garden

And I don’t say this lightly. The more I look at this garden, the more I see. The very best garden designs have layers and layers of detail; far more than meets the eye, or at least, meets the eye consciously. Our mind knows it’s great, but doesn’t necessarily interpret all the reasons why.

Hard landscaping

It’s hard for me to get overly excited about hard landscaping. Whilst an absolutely essential element of any garden, to me it’s only the stage, not the performer. It should sit nicely in the background, not bringing attention to itself.

Andy Sturgeon: The Telegraph Garden. Chelsea 2016 Best in Show

Chelsea 2016’s Best in Show

And yet, the Stegosaurus-inspired spines of hard landscaping were both a feature and a very effective backdrop; the placing of them perfect. They broke up the length of the garden, without dividing it, they formed enclosure around the fireplace without being oppressive and they exceptionally-well screened the garden from Main Avenue, without blocking the view in. It’s almost unthinkable how he managed to achieve all this with just a few pieces.

Andy Sturgeon: The Telegraph Garden. Chelsea 2016 Best in Show

This peep hole offered beautiful glimpses into the garden and yet closed up once you moved to the other side

As my friend, Lisa, pointed out, this was a very easy garden to photograph. Point and press and you’d have a great shot. Wherever you stood, the garden looked balanced. Considering you could stand along 50% of its boundary, this really is quite incredible.

Andy Sturgeon: The Telegraph Garden. Chelsea 2016 Best in Show

Main Avenue, on the left, ‘closed up’ from the side of the garden, leaving a more intimate garden space

The hard landscaping – screening, walls, bridges, pathways – was primarily formed of irregular geometrics. Yes, the hardest style of all. We can all do soft, flowing curves or clean, perfect lines, but to get all those angles looking balanced and interesting, rather than random and harsh, is a very, very difficult feat. It was edgy, but softened; inspired (by youthful trips to the Natural History Museum) but not forced; obvious but not attention-seeking.

Look how soft some of this planting is (foreground, right)

The hard with the soft: both in the hard landscaping and planting

This garden of balance also had wonderful contrasts, with smooth-cut pavers supported by rough-worked Jurassic limestone and mirror-like water over irregularly shaped and sized stones.

This garden is clever beyond that which most of us can ever really appreciate…and I haven’t even started on the plants yet!

Planting

Such a range of textures and froms but all sit easily together

Such a range of textures and forms but all sit easily and perfectly comfortably together

The plants were the most incredible mixture; the most diverse combination I’ve ever seen with such complete unity. The key unifying feature was their preference for arid climates and yet there were plenty of large-leaved, emerald green plants thrown in.

These white-flowered things (I like Andy all the more for using the word 'things'!) are, surprisingly, frost tolerant

Andy sourced unusual plants from all over the world, including these surprisingly frost-tolerant, white-flowered, large-leaved delights (I may have forgotten their latin name)

The range of forms and textures is incredible and these form the basis of the planting. Andy didn’t want to make the garden too flower-dominated; indeed kangaroo paws are one of two prominent flowering species; the other being Isoplexis.

Isoplexis, framed by Schinus molle

Isoplexis, framed by Schinus molle, seen through a gap in the trees

I’m a bit of a sucker for flowers, and so to hook me in so tightly, in the absence of many, says a lot about the foliage. The other two very surprising aspects of the planting are a) the generous spacing of the plants, with mulch showing between each specimen and b) the vast mix of so many shades of green, touching tones of grey, black, silver, yellow, white and brown, alongside the brightest pure hue. Why on earth do I like it?!

Anigozanthos (kangaroo paws) were one of the few dominant flowers in Andy's garden

Orange Anigozanthos (kangaroo paws): one of the few dominant flowers in Andy’s garden

I’m certainly influenced by my time in Australia. I was longing for high quality, well-fitting (and practical) dry-garden designs to come to the fore during my time there. But all my clients wanted  a water-loving, emerald-green, exotic look and it appears most of my colleagues’ clients did too. These gardens were so few and far between.

But this is a perfect example of a dry garden; not rigid to any geographical location, but suited to a climate type, taking the best of nature throughout the dry world.

This planted bank sloped down to the water, intuitively feeling 'right'

This planted bank sloped down to the water, intuitively feeling ‘right’ and natural

Each plant, positioned with space, could be appreciated as an individual specimen, but thanks to the slope of the land, as you looked across, you saw a seamless horticultural patchwork. As well as being very practical, in terms of minimising humidity, it was a revelation for me to appreciate viewing each plant for itself. I’m all about the sense of atmosphere that plantings provide, rather than the beauty of a particular species, but this made me think again. Here, you could have it all.

And indeed no one feature, be that a focal point, colour or plant stood out. You could see the entire plot in one go, each and every aspect adding to the whole; the variation holding your interest. It had enough height to break up the site and provide a reassuringly established feel, whilst being open enough to allow sun-loving plants to thrive and the resultant, beneficial contrasts in light.

Dry plants added an architectural element, whilst the garden retained its lush feeling

Very dry plants added architectural qualities, whilst the garden retained a lush feel

And it answered the question of how to combine more shrubby plants – with distinctive and solid forms – in a manner as convincing as those of perennials in herbaceous borders. A question that I thought about over and over again in Australia. It’s about combining them with softer foliages, about grouping them with shrubs of similar heights and finding the unity of species, in this case through dry climate species.

It would be fair to say that I’m pretty wowed by this garden. Just as Dan Pearson’s garden last year, it genuinely takes gardening to a new level. And just as Dan Pearson, Andy Sturgeon is an inspiring, down-to-earth,  thoroughly likeable chap. You’ll need to buy House and Garden if you want to see some quotes from my interview with him – they have the rights over those – but I do hope this summary gives you just a fraction of the excitement and inspiration that the garden has given to me. I can’t wait for Chelsea 2017!

Interviewing Andy Sturgeon. Clearly something was funny. Amazingly, my sister (who lives in Dubai), has a friend (who lives in Hong Kong), whose friend posted this photo on Instagram and recognised me!

Interviewing Andy Sturgeon. Clearly something was funny! Amazingly, my sister (who lives in Dubai), has a friend (who lives in Hong Kong), whose friend randomly posted this photo on Instagram (perhaps more for the man on the left) and recognised me! Photo: Anji Connell

22 thoughts on “Andy Sturgeon: Best Show Garden, Chelsea 2016

  1. sarahnorling2014 says:

    I completely agree Janna – this garden is awesome. Highly intelligent, innovative design, looking effortless and also simply beautiful. Wow. Lucky you seeing all this up close!!

    • jannaschreier says:

      I do appreciate my luckiness and it helps to console me on a (almost summer’s) cloudy day with a high of 13 degrees! Having said that, it is great gardening weather, as per our conversations of Sydney vs Wellington….just missing the garden now!

  2. Town and Country Gardener says:

    Great work Janna. I have been inspired by Andy’s garden too for similar reasons. The hard landscape design overall has a strident unity. The planting is foliage and texture focussed rather than flower, which is more the reality of a real garden. Can’t wait to get my hand on some Isoplexis for my garden in Victoria, Australia!

    • jannaschreier says:

      Thanks very much! It’s certainly true that few gardens can maintain the floriferousness of the average Chelsea display for more than a week or two. I do hope you can find the Isoplexis. I know Michael McCoy has used it in Melbourne, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you! It’s a stunning plant.

  3. Libby Cameron says:

    It was certainly my pick from your last post, such a great, and different look! Cant wait for House and Garden!!
    Lovely article too!

  4. Adriana Fraser says:

    This garden seems so ‘Australian’ to me – the muted colours, I think, contribute to that and like you Janna, I love my flowers and yet I love this too. I am more inspired by the planting than the hardscaping though – I like it at ‘floor level’ but I’m not totally convinced by the grey standy-uppy slabs in the top photo (a few too many maybe) and yet they look great in photos further down.I think this is something you have to see for yourself or I need to see a video before making a final assessment – not that my opninion counts, but sometimes gardens can start to become too arty. And yet, having said that, Cranbourne Botanic Gardens (Vic) come to mind as that great mix of high art and great planting design. I truly think this is something I WOULD love (on refection) if I saw it in real life. Well done Andy. And how exciting Janna for you.

    • jannaschreier says:

      I couldn’t agree more…. so, so well-fitting for Australia. I also think you’d have loved it if you were standing in front of it. The ‘fins’ really weren’t overwhelming when you see them in context and they weren’t just ‘high art’ either; they had a definite purpose or should I say purposes. Having stared at the garden for a very long time I realised every single element had a reason and that’s what’s wowed me so much. As Sarah says, it is a highly intelligent design.

  5. Suzanne says:

    I must be missing something with this garden. It just doesn’t excite me as it does with you and others. Perhaps it would have more appeal if I saw it ‘in the flesh’. Or maybe it’s the shard-like shape of the screens. (One of my grandsons had a horrific accident involving plate glass some years ago. The shape brings back unpleasant memories.)
    The Anagozanthos humulis…we used to call them Cats Paws…are stunning. (Certainly a six-day wonder for the show.) It’s fantastic to see an emphasise on dry-garden plants and a relaxed planting scheme. Perhaps this may influence a few more adventurous souls in Australia to move away from the traditional English style of garden.
    BTW…great photo of you and Andy.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Thank you, Suzanne. I’m trying to work out why it doesn’t excite you. The only thing I can really come up with is either that it’s a bit masculine and/or the contemporary elements just feel too raw and new. Clearly, seeing a horrific accident is going to affect you (I’m sorry to hear about that), but I wonder if that’s the only thing. Do you like the planting in general, if not the hard landscaping? And yes, how I would love it if it does prompt some more adventurous souls…

      • Suzanne says:

        Yes Janna, I do like the planting. Although I’m not at all sure what many plants are I can imagine a WA or certainly an Australian equivalent for most, so I find that quite exciting. And I love the plant colour palette… it’s very ‘me’. I usually like strong hardscape elements and I’ve seen photos of fin structures used in the (I think) Australian Botanic Gardens and liked them. As with Andy’s garden they served a functional purpose. So I think you are quite accurate in saying the contemporary elements are just too raw and new. I do find the white chalk boulders and pathways quite jarring. Perhaps my concept of what I like in a garden is just too narrow! And I did mean to ask…why is it called the Telegraph Garden?

        • Suzanne says:

          Oh dear, I have worked out why the garden is so named. Yet another senior moment! Sorry 🙂

        • jannaschreier says:

          The colour palette takes me back to our discussion of oranges (and Clivia!). I’m glad you like the planting; I would have wondered what had happened to my taste if you hadn’t! There was also a naturalist show garden based on the landscape of Provence which had lots of very white ‘chalk’ and I felt that whilst it was great inspiration for dry gardens, it was just so far removed from the colourings of Australia. But I didn’t feel that with Andy’s garden, which didn’t seem quite so dominated by it. Perhaps it’s a lesson in taking more representative photos. I don’t think your range of garden ‘likes’ is at all narrow, by the way, but so what it if were?! And yes, The Telegraph rationale is not quite as intriguing as it might have been!

  6. Pat Webster says:

    I spent the day today at the Chelsea Flower Show. Much of that time was spent looking at this garden. I would look, go away, come back, look again. It is a wonderful combination of hardscaping and planting, extremely effective and original. Your comments are spot on — I agree with your analysis totally.

    I haven’t been to Chelsea for 4 year but the garden I remember most clearly from 2012 was Andy Sturgeon’s. Clearly the man is talented. How satisfying to read that he is nice as well.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Thanks, Pat. Isn’t it fabulous to see it all in person? We are lucky! And this particular garden certainly did draw you in; there was just so much to absorb. It’s interesting that you remember Andy’s garden most clearly from your last visit too; there is no doubt that he is unbelievably talented, whether you like his style or not. And I agree, you like the garden even more when you like the person behind it too!

  7. Louise Dutton says:

    Oh yes…..I kept flicking through the photos and tried to work out what it was that I loved. I too am a flower loving gardener…….so what drew me back time and time again to relook at your photos? Clearly the man is very creative and given your blog alongside, I found this a very interesting read. I look forward to reading your article in House and Garden to find out more about the designer, Andy Sturgeon. What a marvellous time you must have had Janna!

    • jannaschreier says:

      I always think the best designs are those that you just intuitively know are excellent without needing to understand why. I wonder how much of the complexity of the design Andy planned in a fully conscious way and how much (sickeningly!) he did intuitively? Either way, I don’t believe I’ve worked out the half of it yet. I’ll still be learning from this garden this time next year. Perhaps I’ll get the chance to ask him all the questions I should have asked at Chelsea 2017!

  8. rusty duck says:

    I can understand now, through your photos, how Andy won Best in Show. It is in the detail. Having only seen the TV coverage I had been erring toward Suzanne’s view so this clearly is a garden you need to see in the flesh. The landscaping is very masculine but less so the planting, at least, they are the things I would plant if I had his kind of resources! I subscribe to House and Garden, when is the article due to publish?

    • jannaschreier says:

      I’m normally not keen on very ‘masculine’ designs but it really wasn’t an overpowering aspect of the garden. Perhaps I’d use the word strong, but still quite subtle. The only features that really dominated my attention were the fire pit and water spouts; i.e. the dynamic aspects. Perhaps that’s partly why it’s hard to get the same impression when you are not there in person. And House and Garden, hmm. You probably don’t subscribe to the Australian version, but it’s the August edition!

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