‘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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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?!
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.
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.
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!