A dry climate is something Australians are more than familiar with, and whilst London has a lower annual rainfall than either Sydney or Melbourne (yes, really!), we don’t exactly associate it with England.
But this year, dry climate gardening was a real theme of the Chelsea flower show. We had Hugo Buggs’ Jordanian deserts, James Basson’s dry hillsides of Provence and even the Best Show Garden, by Andy Sturgeon, was a mix of Mediterranean and Southern Hemisphere drought tolerant species.
But perhaps the garden that provides the most practical inspiration for dry climate gardeners is Nick Bailey’s ‘The Winton Beauty of Mathematics Garden’.
You wouldn’t necessarily call it the most instantly appealing name, but this garden attracted some of the most prominent media attention of all. And for very good reason. There were three particular standout aspects for me.
1. Plant palette
In the UK, we tend to throw any old plant we stumble across into the mix and hope for an interesting outcome. At the other end of the scale, in Australia, invariably we have our ‘native gardens’ decidedly segregated from our ‘succulent gardens’, which are screened from our ‘vegie garden’ and so on. It would be so nice to find a happy medium.
And find it, Nick has. With everything from pines to lupins and aloes to banksias, it could be a bit of a muddle. But there are sufficient common themes running through the garden to hold everything together beautifully. He has used a lot of strong textures, with solid-looking succulents, yuccas and peeling barks, balanced by wispy grasses and delicate perennials to create an overall very strong, bold, definite design.
Colour is key to this garden’s unity. It isn’t boring or contrived, with plenty of variation, but the base colourings are very consistent. This is about grey-green foliage with copper, apricot and burgundy highlights, which similarly run through the hard landscaping. There are pops of blue and white and some brighter greens, avoiding any thought of monotony, but the whole is cohesive, serene and beautiful.
I was relieved to see a move away from the ubiquitous Buxus balls in almost all show gardens this year. Yes, they work well, but oh, what a bore they become after a while. And in this garden Nick found wonderful alternatives for structure, with our very own Westringia in pride of place. There were also loosely-pruned pine shrubs, offering similar colourings but contrasting texture. Both these structural plants were subtle, yet provided essential rhythm to the garden.
It was a surprise for many that this garden received a silver-gilt, as opposed to a gold, medal. It was certainly in my top three when I first scooted round the gardens, but I did find myself coming back to it a little less over the week. Was I subconsciously influenced by the medals, or were Andy’s and Cleve’s just that little more captivating?
I asked Nick about the feedback he had received from the judges. I wasn’t surprised that they had commented about the density of the planting. I’m all for very dense planting (Andy Sturgeon’s excepting!) but this did feel just a little claustrophobic in places. As though the plants might be finding it a little hard to breathe or move, let alone grow. Just a little too forced in and solid. The judges had also commented on the height of the ceiling in the seating area, which they felt should have been 10 to 15 centimetres higher. Ouch. That’s not much.
There is no doubt this was an exceptional garden and it was clearly not far off a gold. The Chelsea judging criteria are very detailed and very specific and it’s probably advantageous to have been through the full process at least once to fully appreciate viewing a garden through the eyes of the judges; something that Nick didn’t have the benefit of this year.
This is a beautiful, quite unique, intelligent garden from an exceptionally talented designer. It is perhaps a little more ‘human’ than some of the gold medal-winning offers, not quite so superhumanly-flawless, but don’t we like a bit a character in our gardens? I asked Nick if he would be back at Chelsea again and was delighted he gave a resoundingly definite, ‘yes’. I’m quite sure we will have many more treats in store from this talented man.