Chelsea 2017 Best in Show: James Basson’s The M&G Garden

Us humans are complex things. And if there’s one thing my Master of Horticulture analysis has taught me, gardens are not lacking in that department either. Put them together and you’ve got a real muddle.

But there’s nothing like truly immersing yourself in something for 48 hours to bring some clarity to a muddle. And that’s what Chelsea has done for me this year.

There’s such an enormous range of interests across the horticultural world. Updates fall into my inbox from uber-excited colleagues who have just learnt that lettuces can now be grown on the seabed, in pods with lighting powered by wave energy at some 50 metres below sea level… In all honesty, that’s not the side of horticulture that really does it for me.

What I’d always thought I was most interested in, was beauty. Combining plants in ways that create stunning environments. But I’ve realised over the last two days that actually, that’s not it. What I’m really interested in, is how plants can bring joy, uplift us, make us feel better about the world. Make us feel better in ourselves. And recent research has told me this is much more complex that simple ‘beauty’; other factors influence our mood far more than our aesthetic preferences. Fascinating, hey? (Or perhaps you’re a seabed lettuce type? And that’s OK too!)

Just one of the wonders of Chelsea for me this year was James Basson’s Maltese quarry-inspired garden. Or more precisely, people watching at James Basson’s Maltese quarry-inspired garden. I think I learnt more about ‘positive garden visiting experiences’ – one of three objectives of my master’s thesis – in an hour at James’s garden, than I did in nine months of reading the subject.

And I’ve woken up this morning all inspired to see if I can bring even a chink of joy/upliftedness/optimism to everyone in response to James’s Best in Show garden.

As you turn the corner from the London Gate entrance, this is what you see.

James Basson’s Chelsea 2017 Best in Show

You could almost hear the ‘oh’ from each and every visitor as they caught their first glance of it. Not an ‘ooo’ or an ‘aah’, but a very short ‘oh’. Then, quite often, a ‘this is best in show?’. I even had someone turn to me, standing next to the garden, to ask ‘can you tell me where the Maltese quarry garden is?’. There was almost a disbelief that this could possibly be Chelsea’s best in show.

Columns represent the hard stone left untouched in a Maltese quarry

There were many, many people thinking they were uniquely witty in saying ‘well, at least they’ve got the foundations in’. All of them then given a sharp look by their wives (yes, it was the men), accompanied by a stern ‘shhh’. There were those that clearly felt quite ‘downlifted’ by it, comparing it to a cemetery and even the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. I did have a chuckle when one lady said ‘look, the stone is chipped, right there‘, thinking they really should have moved the damaged bit to the back so no one could see it.

The quite monumental pillar giving depth to the ‘quarry’

But I don’t mean to belittle anyone. I also had a bit of a sinking heart when I first saw it. It was just so, well, concrete-y. I really think the Concrete Association should have had a stand next to it as I heard that word a million times. ‘I don’t get it, what’s the concept?’, I heard. ‘The concept is wild and wacky with lots of concrete’, the response.

James included many different ecosystem types in his garden: light and shade, dry and boggy

There were many who took a glance, made their very witty remark and made their way to the next garden. There were also those who really tried to like it, ‘I like the…architecture’, and another, after a good solid stare, ‘I like the purple flower’. And there were those who politely stated, ‘it’s not my thing’.

Said purple flower!

But those who stopped and looked, those who got their Chelsea Show guide out to seek an understanding of just what this garden was trying to say to them, seemed to go through something of a metamorphosis. One lady, after a few minutes taking it all in, said, ‘as a kind of concrete and rubbish planting, I think it’s quite nice actually’. And another, who silently considered it for some time with her friend, finally remarked, ‘it is quite lovely when you stop and just let it wash over you. It is a really quite beautiful garden’.

A rustic dining table draws your eye across the quarry

I liked this particular lady a lot. Not because she liked the garden, but because she came with an open mind, which she used to see and learn something new. We all like very different styles of planting – naturalistic was always going to play to my loves – so it’s never wrong to dislike something. But I felt it a shame for those – with very expensive Chelsea tickets – who gave it a cursory glance and moved on. At least take it in and make a conscious thought on it.

A rare moment of abundance

But the objective of this isn’t for me to be judgemental (even if I can’t stop myself at times). Standing at the garden, absorbing it and the mood around me, you could feel the sizeable shift in people’s feelings toward it over time. That evolution from ‘oh’ in surprise, to ‘oh’ in understanding. Those who took the time almost always found something about it.

The ‘lone pine’, finding its niche way up high on a ledge

James says the garden is about, “man and nature reacting together over the course of time”, and the importance “to preserve the fragile balance and celebrate the wonder”.  James himself is quite an inspiration to me. I don’t believe he wanted to shock to impress, I think he wanted to do something different to try and make a connection between the natural world and man. To say that anywhere can have its pockets of beauty.

James’s skill at creating pockets of planting that look entirely natural is second to none

Even untouched, nature will do its thing and start to populate a disused quarry with vegetation and flowers. I think he wanted to suggest we should give beauty a chance and that if we look for beauty it is everywhere around us. We can delight in a small single flower growing in a crack in the paving if we choose to. It’s up to us whether we embrace the natural world and work with it to bring joy to ourselves and those around us, or whether we simply dismiss it.

Umbels dance in the soft, evening light

This is not a garden I’d want for myself. It is stark and it is bare; it is harsh and geometric in the extreme. But when the light warms the stone, the umbels form delicate shadows and a particular combination of plants catches your attention, it can be pretty moving. A reassurance of the power of nature to put right the most invasive of man’s activities on earth.

The immense diversity of life-forms that you can imagine popped up entirely unaided by man

And a reassurance that man can do wonderful things and bring great joy to human kind when he chooses to embrace nature and create something that warms his heart.

The smallest strip of earth captures pioneer plants

‘Celebrating the wonder’ is such a fabulous phrase. Can you celebrate the wonder with me, or does this garden leave you entirely cold?

Really, what’s not to love?

27 thoughts on “Chelsea 2017 Best in Show: James Basson’s The M&G Garden

  1. Libby Cameron says:

    Janna, thank you for your thoughtful dissection of this garden, or landscape, or whatever it is. I have been mystified here in Australia looking at photos and reading comments about this ‘Best in show’. My only thought has been that the other gardens must have been bad! But you have looked at it with an open mind and have photographed it from all angles, and I can now see so much merit in it, especially in the pure horticulture involved in setting up such a naturalistic scene.
    Thank you, and thanks also for the relaying of comments from the show goers. A controversial result indeed!

    • jannaschreier says:

      Thank you, Libby, I’m so glad you could see what it has to offer. I can completely understand why people are writing it off but when you were there and you really looked, it was another garden altogether. Apparently Fergus Garrett from Great Dixter said (generally) of the show, “excellence inspires you to look at things more deeply” and for me that sums up this particular garden/landscape/whatever it is.

  2. Adriana Fraser says:

    My first thought was “what on earth”? I just looked at the photos first before I read your commentary and by the end I think I ‘got’ it — I started to see how this garden is truly a constructed representation of “man and nature reacting together over the course of time”. Arty. Hard (even brutal) yet soft. Nature triumphing over man. Loved your commentary Janna too.

    • jannaschreier says:

      James himself called it brutal, which rang a few alarm bells in terms of attention-seeking, but seeing him there, I only have good to say of him. “What on earth?” does sum it up though when you first see it. You have to keep looking. There’s another quote I like by a Telegraph writer who said today, “Stop and engage, and you will be seduced. That’s Chelsea.”

  3. Adriana Fraser says:

    I also think ‘Best in Show’ was a very courageous decision. Still to see the rest, so I will keep an open mind about that win for the moment.

    • jannaschreier says:

      The word brave did go through my mind, but then I stopped and thought about it. As far as I understand, the Best in Show simply goes to the garden that scored the most points, in a system with a lot of complexity and categories etc. So I don’t think it was a ‘decision’, it simply was what was. I have to say, being close to Chelsea these last two years has given me enormous confidence in the quality of both the scoring system and the judges so I think it was simply a case of the best man winning. Go the RHS!

  4. Louise says:

    Celebrate the wonder indeed! I have spent some time looking at your photos. They transmit something that other photographers just haven’t captured (well at least the ones I have viewed online). Your first photo did not give me any feeling of a garden that I would be captivated by but I have to say that yes as I scrolled down to each photo I was more and more captivated. I cannot put my finger on it. Perhaps it is the way you have captured and blogged about it? Thanks for your open minded perspective on this garden.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Ah, you were captivated too! It’s funny what gardens do to us! Thanks ever so much for your kind words, I’m so pleased I managed to portray a little of its magic. It’s so hard to tell whether other people will ‘feel’ it or not from a computer screen, so I’m really glad you did.

    • jannaschreier says:

      The light. Ah, the light. Do you know, I’m convinced light is the giver of all wonderful photography (not that I’m saying mine is wonderful, but when I have light on my side it’s at least an attempt). The funny thing is, every garden photographer I’ve ever met says they love overcast days so you don’t get shadows; I heard it this week from someone else. I just can’t possibly imagine why they all think it; clearly I’m missing something, but for now I’m going to keep grabbing as much soft light as I can…at least I enjoy it!

  5. Alison Piasecka says:

    Hi Janna…Like your article and approach very much..those overheard comments can be very irritating, and are one of the things I don’t miss about not being there. I really loved this garden, albeit on the telly! Brave, monumental and celebrating the return of nature, I loved it. I have not been so fond of James Basson’s over egged Provence offerings before- but this one showed real mastery and understanding.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Thank you Alison. I did wonder for a minute if this garden really needed subtitles (or at least interpretation signs) so people could experience it for what it was, but quickly realised with all the crowds that would never really work. But thank you for your comments; I’m so delighted you see it this way too as I did wonder. I’ve had tweeters telling me it didn’t deserve a space etc! I also agree, this was definitely my favourite of James’s to date (let’s hope there are more to come!).

  6. An Eye For Detail says:

    I’ve never been to the Chelsea show, so maybe that affords me an unusual perspective? And yes, of course, I am dying to go…maybe next year. I think this “Best in Show” is fabulous. Utterly and completely wonderful!! I am smitten with it. It’s a new way of seeing what is there and I’m really not surprised (knowing nothing of the judging process..) that it won so many accolades. It is interesting. It is out of the ordinary. It is taking chances. It is contemporary with a nod or two to our changing climate and world. Well, that’s my take on it….from across the pond and seeing your excellent photos! Thank you.

    • jannaschreier says:

      All the Libby’s are out today! Interesting to hear from a non-Chelsea goer (although I do hope you get to change that soon). I love to hear words like ‘smitten’; it makes me happy that others get the same pleasure from a garden that I do (and makes me feel slightly more sane!). Great to hear I’m not alone in thinking this garden deserved Best in Show.

  7. Suzanne says:

    Congratulations Janna, you nailed it, and for me, so did your first photograph. Mission accomplished. The garden is very clever but after all, isn’t this the very concept that the High Line has been based upon? The resilience and tenacity of nature is truely amazing. And you know, I could live with this garden with a few less columns, more plants plus the odd lizard sunning itself on the ‘rocks’. Btw, I still have a resident bobtail…possibly two. 🙂

    • jannaschreier says:

      See what you have taught me, Suzanne? To open my eyes and connect with the world. It’s such a wonderful place when you do. Thanks for your kind words, too. Yes, you’re right, this is the High Line concept, isn’t it? Only they have the extra plants and fewer columns! So happy to hear you still have a bobtail or two. You are SO lucky to share your garden with them.

  8. Marian St.Clair says:

    Good call, Janna. In essence, this is the story of every garden visited and it’s what I tell those who travel with me. If the goal is to learn and understand, it makes no sense to like or dislike a garden. Instead, try to grasp the maker’s intent.

    • jannaschreier says:

      That’s such a good approach, you must make a wonderful garden guide, Marian. You are quite right about the liking/disliking thing, although I’d never thought about it like that. But life is so much more interesting when you see it from a point of curiosity.

  9. rusty duck says:

    Well, it is growing on me. Although like Alison I have only seen it on the telly and the experience in reality would be totally different. Chelsea gardens should be challenging. You know I love a naturalistic garden and the planting, if a little thin, is lovely. But concrete-y is a good word.

    • jannaschreier says:

      I think I’m the only one who hasn’t ‘seen it on the telly’! Down to the fact that we haven’t quite got round to buying one since we got back. I figure if we’re too busy to buy one we’re probably too busy to watch one! Perhaps I’ll iPlayer it when I’m at a TV-licenced house some time. But tellies aside, I was definitely standing in front of it thinking, ‘grow, grow’. I also just wanted a little more green to concrete ratio, authentic or not!

  10. Helen Basson says:

    Hello Janna like us the comments around the show fascinated us, your article is lovely and we are so glad you liked it. There is a huge debate to be had on what makes a garden, I think as we live in a Mediterranean climate the garden was borne out of frustration of people pouring water into the ground to have lush plants/lawns all summer and just the sheer wonder of nature’s ability to regenerate what we destroy. I have to confess not once did it occur to us about the war memorial similarits as we were focused on the quarry but we know about it now 😉
    Thanks again for taking the time …. Helen & James Basson

    • jannaschreier says:

      Hi Helen, it’s lovely to hear from you (and many congratulations once again!). Your frustration in hot climes resonates strongly with me. I designed gardens in Australia for six years and my heart sank every time someone asked for a lush, herbaceous border. Not only were they completely impractical, but that very English emerald-green just didn’t look right amongst the sandy-coloured grasses and grey-green gum trees (even if the plants did manage to survive through extensive irrigation). In fact, I became so fascinated by it all that I am writing my thesis on sense of place. Well, I do hope (although suspect at this time of year it may be difficult) you can put your feet up for at least a couple of days after all that hard work. Thank you for inspiring me!

  11. James says:

    I’ve been a Basson fan since I first saw his 2015 Chelsea garden. I’m attracted to the idea of playing off the concept of cultivated garden against what nature just does on its own. Though it’s a bit shocking to learn that James and Helen Basson didn’t think of the evocation of the Berlin Holocaust memorial, I found that resonance gave it more power. Awarding this garden best in show, I think, demonstrates that Chelsea is willing to take risks. A good thing.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Yes, I just love ‘enhanced nature’. I particularly like Piet Oudolf’s words around not trying to mimic nature, but to evoke the feeling, or emotions, of nature. I also need to come and see your ‘enhanced nature’ garden at some point (does that expression work for you?).

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