Controversy at Chelsea

Well, it all got a bit interesting when the awards were handed out at Chelsea this year. Golds were given to Sarah Eberle, Chris Beardshaw, Ruth Wilmott, Andy Sturgeon, Joe Perkins, Lulu Urquhart and Adam Hunt – which all seemed about right – but Best in Show went to the last of these two designers, for their ‘Rewilding’ garden.

The Rewilding Garden (also header image)

Was a recreated beaver habitat really a garden?

Even Monty Don publicly questioned this, whilst declaring rewilding the antithesis of gardening.

There were newspaper headlines declaring the Chelsea Flower Show had ‘got lost in the weeds’; was awash with ‘eco-preachiness’; and that garden designers had ‘forgotten the flowers’. There were calls for the old Chelsea, chockablock with ideas you could take back to your own garden, not all these piles of logs and dead foliage. Oh, the excitement!

It brought me back to an article I recently read by Georgina Reid of Wonderground, which talked of the ‘aesthetic of care’. She posed that we have been conditioned to like neat edges and straight lines; to believe that care and control equals good.

And whilst I wholeheartedly agree that we are ‘conditioned’, in so much as we are very much influenced by history and those around us, I’m not sure that’s the nub of it. It’s not coincidence that millions of people have veered towards a more naturalistic style over the last few decades, yet I don’t think it’s care that’s been the determining factor.

If you take the English countryside, there’s little more breath-taking than a woodland of shimmering beech trees standing above a swathe of English bluebells. Yet a bank of brambles and nettles on a cold November day is about the least inspiring image imaginable. Neither are ‘cared’ for. Neither are controlled as such. So what is the difference?

I think James Golden has articulated this as well as any. In his recently published book, ‘The View from Federal Twist’, he refers to the ‘legibility’ of planting. That you can glance at an area of plants in front of you and immediately make sense of it.

The beech trees and bluebells make instant sense, yet the brambles and nettles represent an amorphous blob of mess! Your eye has nowhere to settle; has nothing of real interest to hone in on; it can’t instantly make out either individual plants nor an overriding theme.

Which really brings us to general design principles. Those of balance, scale, contrast, pattern, rhythm, emphasis, unity and so on. When these principles are applied, we have legibility. When they are not, our brains can’t really process what is in front of us.

Andy Sturgeon’s Woodland Planting
Andy Sturgeon’s Meadow Planting

For me, the two halves of Andy Sturgeon’s garden demonstrate this perfectly. His woodland planting all hung together beautifully, with lush greens and bold textures and forms, whilst to my eye there was too much variation in his meadow planting. It didn’t seem to come together – there were so many different greens, different forms, different colours that it wasn’t legible in the same way. Interestingly, Andy’s garden also scored a perfect 36 points, just as the Rewilding one did, but a secret ballot of the judges awarded the latter Best in Show.

I think if you look across all the Gold show gardens, they all apply design principles brilliantly (if not faultlessly). But some probably apply them more obviously than others. Obviously, in the sense of how we have traditionally applied them to garden design.

The Perennial Garden

Take the Perennial garden, which won the People’s Choice award. It’s very traditional, very classic. Symmetry, a narrow yet distinctive colour palette, repetition of form, all conform with textbook design formulae.

Chris Beardshaw’s Garden

And Chris Beardshaw’s garden, another big crowd puller, had great legibility, with its large blocks of perennials and clearly defined forms of shrubs and trees.

Sarah Eberle’s Garden

My favourite Chelsea garden this year remains Sarah Eberle’s, whose broad palette of plants intermingled more naturally. Whilst it also had quite a limited colour range, it had a much greater degree of complexity within this unified mix, meaning I could instantly read it, yet the more I looked, the more I saw.

Sarah Eberle’s Garden

I think that’s what does it for me. It has to hang together as a whole: to have that instant legibility. But I’m greedy, I want more. I want to be able to loiter in this calming, legible environment and see layer after layer of detail. To see how the plants sit with each other: the infinite number of combinations of flowers and leaves all juxtaposed within a small space. The light falling in different ways revealing new vignettes minute by minute.

Sarah Eberle’s Garden

With the bluebells, upon loitering, you notice the odd wood anemone amongst the flowers, then a beautifully architectural, mossy fallen branch, then a beetle scurrying amongst the leaf mould. There’s always more there to keep you hooked. Yet in the brambles and nettles I can’t even start that process, I can’t engage with it: it’s not calming, I don’t know where to rest my eye and so I automatically move on.

Design principles are a given, a must, yet I want them without the text book formulae. I want designs that don’t look designed. To me this style is of another level in sophistication: it’s less predictable, more unique.

I guess there’s a scale, from wild at one end, to totally manicured at the other. Forget ‘control’ or ‘design’ – any planting may or may not have this – but it must follow design principles, either by human intent or a serendipitous act of nature, for it to be legible, and therefore pleasing to the eye.

It seems our ‘conditioning’ is moving us further towards the wild end of the scale: in the direction of learning from nature with less adherence to formal design. I’m not convinced that naturalistic gardens started with an eye on climate change or green endeavours (read the fabulous ‘Wild’, by Noel Kingsbury and Claire Takacs to learn more on this), but I do think it’s happily coincided with this movement, which, in turn, has reinforced it.

So coming back to Chelsea. Clearly, we all have different tastes and different (and movable) positions on the wild to manicured scale, which I maintain is a wonderful thing. It brings tension and more space for innovation and exploration.

The Chelsea audience, of largely middle-aged, hobby women gardeners seem to be mostly with the Perennials and Chris Beardshaws of this world. Yet my fabulous Facebook group of around 4,000 professional gardeners seem to be a little further towards the wilder end of the scale. I suspect, living and breathing plants all day, we have a slightly accelerated conditioning process!

So was the RHS right to award Best in Show to the rewilded garden?

The Rewilding Garden

You could argue that the RHS should best meet the demands of its customers, who do seem to mostly be wanting more formal, traditional ideas to take home.

But I’d argue the larger Hampton Court Flower Show is better placed for this purpose and that Chelsea would lose its edge and appeal if it simply churned out lots of the same.

I think there is an argument to say that Chelsea show gardens have got so good that the scoring hasn’t really kept up. It seems to robustly pick out the best for Golds – incredibly reliably, in my opinion – but if two gardens in one year score 36 out of 36, the bar needs to be raised to differentiate them further. It shouldn’t be that a Silver Gilt is a reason for despondency at Chelsea.

The Rewilding Garden

But to answer the question, should the Rewilding garden have won best in show, I think I’d have to say yes. Wilding (if not really rewilding), is definitely the direction of travel in the gardening world and it’s arguably harder to do well than is traditional design. Isn’t forward-thinking, technically difficult exactly what the world’s pinnacle of garden design should be showcasing?

The Rewilding Garden

What do you think?

17 thoughts on “Controversy at Chelsea

  1. Pat Webster says:

    You ask what the reader thinks, meaning in part whether the Rewilding garden should have won best in show. I think your question also concerns whether following the “direction of travel” in the gardening world (or “forward thinking” as you also describe it but which has quite different connotation) is what Chelsea should reward; and whether getting “wilding” right is, indeed, technically more difficult.

    Responding to each question would most likely result in different answers. So I’ll answer an easier question: I think you’ve written a very good blog post, with a fine analysis of the pros and cons of the gardens described and the conversations that could ensue.

    • jannaschreier says:

      You are too kind, Pat! Yes, it’s one of those subjects that opens up five questions for every one you try and answer! But aren’t they often the most interesting?! I’m not sure there really are right or wrong answers, but it’s fun to explore a bit.

      • Pat Webster says:

        Yes, exploring the questions is both fun and helpful. You’ve obviously struck a chord with many readers.

  2. Suzanne says:

    What an interesting post Janna. As you have done so many times before, you’ve made me question why I like some gardens and not others.

    I’ve always liked a naturalistic style garden; a little bit messy, not too controlled, whereas formal gardens fail to excite me even though I greatly admire the technical skill involved in their making. I do believe my preferences have been condition by childhood experiences of the beautiful natural bushland which surrounded my home.

    So do I think the Rewilding Garden rates as a winning garden, my subjective answer is yes. It would seem to me, without having any real knowledge of garden design, that the same skill set for composing a cottage, perennial, formal or naturalistic garden come into play. It’s the way in which these elements are implemented that defines the outcome. As a well-past-middle-aged woman hobbyist gardener I won’t comment anywhere further. 😁

    • jannaschreier says:

      We’re back to the old days of why do we like this garden?! I can really imagine that your beautiful childhood surroundings have influenced your garden preferences. And I think you make a good point about Chelsea, although I very much see you in the middle-aged, female, hobby gardener category!

  3. Adriana Fraser says:

    If we ‘rewilded’ our garden (in Australia) my neighbours would be onto the council to complain that we were causing a bushfire hazard. We have a huge ‘wild’ area across the road from us and we are always nervous in hot weather. It is ‘wild’ not just because it has some natives, it has been allowed to seed any tree it likes including huge pines – not native to here and also deemed an environmental weed. Half dead trees and fallen debris have created a truly wild looking place. A huge fire hazard. I don’t want to add to that. The council does nothing about this because there is one rule for public spaces and another for private land.

    I agree with Monty Don. I was going to make a comment on the ‘myth’ of rewilding gardens in your last post Janna but then decided I best not create too much disturbance (excuse the pun). I am not convinced that a garden, especially smaller gardens, can be truly ‘rewilded’ in actuality.

    I do think the naturalistic (i.e. ‘like nature’ but not really natural as in ‘true nature’) approach differs from the rewilding approach too and feel so much more at ease with this.

    This is what I was going to say last time: I do wonder though if ‘rewilding’, so popular in recent garden parlance, is actually achievable, or in fact even realistic in the average garden and by the average gardener. To be successful I think it needs enthusiasts who are happy and capable of maintaining this ‘wildness’, as manufactured ‘wildness’ doesn’t come naturally at all. I can see lots of people jumping on board and creating one huge garden mess. I think rewilding may just be another gardening fad — once people realise you can’t just plonk plants in and let nature do the rest in a ‘normal’ garden setting. It was done here in the 1970’s when the’native garden’ (i.e. natural garden) was big gardening fashion. It was generally disastrous and most people had no idea that you had to still maintain these gardens, and the plants in them and the weeds and so on, to stop them becoming a huge, overgrown, half dead mess, which they mostly did. And due to that native plants lost a lot of currency here for many decades.

    This is just my opinion, it may not be correct or palatable to all.

    I read the following article and found it quite interesting:
    https://sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk/news/holes-in-the-rewilding-versus-conservation-debate

    • jannaschreier says:

      The fire threat in rural Australia is of course something that doesn’t cross our minds for our damp old island on the other side of the world. And there is so much less (more or less) untouched land here, that the ‘wild’ idea probably has a more romantic appeal. Add to that that our native flora is a bit more manageable in size and, I think, maintenance terms, and it’s really quite a different proposition, isn’t it? I just let native wildflowers pop up here, in a way I think unlikely to spontaneously happen in Australia. But naturalistic planting, I think we can all see beauty in, whether or not we want it in our own gardens. By definition, ‘rewilding’ isn’t really gardening – gardening is the cultivation of plants. We really seem to have got in quite a muddle using the rewilding term. I love that article though; really interesting. Thanks for posting the link. Sums up, to me, what we need a lot more of in this world – a balanced, less black and white approach to things and a lot more tolerance of others!

      • Adriana says:

        Correct Janna that was my point ‘wilding’ isn’t gardening. And like you I love a naturalistic garden – totally different.

    • Kathie Thomas says:

      Hi Adriana, I’m in Australia too. We live in the Dandenong Ranges and we’ve worked on the approach of planting Australian natives but also some exotics, i.e. deciduous trees to add some extra colour at Autumn and open up the space for sunlight in winter. So it’s kind of wild, i.e. not too much structure. We’ve joined the Gardens4Wildlife program which has helped direct us and this might help you too.

  4. James says:

    Fascinating, thought-provoking post, Janna. Since I wasn’t at Chelsea, I’m reluctant to take sides (though I may agree with you about the Rewilding garden). I’m also remembering Dan Pearson’s “Chatsworth” garden of several years ago. What a tour de force that was. I don’t think we were thinking so much about the “rewilding” trope then, but didn’t that garden have a lot of rewilding (even if illusory), in it. It might be enlightening to compare Pearson’s garden with the Rewilding one of this year.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Ah, James, hello! See what your book did to me?! I loved it. Just feel a bit frustrated now having to wait year after year after year for things to fill out in my dry old sandy soil – such a contrast to yours. Grass is always greener…! And wasn’t Dan’s Chatsworth garden outstanding? A great comparison. I didn’t actually see it in person, I was still in Australia then, but fell totally in love with it from the other side of the world! I think for me, Dan’s was new, innovative, exciting… The Rewilding one this year (which I think really had the wrong name), didn’t seem so ‘new’ to my eye. You’ve got me thinking!

  5. Kathie Thomas says:

    Loved this post. Such a shame I live the other side of the world – I’d love to come to the Chelsea Garden Show sometime. Very interested in hearing more about your Facebook group. And I looked for you on Instagram but only found an old account. A shame, as I would be following it.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Thank you Kathie! I wish Australia was closer too. I’m not a Instagrammer, as you saw. I prefer operating at my own (snail) pace, without the pressure of daily posts, numbers of likes and the rest. The Facebook group is only for working professionals – do you meet this criteria? I can introduce you if so…

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