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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
What do you think?