Appropriately on a showground bisected by a large formal canal, water plays a significant role in several of this year’s gardens. This is most conspicuous, but not limited to, the Water Garden category, the first being the Scandinavian Garden from show sponsor Viking Cruises. Here a rowing boat has been pulled up to a pebbly shoreline, on which sits a homely house set into a grassy mound, topped with wild, shaggy turf. It’s impossible to resist comparisons with Bag End from the Lord of the Rings, as anyone familiar with Tolkien will immediately recognise a hobbit home or smial, the only elements missing from the picture being a round front door and windows. While the landscaping here evokes a more rugged vibe, there’s still a sense of homeliness and simplicity which is quite charming in itself. Perhaps the first of many encounters which the visitor to Hampton Court will have with wildlife turf, present this year in abundance.
The Immerse garden, designed by Cherry Carmen, works as a metaphor for the work of the sponsor, gardening charity Perennial, who provide a vital lifeline to horticulturalists in times of ill-health, injury or adverse personal circumstances. At such periods in your life, you can imagine wanting to retreat from the world to a safe and calming space where you regain a degree of control over what’s coming at you. Here, the deeply sunken seating space is surrounded on three sides by water in a mirror-like rill at the surface level above. Lush green foliage softens the grey stone of the walls while the large leaves of fatsias, rodgersias, ligularias and hostas promote a sensation of serenity without the business and frenetic energy which can be introduced by smaller leaved plants. All is bordered above by tranquil meadows and soft woodland planting beneath a protective canopy of plane trees.
The Working Wetlands garden is one of my favourites at Hampton Court, not least for the effortless way in which designer Jeni Cairns has managed to fuse an aesthetic sensitivity with ecological provision within the contemporary urban environment. The challenge from sponsors the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust was to create a garden which employed creative ideas to make use of rainwater, whilst drastically retarding its flow back into the drainage system and mitigating the risk of flooding. The garden functions as a showcase for simple, inexpensive ideas which can be used in private gardens or incorporated into community spaces and urban planning, resulting in a fantastic network of wildlife habitats to benefit local biodiversity and increase the engagement of children and adults alike. So, while the rainwater is collected from the roofs of the steel mesh pavillion and the visitor information centre, it’s then channelled through a system of gravel tanks, marsh plants and reed beds to rid it from impurities before being directed into the central pond. This in turn feeds a network of swales, leaky dams, and shallow drainage channels, each providing niches for different specialised communities of flora and fauna.
There’s a danger this could all be terribly worthy and even effective, but rather dull. Fortunately the latter is avoided through the use of a combination of urban industrial materials – lots, galvanised steel, rough planed timber and rock-filled gabions, for example – with lush swathes of native and naturalised plants – towering teasels (Dipsacus fullonum), Ragged Robins (Lychnis flos-cuculi), blue cornflowers (Centaura cyanus) and yellow marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) to name a few from the extensive plant list.
The watery theme continued in Paul Hervey-Brooke’s garden for the Dog's Trust, which features a long rectangular reflecting pool in which steel dog sculptures frolic and play. While the yellow accents within the planting mirror the main colour of the charity’s corporate identity, the layout of the garden incorporates playful elements which any dog owner will immediately recognise as being of immense potential interest to their four-legged friend, from the tubular tunnels creating an agility course through the herbaceous borders, to the eccentric diagonal 'scent trail' paving which perfectly mimics how our canine companions wend their way through, and across, a space. This garden made everyone smile – I know Bill would love it, though he’d probably eat most of the plants.
Zoflora’s 'Outstanding Natural Beauty' garden, designed by Helen Elks-Smith, contains a water feature, wildflower meadow and dry stone walling, the latter particularly appropriate as the garden uses the Yorkshire landscape as its inspiration, although the planting along the central stream section, described as ‘gardenesque’, is more lush and colourful than you'd expect to find during a walk across the moors. This is a garden that begins in one corner with rather a jolt...
...although once you move through the space, it becomes evident why the judges saw fit to give it the Best Construction Award. The seating area of stone and weathered steel, which grips the dry stone wall like the exposed roots of a tree, is a striking feature.
Hampton Court is always a great place to go for ideas for small gardens, and few come much more small and perfectly formed than The Drought Garden by Steve Dimmock, inspired by the fortieth anniversary of the drought of summer 1976. Beautifully executed by Steve himself, featuring simple planting based on a restricted palette, green and grey foliage offset with whites, lavenders and blues, using drought tolerant plants: eryngium, verbascum, artemisia, gaura, pennisetums and two half standard olive trees in the corner. All complemented by some very well executed and attractive hard landscaping – york stone bridges over a dry stream bed of white pebbles, with reclaimed purbeck stone bolders in the borders for added textural interest. A weathered brick paved terrace in the centre provides an inviting place to sit and relax.
It was while standing here that my nose was assailed by a familiar scent and, heading off in search of its source into the Summer Gardens section, I arrived at the Lavender Garden sponsored by Shropshire Lavender, designed by Paula Napper, Sara Warren and Donna King. Possibly the most fragrant show garden I've ever encountered, and perfect in every detail from the rustic chestnut boundary fencing to the shiny copper still for distilling the precious essential oil, the old galvanised water trough half hidden by the exuberant blooms of hybrid lavendins and angustifolia cultivars. There is such a thing as a lavender high. I took a deep breath and wafted onward...
...to the Arts & Crafts inspired garden, A Summer Retreat by Amanda Waring and Laura Arison. A perfect spot to read, or write, and a testament to traditional craftsmanship, from the raised wooden summerhouse to the beautifully constructed dry stone walls, the elegant obelisks and the corten steel bordered flowerbeds. This is truly pleasing garden in which the relationship between negative and positive spaces seemed perfectly balanced, a kind of comforting rhythm developing between the well stocked borders, the voids of the pathways and the roomy interior of the garden building. I’d be happy to spend days here.
Perhaps the most flamboyant of the highlights from this year's show, however, is the fabulous Butterfly Dome right at the far end of the showground (or the near end, if arriving from the river). Inside, we walked among tropical plants, mobbed by large butterflies in a variety of dazzling colours, including some huge, stunning iridescent blue ones that proved impossible to photograph in motion as anything other than a blur. The experience was, simply, joyous – everyone leaving the dome laughing, or with a huge smile, walking through the meadow planting outside with a mix of wildflowers designed to attract native butterflies, bees and other pollinators. There’s something in the fragile beauty of this experience that surely holds a lesson for us. If only we can stop raging at each other for long enough to listen to what that lesson might be.