Show garden highlights
What I did catch was a lot of wonderful planting, and some fantastic hard landscaping which in combination really made the most of the strong summer light. In a week when we’re starting to hear rumours of the first hosepipe bans coming into force, the presence of water on so many gardens seemed a refreshing inclusion – but it’s as well to remember we should value water features in the garden not solely for their pleasing effect on our senses, but also for their importance for wildlife. And while we might be struggling through a heatwave just now, you can bet when the rain does reappear, it’s unlikely to be a gentle soothing drizzle, but rather more of a torrential downpour. That being the case, Tom Simpson’s garden for South West Water , with its emphasis on managing excess rainwater, seemed to offer more of a timely reminder than an ironic comment upon the weather. Here, permeable paving and drought tolerant planting mulched with gravel create a lush appearance in a garden created to deal with the extremes of weather which our climate can throw at us.
The water on Alexandra Noble’s Health & Wellbeing Garden was contained in a mesmeric pebble-filled pool, and a narrow, sinuous Corten-steel edged rill which ran around this tranquil, herb-filled space. It was a perfect example of how different forms of both foliage and flower can combine in dappled light to produce an ever-changing tableau which seems, paradoxically, to freeze the moment. Many of which I spent just standing and staring in this meditative spot.
In many ways, this is a garden that breaks rules. It’s a small space, and we’re told to fill those with big, architectural plants, and large paving stones, while avoiding small leaves and intricate flowers, in order to give a feeling of space and generosity. This used small, grey stone setts for the paving and, with the exception of the lovage leaves and the foliage of the griselinia hedge on the boundary, was packed with thymes, lacey umbellifer and ferny textures.
Meanwhile, Charlie Bloom was taking a more dynamic approach to the whole water thing on the Brilliance in Bloom garden . When I first came by she was almost up to her knees in the pool which edged the central dark grey slate platform, removing lime-tree flowers from the water with a goldfish net. An hour or so later, grateful plants and passers by were receiving a shower from the hosepipe.
Even under the brightest sun, the planting at the sides was a full of colour, picking out the tones in the mosaic, while the rear wall used more muted tones from green bamboos, white Hydrangea 'Annabelle' and plum coloured savlias to give centre stage to the water feature. None of this is easy – the “riot of colour” effect can look like a dog’s dinner unless the designer has a feel for form and texture and tone and hue, not to mention the slight shift in pace and tone for the planting on the back wall – and the fact that all of this appears to have been effortlessly achieved by a designer with a larger-than-life character shouldn’t detract from the fact that this is – again – one of the most skilfully achieved iterations of this style anywhere in this year’s show.
The water feature panel itself was a custom made piece by Stark & Greensmith, who specialise in laser cut decorative panels made from powder coated steel and aluminium, which offer a fantastic way to instantly transform either a whole garden or to provide an attractive screen to divide the space.
Once again, gin seems to have crept in as a concept behind a garden, this time for the Entertaining Garden by Anca Panait, which celebrates that spirit in a space designed around an outdoor bar surrounded by the botanical ingredients of the nation’s other favourite drink (no-one seems to call it Mother’s Ruin any more). From tall columns of juniper to shrubby Mediterranean lavenders, thymes and artemisia, with a green wall of herbs – all of which can be used as flavourings during the distillation process – the garden mixed a sense of trendy, millennial chic with the kind of relaxed, fragrant planting that should have made odd bedfellows, but on the ground worked surprisingly well together. I’d certainly have been happy to have whiled away an evening or two there – just tasting, of course.
One trend – if you can use that expression for something that’s been around for such a long time – you couldn’t fail to notice was the influence of naturalistic planting upon so many of the gardens, so it was particularly apt that the RHS has chosen to inaugurate its new Iconic Horticulturalist Heroes initiative with a display by the master of perennial planting, Piet Oudolf. This delivered a scaled down version of the Oudolf prairie, complete with all the movement and colour and wonderfully contrasting forms we’ve come to expect. Although it was interesting to be able to walk through the beds, I came to the conclusion that this was a garden best viewed from a slight distance in order to allow the different elements to knit together visually. You don’t really want to sit in the front row of the stalls at the ballet, after all – even if it’s the Bolshoi.
Having been involved in supplying plants to many of the gardens, one highly knowledgable horticultural buddy who shall remain nameless suggested that we may perhaps be reaching Peak Naturalistic Planting – and, though I wouldn’t share the urge, it’s perhaps not hard to imagine a particularly tidy-minded visitor to the show being unable to resist grabbing a mower off one of the trade stands and giving several of the gardens a good haircut.
There are few things I enjoy more than mowing a new path through long grass and wildflowers, but I don’t think I’m quite ready for the pendulum to swing rapidly back towards a more controlled, less naturally-inspired aesthetic. I was delighted by the shaggy lawn, the ox-eye daisies and foxgloves in Lilly Gomm’s Family Garden , complete with the longest wall of sawn logs and bug hotels I’ve ever seen, and ornamented by a giant willow sculpture of a pear, which housed a secret den for a small person at the base.
I can’t imagine ever tiring of the naturalistic look, but I can see that it has become the de facto planting style on almost every show garden this year, and that can only mean that change is in the air.
And what, I wonder, would any of this mean for our own gardens? A charge often levelled at the flower shows – that the show gardens perpetuate an aesthetic and a standard that’s out of reach for normal humans in their own space – has always seemed a bit half-baked. For, on the one hand, it should be perfectly possible to take aspects of show garden and apply the underlying principles in any domestic garden – as James Alexander-Sinclair argued on the first episode of the Virgin Gardener Podcast, “you’re not supposed to do the whole bloody lot!”. And on the… well, also on that same hand, as it’s the same argument… what’s the logical conclusion to that line of reasoning? That we should insist the RHS put on shows filled with slightly crap gardens with which most of us can feel comfortably familiar, and a few others slightly smug at having bettered?
No. Show gardens should offer us a window into the very best that garden design has to offer, whilst also presenting us with something to which we can aspire, if only in the little details, whether naturalistic or tightly controlled in style. But the awareness that these things are for show is crucial if we’re to avoid driving ourselves to distraction with feelings of inadequacy. In much the same way as the artifice behind those perfectly staged images we see all over Instagram and Pinterest needs to be recognised and acknowledged, the better to evade chronic dissatisfaction with our own gardens.
That this has become something of a social (media) phenomenon is recognised by the presence Pollyanna Wilkinson’s A Very Modern Problem garden at this year’s show, in which a giant smartphone separates a sleek, idealised garden – all sharp edges, sculptural aloes in geometric planters flanking a hanging chair over white marble paving – from a more mundane garden space complete weedy lawn, children’s toys and the ubiquitous rotary clothes drier. This, in my book, makes Pollyanna a proper garden designer of real gardens – and, in spite of what I’ve just written, I’d welcome a requirement for all show gardens to display innovative solutions regarding the washing line, the wheelie bins, and the hideous, ever-present trampoline.
This has just been a limited run down of the show gardens that made a particular impact upon me, in that short period between entering the grounds and heat stroke setting in. I’d love to hear about your favourite gardens, exhibitors and, of course, nurseries in the Floral Pavilion, so do let me know on twitter or in the comments below.