“A ubiquitous feature of garden-making in all cultures has been the inclusion of references within the site to other places, events and themes. I shall call this re-presentation, the presentation over again in garden terms of a whole range of other cultural and natural elements and occurrences. Knowledge of both – the garden formulations and their ‘referents’ – enhances the experience of each.”
John Dixon Hunt, in Greater Perfections: The Practice of Garden Theory
At a flower show a show garden is a dislocated entity, self-contained, it has to stand alone without its surrounding place or location, its genius loci. It refers to itself, its concept, and is judged by it (specifically in Royal Horticultural Society terms). All show gardens are conceptual to some extent, as they are designed and respond to a brief. However at Hampton Court Palace Flower Show (the largest flower show in the world and one of the series of RHS shows around the country) there is a specific category of Conceptual Gardens “designed to challenge preconceptions about garden design”, a suggestion of deliberate provocation beyond the usual.
This year’s offerings seem to reflect difficult times, with themes of death and destruction, ecological and man-made disasters, but with (usually at least) the possibility or promise of regeneration, a salvaged future, hope for mankind, or at least a means of coping.
Ashes to Ashes illustrates the threat to our ash tree population from Ash Dieback or Chalara Fraxinea but with a positive outlook – “from the devastation a spiralling glade of new growth emerges… elm trees rising phoenix like from the ashes.” This refers to the 1960s epidemic of Dutch elm disease from which some healthy trees have survived.
Designed by Bruce Waldock of Outerspace Designs, with the participation of The Conservation Foundation, this gold medal winner is inspired by the project to micropropagate cuttings from mature healthy elm trees growing in the British countryside to distribute to schools, landowners, community groups, local authorities. their new life will be monitored. “We want to interest a new generation in the elm, so much a feature of British life and landscape for centuries” says David Shreeve, director and co-founder of The Conservation Foundation.
It is not known at present why some trees survived Dutch elm disease but maybe Ash Dieback may similarly not be the end of the ash.
Desolation to Regeneration in many ways uses a similar concept, but based on the, in fact essential, process of forest fire encouraging regeneration of the forest. Another linear design begins with a similar use of red and other hot-coloured planting, moving through grey smoky plants into the fresh greens of new growth and regeneration. Here however, a mythical landscape is created, based on the forthcoming film ‘The Desolation of Smaug’, the second part of The Hobbit, based on Tolkien’s novel. Sounds, smoke and smells supposedly (I didn’t notice smoke or smells!) accompanied the photographic backdrop with metal and charred wood sculptural forms added to the planting, crackling fire sounds turning to bird song as regeneration took place. Designed by Catherine Macdonald of Landform this was a gold medal winner and Best Conceptual Garden.
More doom and gloom in I Disappear ‘The Most Heavy Metal Garden in the World’, designed by Luk Arec, which draws attention, with the help of the Metallica song, to the continued loss of allotment land to development and building projects. A seated human figure breathes in purified air created by plant photosynthesis, helped through producing our own crops and being self-supporting. This won a silver medal.
Planted fridges were a nice idea in Tip of the Iceberg by Caroline Tait and John Esling, also popular with visitors as well as picking up a silver gilt medal.
Falls the Shadow by Sheena Seeks, silver medal, was inspired by sight and the way in which we see. “Although our eyes receive images, like a camera obscura, it is our brain that makes sense of these images and the world around us.” The black tower has a viewing hole and all the elements within the garden represent the seeing parts of the eye.
Spirits of the Land, silver medal, by Japanese designer Mariko Naka takes inspiration from Shinto religion. “The planting represents the continuity of living things and rock depicts the eternity of spirits. The threads signify the spirits of the wind. The hanging rings and the clear tubes, filled with sand from different areas to represent the joining of spirits, symbolise a sense of harmony.”
These two and The Clints and Grykes Garden seemed more landscape based and naturalistic although still Conceptual Gardens.
This silver gilt medal winner was designed by Benedict Green of Belderlos Landscapes, an abstraction of the clints (slabs) and grykes (fissures) of British limestone pavements (as seen in Yorkshire I recall). This is a modern and minimal look, using sustainable materials, rather than quarried stone.
I lost track rather with where the Conceptual Gardens began and ended and in fact after fighting my way through the crowds and battling the heat I started losing the will to live anyway. However I did persevere although I discovered afterwards that I had missed many of the show gardens in the end. Here are some others I did see and enjoy.
The Ecover Garden, gold medal winner and Best Show Garden, designed by Matthew Childs was much lighter in tone than the Conceptual gardens although still with a message to impart. In fact it was positively frothing with optimism and good intentions. “Water is life” and we depend on our aquatic environments, but they are under threat from pollution, waste plastic and toxic residues. Ecover of course provides sustainable solutions and its garden symbolises how through its strips of recycled plastic (as used in their packaging) weaving or waving through the blue and white planting symbolising moving water, between monolithic walls and gravel paths inspired by coastal cliffs and river gorges. The toilet cleaner fountain, bottle handle bench and laundry cap lamp were a bit much for me, but I did like the planting.
Mid Century Modern, was another gold medal winner, also best ‘Low Cost high Impact Garden’! Designed by Adele Ford and Susan Wilmott for Outdoor Creations it was very orange, and did look very 50s and graphic, as was its inspiration.
I think my favourite of all was Between the Lines, a gold medal winning Summer Garden, designed by Maurice Butcher. Modern and natural it seemed the ideal spot to linger, particularly with some nearby shade.