Saturday, 31 May 2014

Back down to earth

In much the same way as the cobbler’s children are often found in want of shoes, this gardener’s garden is beginning to look a little unkempt. I’d prefer to describe it as naturalistic, but I fear I may be pushing the boundaries of what is generally understood when applying that adjective to a style of planting, unless what is generally understood is a state of affairs in which Nature is striding forth with purpose on all fronts to reclaim the garden for her own.

But I’ve decided not to let it stress me; in fact, in an odd way I’m finding it quite refreshing. There was a moment at Chelsea this year when I was admiring the admittedly fantastic planting on the Hilliers stand in the pavilion; it was almost perfect, but I realised that what I really wanted to see – what would just tip it for me from fabulous to the inspired – was a tendril or two of bindweed cheekily peering over the top of a choice perennial, or the tell-tale texture of a dock about to come into flower catching the corner of my eye. I’ll admit that this is probably not a mainstream point of view, but I’ve come to understand that planting that gives a nod to the way nature would do it is where I feel most at home. I can appreciate and even enjoy more manicured styles – when done well, this kind of thing gives me that frisson you get when you realise you’re feeling challenged by being moved out of your comfort zone – but I get a real kick when the hand of the gardener is perhaps less explicit.

Is this just a case of me trying to justify the state of my chaotic garden? Well, possibly it is. What I know for certain is that while I loved Chelsea this year, I was immensely glad to get back home to my own brand of chaos.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2014, part 2

Isn’t it funny how you spend much of your time photographing show gardens waiting for people to get out of shot? At least I do, or did until recently. I’ve come to appreciate the presence of a body or two within the space, it helps to contextualise the garden if there’s a human contingent with which the green stuff can interact, so I was more than happy to press the shutter while people were busily working away, hoovering or sweeping (really), judging, or schmoozing. Of course, what you really need is a couple of kids wellying a football around it, a labrador galumphing through the beds, and I’m still convinced that one year the RHS should insist that all show gardens must somehow incorporate a trampoline.

Adam Frost takes a slightly different approach to a family garden with ‘A Time to Reflect’, the Homebase garden in association with the Alzheimer’s Society. As it’s name suggests, it’s a reflective space whilst at the same time being one which seeks to engage children and adults in the joys of the outdoors. Natural stone boulders, pools and connecting rills reference the countryside in this wildlife friendly environment, and the naturalistic planting does nothing to distract. There are plenty of places to sit and ponder, and also the option to chose different routes through the garden, some quite active, others a little more sedate. All routes lead to a sociable space for entertaining and eating, in the form of a stone and oak arbour with a green roof of heather, complete with a fabulous hooded copper stove/fireplace combination. I found it a thoroughly engaging, wonder-filled garden, one that I’d be more than content to spend time in with family, dogs and god-children, though the latter, whilst possessing a heartening interest in the natural world, will still be requiring a trampoline.

Vital Earth’s ‘The Night Sky Garden’ by brothers David and Harry Rich was a treat, though one which made me wish I was a bit taller, as although the layout of the sinuous stone walls is intended to represent constellations, but I couldn’t quite see over the planting. I imagine a much better viewpoint of this is available from the star gazing platform on top of the contemporary oak and glass pavilion, which is accessed via an external spiral staircase, rising up from among the planting. From here, the pair of dark reflecting pools would be especially impressive on a starry night. For those sensitive to even this modest height, a grassy bowl offers an ideal space to lie on your back, gazing into the sky for a spot of traditional cloud busting. Random scattered boulders give the impression that the garden has grown up on the site of a meteor strike, so there’s a kind of deep energy that pulses through the whole space. Quite an impressive job.

That, for now, is all the song I’ve got to sing as far as the show gardens are concerned. I’m back on Saturday for another look, to see what I’ve missed of the show gardens, and also take a look at the Fresh gardens which I didn’t get round to on Monday. In particular I’d like to revisit the No Man’s Land garden by Charlotte Rowe, which didn’t grab me when I was standing next to it, although the plans and the photographs I’ve seen from within the garden give quite a different impression. It’s worth remembering, particularly when puzzling over some of the medal decisions, that the judges and the guests who have the opportunity to go into the gardens get a very different impression from those of us who have to be content with looking on.

And so on to the Artisan gardens, several of which had a narrative underlying their concept. Call me a stubborn, but I studiously try to avoid hearing too much about this – at least at first – preferring to see if I engage with the space in its own right, and then adding on this extra layer of understanding once I’ve explored my own responses to what’s around me. Is this the correct way to go about garden appreciation? I’ve no idea, but it works for me to make my own meaning, and then to see how or even if it chimes with that of the gardens creator, where that information is available.

Without, then, extensive reference to their respective back stories, three gardens made a particular impression on me in this area, Marylyn Abbott’s ‘Topiarist Garden’, Ishihara Kazuyuki’s ‘Togenkyo – A Paradise on Earth’, and the DialAFlight ‘Potter’s Garden’ by Nature Redesigned.

The first of these was the front garden of a small single story brick cottage with a clay tile roof, raised a couple of feet from the path in front and accessible by a short flight of steps. The tiny space was filled with a joyful assortment of expertly tended topiary forms, interplanted with cottage garden perennials. There was a wonderful eccentricity in the dualism between the tightly controlled topiary and the somewhat ramshackle nature of the cottage, with its relaxed planting. I liked it very much. Hydrangea anomola subsp. petiolaris graced the front of the cottage; I may have muttered “that’ll be up and over the whole house before you know it”. I may have been told off for taking things too literally.

Just down the road, looking as though in reality it could actually be a neighbouring property, was the DialAflight ‘Potter’s Garden’, one of the gardens explicitly referencing the First World War. This featured an abandoned workshop, including an outdoor bottle kiln, a garden path consisting of broken crocks (not one I’d want to walk on barefoot), and several phrases of remembrance carved into wooden plaques. The terracotta elements blended in seamlessly with the loose, cottage style planting, with ferns and digitalis, as well as the native species as the countryside around attempts to reclaim this working space, including a front wall constructed from sandbags.

Ishihara Kazuyuki’s garden is one I want to return to, as it had Toby Buckland and a film crew on it when I visited. I contented myself with admiring the attention to detail I could see by peering around people – all the characteristic elements of this designers exquisite gardens – acers and pines, water, river-washed rounded pebbles, their shape and size mirrored in the small balls of moss being painstakingly spritzed with water by concerned looking assistants. Whether or not I’ll be able to get a better view on Saturday, I’m not sure, but it’s certainly worth sharpening my elbows for.

I’ll be uploading more photos from Chelsea to the grow Facebook page – including images of the fantastic nurseries in the Royal Pavilion

Click here to read the first part of this account of RHS Chelsea 2014.

Monday, 19 May 2014

RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2014, part 1

To the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, for the 2014 RHS Chelsea Flower Show. An early start, as the RHS Press Office were good enough to give me a pass, meaning that not long after seven a.m. I was working my way down main avenue, camera clicking furiously, getting a good look at the gardens before the crowds, the celebs and, most importantly, the heat arrived.

I’ll try to give an account of those features which made a positive impression on me. In very brief summary, a good show; some interesting show gardens, a handful of exquisite artisan gardens, and, as always, sterling works of wonder being performed by the nurseries and growers in the Royal Pavillion. Although nothing overtly outrageous was to be found, there was a certain smattering of ‘high concept’ in evidence, a phrase which a friend of mine suggested as a kinder way of describing those gardens which I, in my somewhat earthier style, had been referring to as a load of old…

Balls of box were much in evidence, and also in places of beech – the favoured form this year being a slightly squished pebble, rather than a perfect sphere. Imagine a perfect sphere, but with an overly fat, invisible person sitting on it. There are no surprises here, formal elements interspersed with frothy, softer plantings have been with us for some time now, but I did think there was a discernible shift this year, particularly on main avenue, with historical periods in garden history notable for their strong formality explicitly referenced in the design, but softened by a more contemporary understanding of naturalistic planting. This was clearly seen in Cleve West’s M&G Garden, a 21st century interpretation of a Persian paradise garden, but also in the Italianate roots of both Luciano Giubbilei’s Laurent-Perrier Garden and the Telegraph Garden, designed by Tommaso del Buono & Paul Gazerwitz.

Most unequivocally this was evident in Paul Hervey-Brookes’ garden for Brand Alley, which combines the three periods of the Italian Renaissance in a single design, an immense, long reflecting pool with an ox-blood red loggia at the far end, formal hedging and statuary to the left, softer, mediterranean planting to the right. It’s bold, almost stark when viewed from the front, and I’m not sure most visitors to the show will get it, but I rather like it, particularly viewed from the side, which gives a more nuanced prospect.

The Brand Alley Renaissance Garden, by Paul Hervey-Brookes
Three of these gardens shared essentially the same structural element – a tall evergreen hedge running the entire length of the long boundary of the garden, unbroken except for a full height stone panel at some point along the length. Ok, it’s not the same panel, or the same hedge, and it doesn’t perform the same function within the respective designs, but it’s something I found rather odd pouring over the visuals before getting to the show today, and haven’t found any less odd having seen the gardens up close. Just one of those things and entirely coincidental, no doubt, but especially notable when two of the gardens are on adjacent plots.

Cleve West’s Persian-inspired garden for M&G
The Telegraph Garden, by Del Buono/Gazerwitz
The Laurent-Perrier Garden, by Luciano Giubbilei

It’s at this point I realise that I should have earlier mentioned the inevitable caveat when talking about show gardens, namely that it’s impossible to judge the success of a garden – any garden – while being unaware of the intention of its creator, and that without having had sight of brief to which a designer’s been working noone can say how successful they’ve been. All I can comment upon is how a particular garden makes me feel, and whether this or that aspect appears to me to have been well executed. It’s a personal response, and yours may well be entirely different. Which brings me on to some of the planting.

I’m a big fan of the gardens of Luciano Giubbilei (he does contemporary formal with great skill), and I’m sure I’ve seen or heard him comment in recent years that he’s only recently beginning to embrace flowers in his designs. This year’s Laurent-Perrier garden is a much more feminine garden, with far fewer straight edges and more natural forms in evidence. The clipped forms are still there, but now we have the rounded, loose forms of beech, and the branching of the two amelenchiers is pleasingly informal. It’s still all tightly controlled by the hard landscaping, though, framing the trees, the water courses and the pool, and tightly confining the herbaceous planting to two rectangular areas. And it’s these areas of planting that didn’t quite work for me – here I must slip in to describing feelings again – adjectives like ‘competent’ and ‘stolid’ spring to mind, almost as if the individual plants were being placed by an informed and precise hand, but without the fluidity and finesse in evidence on, for example, the Cloudy Bay Sensory Garden from the Wilson McWilliam Studio.

Clearly, this is a comparison of apples and pears, but it’s nonetheless one I’ll persist in making. Photos tweeted showing the progress of the planting here have been making me drool all week; a monochromatic layer of blueberry mauves, alliums, verbascums, salvias and aquilegias, all nestling among swathes of delicate deschampsia, with brighter splashes of oranges and reds above, wending their way around two multi stemmed hazels – a crazy meadow that made you want to sprawl out in. Of course in reality you wouldn’t want to for fear of snapping or squashing some choice specimen, but the truly skilled manage to create the impression of a community of plants; even if it’s a bonkers community, they look like in some world they could exist growing together. The colours here were illustrative of the fruitier notes within the sponsor’s wines, a theme continued with the towering charred oak panels creating the backdrop. The scale of these panels was bold, several metres (four?) high. It shouldn’t have worked, but somehow it managed to entirely avoid any feeling of looming bulk. Across a rill in which bottles of wine were being invitingly cooled, a limestone terrace provided space for socialising. This too worked, though the shift is rather sudden, wafty colourful meadow to unapologetically crisp, clean cut terrace. Perhaps that’s why it worked – audacity. And a simple concept clearly articulated, which prevented it from being a garden of two halves.

Talking of which, there was Alan Titchmarsh’s ‘From the Moors to the Sea’, a garden celebrating 50 years of Britain in Bloom and the designer’s half century in horticulture. Aside from the sudden transition from the moorland element (which was beautifully realised, wildflowers, drystone walls and all) into the coastal environment, complete with echiums and beach hut, I very much liked this garden. I wonder if a more gentle transition – salt marsh, perhaps? – might have established a greater rapport between the two. Splitting hairs really, I liked it.

The Brewin Dolphin Garden, designed by Matthew Childs grew on me during the morning, perhaps in spite of the hard landscaping materials – square, copper arches and slate grey stone, all very grrrr. But either the sun made it come alive – suddenly all the different textural details were thrown into relief – or by mid-morning I'd finally woken up. This was a garden with real depth, which is a feature I always enjoy in a show garden – the longer you looked, the more you found yourself drawn in. The planting was lush and had that fresh May green look, which the flowers of Viburnum plicatum (a plant much in evidence this year) complemented beautifully. I was also rather taken by the mounds of Cryptomeria globosa nana used throughout, which echoed the low, rounded boulders within the planting.

The Brewin Dolphin Garden, by Matthew Childs
The Brewin Dolphin Garden, by Matthew Childs
The Brewin Dolpin Garden, by Matthew Childs
There’s a lot to see, and as I’m keen to post something this evening, I’ll continue in another post tomorrow!

What are your thoughts on Chelsea this year? Do leave a comment below.

Monday, 5 May 2014

May Day

Bank holiday Monday, and the afternoon air is a cacophony of birdsong and lawnmower engines, aircraft circling over Gatwick, and the distant whine of motorbikes heading down the A21 for the annual May Day meet in Hastings. A ridiculous bluebottle careers off mirrors, picture frames and windows in a desperate fusion of frenetic industry and hopelessness. Three feet away the door to the garden is wide open. Bill raises his head from his afternoon nap, regards the idiot fly with apparent disdain, and returns to his philosophical canine deliberations: Cats – What’s Their Problem? and Why a Stolen Sausage Tastes Better than a Sausage Freely Given. Outside, a few weeks earlier than usual, the garden has exploded.

Only the first week in May, but this rapid burgeoning of everything in the garden began in the middle of April, and was well into its stride last week. The transformation of the geraniums first heralded the acceleration in growth rate; every year the speed at which this happens takes me by surprise – one moment a sprawling, untidy looking patch of straggly vegetation, the next, perfect, plumptious domes of foliage rising from the borders. It seems a miraculous transformation – standing still for long enough, you would surely see the plants growing even as you watch. But standing still is not a thing to be done in the garden at this time of year, unless that is you have a particular desire to be claimed by Mother Nature as a living sculpture, rooted to the soil by speedwell, smothered in goosegrass and hemmed in on all sides by tall docks. Borage, comfrey, and forget-me-nots join forces with the spanish bluebell – ugly fat leaves and ill manners temporarily overlooked – creating a striking, frothy blue understory around your tethered feet, mirroring the sky for now still visible through the canopy overhead, until the trees and shrubs reach full leaf  in a few weeks time.

May, then, is already green, glorious, and groaning with abundance, and not just in our gardens, but in the woods and the fields, the hedgerows and the roadside verges all around us. English bluebells which clothe the woodland floor came early into flower, but fortunately this seems to have extended the season rather than simply moving it a forward, the flowers making the most of the warm spring temperatures and greater light levels. Cow parsley too is already reaching statuesque heights, at least in those places as yet unreached by the brush cutters of the over-zealous maintenance contractor. How ironic to think of the understandable ubiquity of Anthriscus and other early flowering umbellifers at Chelsea in recent years, due to several late springs and the reluctance of many of the planned plants to come into flower, while this year everything is a good fortnight ahead – quite the opposite problem. Throughout the nation, virtuoso performances of the Chelsea Chop this year may well precede the eponymous flower show by a matter of weeks.