Chelsea 2012 by Anne Wareham

May 22, 2012

in Articles, Events, General Interest, Shows

I did my usual for Chelsea – asked people I met on Press Day a question I thought would be of interest to thinkingardeners. Less celebrities this time. All pictures by Charles Hawes, but the unnamed person in them, while bearing a passing resemblance to me, is clearly fifteen years older and much heavier…

Anne Wareham editor

The question:

The show gardens are there to so say ‘inspire’ home gardeners, and to promote the designer and the sponsor. But do they have any interest for the non gardening general public?

Benedict Vanheems copyright Charles Hawes

Benedict Vanheems

The gardens are an inspiration, but the planting is fantasy. It is far too packed in. A controversial question. I like it.

If you have any eye for design and arrangement it can translate. So not just for gardeners, no.

Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall copyright Charles Hawes

Jane Fearnely-Whittingstall.

The Korean Garden has (“Quiet Time: Korean DMZ Forbidden Garden”, designed by Jihae Hwang) – it has got a very strong emotional content, which the others haven’t. It has a universal message which is not ‘buy the champagne’. Very effective in giving its message: it nearly had me in tears.

Matthew Appleby copyright Charles Hawes

Matt Appelby

Yes. If you are not interested in gardening Chelsea is the only time you would notice it. Like the Eden Project, it’s a visitor attraction. Or like Ascot – you may still enjoy it if you’re not interested in horses.

Apart from that, horse racing journalists tend to be good at being journalists. And garden journalists don’t. They just reproduce the pr puffs. Apart from me.

Jason Ingram copyright Charles Hawes

Jason Ingram

Probably not. It’s a bit like high fashion. Milan fashion Week, for example, doesn’t offer anything achievable by anybody. People pick up little bits of it. By the time it’s reached the public it’s completely transformed.

It’s spectacle, performance. I think it’s great.

Guy Bennington copyright Charles Hawes

Guy Bennington

I guess not.

David Hurrian copyright Charles Hawes

David Hurrion

Point is it’s like a shop window. It gives a softer, more naturalistic view of the world. If people in cities see how the world can be softened by plating this is worth something.  Plants can make you feel more in scale with your environment.

Joanna Fortnam copyright Charles Hawes

Joanna Fortnam

I think they have the potential to captivate because they are beautiful, uplifting and an extreme example of their kind. They give you that emotional jolt.

Ed Cummings copyright Charles Hawes

Ed Cumming

Yeah, definitely. It’s a big art show in itself. Even to my uneducated eye it has its themes and competitiveness. Anyone can appreciate that. You can enjoy going round an art gallery without being an oil painter.

Marianne Majerus copyright Charles Hawes

Marianne Majerus

Yes, lots of relevance. Particularly the natural with a contemporary twist may draw people’s attention to the relation between the natural world and gardens. Gardens like this Telegraph Garden ( Sarah Price) raise interesting questions..

Nigel Colburn copyright Charles Hawes

Nigel Colburn

Obviously they do – the tv coverage demonstrates that. Though as a gardener they are of limited use to me. Just the odd good idea.

It’s pleasing to see them – the line, form and changes of texture, just as it would be in an art exhibition. A valuable contribution. People love gardens…

John Hurt copyright Charles Hawes

John Hurt

They are beautiful. It’s one of the great forms of design, three dimensional with touch. They are all a touch tasteful..

I do like the very fragile, delicate moving flowers.

Dr. Noel Kingsbury copyright Charles Hawes

Noel Kingsbury

Yes, it’s an insight into the gardening world – and some of the absurd stuff. It might give people a hook into gardening to see what goes on in a world they don’t usually engage with.

Mary Keen copyright Charles Hawes

Mary Keen

Yes, because they are spectacle and they cost an absolute bomb and people are always interested in money. They cost about half a million and then get thrown away, and that is disgusting.

Sophie Raworth copyright Charles Hawes

Sophie Raworth

Yes, totally. You can get all kinds of inspiration. It’s about how to create beautiful spaces and they are very cleverly done. The cleverest are those which look as if they’ve just sprung up. They are artworks.

Darryl Moore copyright Charles Hawes

Darryl Moore

It’s an event – people come to see what it’s about. There is a lot to offer. Top garden design should be there alongside all the other major disciplines. Do people recognise that? It is on prime time television. Maybe it’s seen as part of our culture. ‘A nation of gardeners’. It’s a cross between lifestyle and culture.

Corinne Julius copyright Charles Hawes

Corinne Julius

The Korean garden does. It shows that a garden can be a philosophical statement. It is moving and thoughtful, direct but not rubbing your nose in it.

The finish of the garden is extraordinary – for example, the military buttons are exquisitely arranged. The dog tag bench changes your perception and makes you think about design. I understand the designer finds that plants are her medium because everyone understands plants.

Did you know there are two blackbirds nesting in the garden? – proves her point that nature can reconcile the ravages of war and unify a nation. Quite a lot for a garden to say.


By Anne Wareham with thanks to all contributors. And the photographer.

Charles Hawes

See also

Victoria Summerley on Chelsea judging

Other show pieces

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Adam May 29, 2012 at 10:10 pm

Perhaps the Chelsea Flower Show should be renamed the Chelsea Garden Show, judging by the strong media focus on the show gardens at the expense of the ‘Flowers’ in the marquee. There we find a feast of awesome colour ..gorgeous lilies, clematis, paeonies, Diascia’s , roses…the list goes on as does the exuberence and excitement of all the lovely flowers.
Sadly one goes outside and the focus is on the bones of a garden, the structure , the hard landscaping, with the planting not in any way reflecting what was being shown in the marquee. This year we saw lots of, for me, rather twanky and dreary meadowesque planting or else severely disciplined planting in respect to colour, .the copper tone in the Homebase garden, purples and pink in another. The only gardens that seemed to be erring to the colourful were the Prof Dunnett and Arne Maynard gardens.
I therefore wonder who we should be listening to or emulating ..the designers or the nurserymen and women who exhibit in the tent ? What are the public spending their gardening pound on ? Do they like colourful exuberance or not ?



Paul Ridley May 25, 2012 at 2:46 pm

Hmm – interesting question, but a bit superfluous, surely? Why should show gardens aim to hold any interest for the non-gardening public, when the gardening public clearly runs to sufficient in number to keep Chelsea viable as a show and as a RHS money-spinner. It’s like asking me if the Cup Final has anything to offer – with zero appreciation of the game or the effort that goes into it, no idea of whether what I would observe were good or bad football I’m simply not in a position to comment. Fortunately there are plenty of others who do take sufficient interest to keep the whole bloated football enterprise on a roll. Presumably non-gardeners can give an opinion on what they like or don’t, and if they become gardeners as a result of exposure to the Chelsea show then I’m sure the RHS would be delighted, as would all of us, but show gardens are theatre and art installation rolled into one, and as such divorced from gardening reality. You might be interested in a couple of my blog posts – one following this year’s show, another from a couple of years ago exploring the cultural significance of the show garden:


Emmon June 6, 2012 at 3:02 pm

Hi Paul – I understand what you’re saying, and would only add that, as a product designer, my “take” is that viewing any field from an outside perspective illuminates, reveals, and often leads to innovation. I’ve believed this ever since reading Leonard Bernstein’s “The Unanswered Question”, where he wrote about music from the viewpoint of a linguist. (I learned more about music principles from that book than any other — and those principles extend to other fields as well.)

I think Anne’s question points in that direction: toward meaning and insight. In a reverse garden story, John Lasseter at Pixar, during the making of Bug’s Life, took his team away from film and into a garden. They ended up pointing a tiny camera up from the ground through the leaves and grass, and were stunned by the light. It led to a movie that helped change how animated films are made.

At Chelsea, many were moved by a garden that was inspired, not by gardening, but by Korean politics and military. The next great garden innovation, I believe, will probably come from outside the world of gardening.


Emmon June 8, 2012 at 12:48 pm

ps: I was STUNNED to learn that Jihae Hwang, who designed Korean DMZ garden is — according to the BBC World Service — “not a landscape artist by training. Hwang studied fine art and worked on sculptures, mosaics and murals for public spaces.”

This just reinforces for me something I heard two years ago in an interview with an American designer: “the next great idea/innovation in your industry will come from outside your industry.”

BBC story:


Emmon May 25, 2012 at 1:05 pm

Hi Anne – Have you seen ANY other garden that makes a statement along the lines of the Korean DMZ garden? I can’t think of a single one! Sculptures, yes! (Henry Moore’s sculpture of atomic energy at the Univ. of Chicago, where Fermi conducted nuclear fission for the first time in history, makes a statement!). But gardens?


Vanessa Gardner Nagel May 24, 2012 at 10:26 pm

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your respondents comments, Anne, (and seeing the photos). I couldn’t agree more that gardens are opportunities for expression. One of the questions I have had for years on my garden design questionnaire is “Do you have a personal philosophy you’d like to express with your garden?” Like your experiences, very few people “get it” – even other garden designers. Such a missed opportunity for having a deeper connection to our gardens.


Leo May 23, 2012 at 9:28 pm

I took my wife to Chelsea for the first ime this year. She is the perfect demographic. She can name 5 flowers – daisy, daffodil, snowdrop, rose and peony. She does not understand the processes that lead to Cleve’s finished product. But then she doesn’t care because she can tell me that she likes that water feature, that wall, that hedge, that scent or that ‘knobbly trunk’ and that it should be in our new garden. She hit the nail on the head yesterday by calling Chelsea ‘garden porn’. She’s right, however, she is much happier with me watching this kind of ‘porn’ unlike the sort on my laptop.

Sadly, her main interest is celebrity gossip/fashion. But if Chelsea can make her go ‘Ooooooo’ and ‘Ahhhhhhh’ like Cannes did a few years ago, then horticulturalists and designers are keeping people like my wife interested.

Most importantly, it inflates our ego when we have the chance to show off our encyclopedic plant knowledge and discerning design eye to the layman. Don’t lie to yourself, we all do it.


John May 23, 2012 at 5:28 pm

The “Phillistine” pops up again!

The show gardens are not of interest to this gardener. Take that scaffolding tower created by Durmot Murnaghan. How am I supposed to translate any of that to my garden? And what if someone at the top needed to use the loo?

And what is the point of all the show gardens if the hoi-polloi like me can only view and photograph them from a distance. Gardens are not oil paintings; they are something living, breathing, smelling things which can only be truly appreciated from within. Frankly, I can get closer to an oil painting in the museum in Cardiff than I can to a show garden at Chelsea.

I have photos of the garden at Vedw but I’m looking forward to immersing myself in it next month (it will be open on 5 June, Anne, won’t it). Only then will I stand any chance of appreciating it. And if I don’t find a weed (ground elder are not weeds at Vedw) somewhere I will be very disappointed indeed. Which is another thing – the show gardens are too perfect.

I’ve seen Twitterings that indicate that some people failed to appreciate the Korean Garden next to the scaffolding monstrosity (that’s what I think it is and I’m not changing my view). People thought it was Gravel’s rubbish dump!

And other Twitterings indicate that someone has got an idea from a show garden. What percentage of plants in the show gardens are flowering as they would do in the real world?

Chelsea is a stage-managed show for some; a social get-together for others. (This year, from voluminous photos, there also seems to have been a John Hurt cloning experiment.) Simples. Which is why I don’t bother to go.


Emmon May 23, 2012 at 7:04 pm

John – SO interesting you chose not to go, and your reasons make sense. I’d want to get close to the gardens too! From a photographic standpoint alone, I usually like getting in close to a subject. I see more that way.


Susan in the Pink Hat May 22, 2012 at 9:05 pm

That homeless man looks a lot like John Hurt.

One question from this Chelsea neophyte: I understand that the show gardens are incredibly expensive because of the rush and the fully grown plants and what-not. Cleve West said his cost £250,000. How much of the expense goes to the plants and how much of it is “hardscaping”?


Helen May 22, 2012 at 6:51 pm

Interesting. I’m not a fan of chelsea and I prefer to watch on TV rather than battle the crowds. However, I was struck on Sunday with the red irises in Jow Swifts garden which was exactly the light bulb moment I needed for tying a border together. Whether I would get that from another forum I dont know.

Having said that I think a lot of the general public just like watching the fantasy of it all – just a kind of reality programme really, pretty plants and gardens, bit of controversy – all good tv


Emmon May 22, 2012 at 6:29 pm

What a really insightful question to ask! I like Ed Cummings answer: “You can enjoy going round an art gallery without being an oil painter.”


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