Garden Hero at Chelsea by Simon Webster

June 5, 2013

in Articles, Chelsea 2013 Competition

Post image for Garden Hero at Chelsea by Simon Webster

Garden Hero’s entry for the thinkingardens Chelsea 2013 competition…

Anne Wareham, editor

Christopher Bradley-Hole Chelsea 2013 copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

Would Garden Hero say it to his face?

Garden Hero’s reflections…

I received a book last Christmas – 1001 gardens to see before you die – which in reality would mean that I would have to see one a week for the next 20 years, which is highly unlikely given the location of some of them. If the book had been called 1001 SHOW gardens to see before you die, I very much doubt that many, if any, of this year’s exhibits at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show would have made it in there.

There’s an annual argument over whether Chelsea is relevant, whether it displays best horticultural whatsits etc; but for me, it’s always about the Show gardens – perhaps that’s because my entry into the world of horticulture has been from the angle of a designer rather than a gardener – and I look at the Chelsea Flower Show for inspiration, and often aspiration.

I’ll draw my mind back to 2010 – a year that Andy Sturgeon won Best in Show for his wonderful Telegraph Garden – this was the year that had a real sense of magic about it, which sparked me into wanting to become a part of this – the scale of the show or the work involved didn’t faze me, it inspired me, excited me – something which continued to the show at 2011, when another of my all-time favourites, Cleve West’s (again Telegraph) Best in Show brought a real sense of tranquility to the proceedings – a real antidote to some of the more cramped offerings on show (Bunny Guinness anyone?)…and gave me so much to think about in terms of show garden design – about being transported to a different place, a different emotion.]

I talk about ‘show garden’ design, as opposed to ‘garden’ design – there is one hell of a difference – and let’s not forget that my background dictates in a less than subtle manner my desire to produce pieces of ‘theatre’ and also observe them as such – and think about how they will be observed, physically and metaphorically.

Jinny Blom's garden Chelsea 2013 copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

Jinny Blom’s garden Chelsea 2013

Jinny Blom’s 2013 garden – yes, that one – was quite simply horrendous, both in terms of scale and proportion, and flow throughout. If one was to go in it, the majority of the garden would have to be observed from one single area – that area being a giant (far too giant in fact) grey walnut whip. I had hoped that once I saw it for real, my apprehension towards it would diminish, but it didn’t – it only reinforced my dislike. It’s all very well if a ‘show’ garden ticks all the boxes in terms of judging criteria – but the overriding factor should be one of ‘overall comprehension’ or rather, a big large tick box at the bottom of the score sheet – is the garden in fact completely awful? YES or NO?

Talking of observation, the ‘controversy’ surrounding Christopher Bradley- Hole’s garden talk is also to me somewhat out of proportion. While his garden was exquisite in its execution and accuracy/quality of planting – for me it missed a trick as a ‘show’ garden for one important reason – a similar reason that caused Diarmuid Gavin’s mighty erection some dysfunction last year – it was designed to be viewed from the raised walkway, where one could contemplate and be whisked to the landscape it depicted. The problem? The public couldn’t view it from there – so it became somewhat akin to viewing a slice of green battenburg, with some expensive oak scaffolding around it (an echo of his 2004 Hortus Conclusus garden perhaps).

Sorry CBH – not a best in show for me – the Aussie’s got it  because theirs was pretty epic in scale and endeavour. I do agree however, that this award should be renamed – I still wouldn’t say the Aussie’s was ‘best’ in the show – but as a ‘judges choice’ – unsurprising.

_MG_6807 Telegraph garden Chelsea 2013 copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

Christopher Bradley-Hole’s garden. Loved it! (ed.)

What did I think was ‘best’ in show? For once, I can’t comment – I felt there was nothing truly head and shoulders above another. Nothing has stuck in my mind this year, nothing that gave me that sense of awe or inspiration, or taken me to a different place in the way that Andy Sturgeon did in 2010 (and 2012), Cleve West did in 2011/2012, and Jo Thompson did with the wonderful story of Doris (2012 also). Sorry Jo, I felt you deserved a better medal this year! Roger Platt’s, while pretty damn good, seemed somewhat reminiscent of his 2010 garden, so didn’t win any new praise from me because of that.

I doubt Chelsea will ever lose its ‘RHS pinnacle’ tag to that of the larger Hampton Court Show, but there’s becoming a clear distinction between styles of show gardens at both – Chelsea can’t take itself for granted. Anoushka Feiler’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ was one hell of a spectacle at HC 2012– a fabulous showpiece – transplant that to Chelsea, and it would not only have looked amazing, but would have gathered ten times as much praise and media attention as it received at Hampton Court.

As a centenary show then, it didn’t do it for me. But hey – what do I know? I’m still at the tadpole stage where it comes to designing for shows, but I’d like to think that given a budget like those on Main Avenue, the big ‘is it actually completely rubbish?’ box at the bottom of the judges score sheet would have the tick firmly next to the ‘NO.’

One point about this year – was it just me or did there seem to be an abundance of trade stands mixed in with the gardens themselves? It didn’t seem to flow as well this year, and felt a lot more commercial – hell, even the show catalogue has doubled in price since last year!

Simon Webster 


Simon Webster portrait

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