Hampton Court Health Warnings by Helen Gazeley.

June 25, 2012

in Articles, Events, General Interest, Shows

“Most artists aren’t that philosophical or conceptual. They’re just artists who work within a certain style and if you took their so-called concept into a 6th form debating society, it would be ripped to shreds.” Grayson Perry, RSA Journal, Autumn 2008.

Quite. This year, at Chelsea we saw a shining example of a garden with meaning,  the DMZ Garden, which confronted all the Conceptual Garden and Sponsored Garden’s ‘themes’ with their vacuity. Here are Helen Gazeley’s thoughts on this topic as exemplified at Hampton Court Flower Show..

Anne Wareham, editor

Five a Day copyright Helen Gazeley

Five a Day


Helen Gazeley:

Messages, messages, all is messages. Is a simple garden no longer enough? With the Hampton Court Flower Show just around the corner, we already know that plenty of messages, and wagging fingers, await among the blooms.

Early press releases tell us that we’ll be met with communiqués about conservation, political prisoners, dyslexia, communities and drug companies’ patents on plant-derived compounds.

Being a simple garden is no longer enough. We need a a reason, a campaign, a telling off; each design must “say something” to award it credibility.

Think! Cover Up copyright Helen Gazeley

Think! Cover Up


The rise of the campaigning garden swelled disproportionately, I believe, with the rise of the Conceptual Garden, a big category for Hampton Court, Britain’s largest flower show. However, the one message that emerged from last year’s show was that the distinction between Conceptual and Show Garden is now so blurred as to be invisible. Show Gardens held messages, Conceptual Gardens held messages, and the original intent of Conceptual has dwindled to no more than the desire to lecture, a “concept” that has been enthusiastically adopted by the Show Garden category.

Chris Beardshaw said, “A conceptual garden is…when all the intellectual exploration takes place; it’s the start of the journey and it should pose more questions than it offers solutions.” What actually happened was that most of these gardens asked no questions, just told us what they thought. To traverse the Garden Walk (the avenue between these categories) was to run the gamut of campaigns and politics.

Why we care about Chalk streams copyright Helen Gazeley

Why we care about chalk streams


What did we have? Why we care about Chalk Streams: overuse of water; Copella Plant and Protect: loss of native orchards; I am, because of who we are: the need for co-operation between communities and countries; World Vision: poverty; Precious Warning: problems with sustainability.

And then there were the disease gardens. Coppafeel!: breast cancer; Think! Cover Up (another dictatorial exclamation mark): wagging the finger over skin cancer. Across the Garden Walk, amongst Show Gardens, was A Matter of Urgency, highlighting the problem of Overactive Bladder. This year will be the third in a row that OAB is featured, with Bridge Over Troubled Water’s whirlpool feature. Are we not hearing what they’re saying?

A Matter of Urgency copyright Helen Gazeley

A Matter of Urgency


Many of these gardens were lovely. A Matter of Urgency had a gardening message all its own, showing that in the blazing sun brightly coloured walls work a treat with brightly coloured flowers. I am, Because of Who We Are offered a simple palette that blended colours beautifully between the plants and hard materials. But loveliness, and a demonstration of design and planting to be taken home for consideration, is no longer the main consideration.

You may think that I am exceptionally curmudgeonly. Beautiful gardens, some good ideas; let them make a point if they want. But a cloud is hanging over my anticipation of Hampton Court this year. By the time I’d seen everything in 2011, I felt brow-beaten and, frankly, depressed by all the wails of woe and calls to action. In fact, I found myself crying out, for the first time in full understanding, the Aesthetics’ mantra, “Art for Art’s Sake!” They were railing against the Victorian desire to fill paintings with moral and historical messages.

The garden that stood out above all was the entry in the Small Garden category by The British Heather Growers Association. What was it about? Heather. No message, no meaning, no campaign, just a lovely design focussing on what you could do with their favourite plant.

Heathers in Harmony copyright Helen Gazeley

Heathers in Harmony


Burgon and Ball almost achieved the same, with a display of deep-bed containers demonstrating the vegetables that could be packed into a courtyard garden. But they couldn’t resist calling it Five a Day, with overtones of Nanny State.

This year Hampton Court has a new section: World Gardens (read Travel Promotion), showcasing The Azores, Jordan, Russia and Switzerland. However, I can’t help feeling the show organisers missed a trick. Last year the disease gardens numbered half those of the category dedicated to English Poets. With a little application 2012 could have announced the Health Warning Gardens.

How appealing is that?

Helen Gazeley

Helen’s blog: Weeding the Web and twitter – @helengazeley

Helen Gazeley portrait copyright Helen Glazeley

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Gaynor Witchard July 12, 2013 at 12:41 pm

I must be the most boring garden show designer – I have no messages (equally no sponsorship!!), nothing to make to you stand back and ‘think’, no outrageous constructions where you need to hire a crane to see anything at all and no black water pools.

I just design gardens for people to use. That’s it. Maybe that’s where I’m going wrong?


annewareham July 12, 2013 at 10:21 pm

O, using a garden covers a multitude of possibilities, surely? But the show garden business is its own very weird world…


Sacha Hubbard July 5, 2012 at 5:00 pm

I don’t know if the right word is relieved but I can’t think of a better one to describe my relief at reading Helen’s article! I can’t help feeling that this current nanny/lecturing atmosphere is starting to have the reverse effect! I have no experience of garden design, other than in my own 4 or 5 but surely it must restrict designers to some extent if a garden has to send the ‘message’ a charity wants to convey with a bit of a finger wag!


kininvie July 2, 2012 at 4:45 pm

A plague on all their houses!. The fashion for show gardens with a message is a horticultural version of the charity ‘chuggers’. In the long run, they are worth nothing at all – a mere fart on the wind. If morality or message is to be contained in gardens it needs to be rather more important than an exhortation to take care of your bladder. We have gardens that tell us about order in the face of chaos; about embracing (or defying) the fallen nature of man; about power restrained or power demonstrated….None of them need to explain themselves to a paying public. They exist, just as a Beethoven symphony exists – take from them what you will.


Faisal Grant June 30, 2012 at 11:25 am

Helen, I really like where you’re coming from here. Yes, thought has to go into our actions, but when thinking takes our actions over and exists for its own sake, feeling is lost. There’s far too much politics in this world already, and one of the real joys of gardening is to get away from it. How about an ‘unpolitical’ garden – or are we all thinking so much now we don’t even know what ‘unpolitical’ means?
To me, politics and thinking and being right have absolutely nothing to do with gardening. To me, gardening is about feeling and instinct and the qualities we have within us that cannot be quantified.


Helen Gazeley June 27, 2012 at 5:43 pm

I think that’s a very good point, Elizabeth. It’s the Show element that encourages a message.

Paul, the more I hear of Grayson Perry’s opinions, the more I enjoy him. There does seem to be a human instinct to moralise or, at the very least, always draw a conclusion. But I think part of the desire to put messages into gardens is because this is, as Elizabeth says, a show. Are there any more people really interested in the nuts and bolts of gardening than there ever were? I doubt it. So to widen the appeal of plant collections and garden design, a garden has to have something else too. Unfortunately, it also implies that a garden isn’t worthy has that something else, which adds to the proliferation of messages.

Thomas, you gave me pause with that question. I think a garden should be able to exist without its message (and in my view a number of conceptual gardens can’t). However, I wouldn’t want to say that there should never be a message behind the design (unfortunately I’ve missed the widely praised DMZ garden) but I do believe the message should be a secondary consideration. Perhaps a lot of this is the fault of the media; they’re trying to attract a wider audience, so more emphasis is put on the “why”, rather than the or the “how to”.

It is a rare talent that can use visuals really well to explain a message (language evolved for a reason), so what happens is that we get preached at as the design is explained. The more we get preached at, the more gardens are seen as a substitute for a soapbox.

Most certainly the messages at Chelsea and HC are too many and too obvious. John is right that we’re getting overloaded with campaigns, and generating leaflets would make the same points more quickly and cheaply.

You have to ask what the point of a garden show – is it to showcase plants and garden design, or expose the plight of something disadvantaged (whether human, animal, insect, geographical)? As things are going, the emphasis is leaning more and more on the latter, not the former and I think there’s a danger of alienating the core audience who will be the ones left after the current fashion in gardening has died down.


Elizabeth Buckley June 29, 2012 at 11:03 am

Thanks for your response Helen; this is an interesting topic!

Previously I mentioned that show gardens with a ‘message’ are a PR dream for getting that message across to a wider public. One of the MAIN reasons they are so prolific is that it’s much easier to obtain sponsorship for them; many being designed on behalf of charities. As an unknown designer, I know I would find it virtually impossible to get sponsorship for a show garden just to showcase my design abilities.

On your point about the media putting more emphasis on the ‘why’ than the ‘how to’; we all know they just love a ‘human interest story’ and clearly think it’s what viewers want. So it’s no wonder that when covering a garden show they seize upon gardens with a ‘message’. Much easier to talk about than why a garden works from a design point of view. It’s lazy, dumbed down programme-making. Emotionalism over intellect. God forbid that we should be made to think! Yes, it’s a symptom of trying to create programmes with mass appeal and thus increase viewer numbers. Sometimes this dumbing down is taken to ridiculous lengths and it can backfire, as the BBC discovered when thousands complained about their ‘shallow as a puddle’ coverage of the Queen’s Jubilee Thames river pageant!

On the question of, ‘What is the point of a garden show?’ Yes I’d like them to be much more about design. However (and it’s a big however) I’m not sure show gardens are the best vehicle for ‘how to’. They’re not ‘real gardens’ and many of them simply would not stand the test of time if recreated in a real garden for a real client. For example, take the widespread fashion for using ‘baby’ white-stemmed Himalayan birch trees in show gardens; they don’t stay like that!

What are garden shows for? Well, rather like the way football has gone.. they’re big business generating millions in revenue. Take the way garden centres and internet plant sites jump on the band wagon urging us to ‘get the Chelsea look’. Please… give me a break! But maybe that’s a ‘soapbox’ for another time 😉


annewareham June 29, 2012 at 11:08 am

Last sentence noted Libby!


Elizabeth Buckley June 26, 2012 at 6:34 pm

A great article by Helen, I especially agree that creating and enjoying gardens for their own aesthetic beauty should NOT be considered as unworthy and indulgent. Beauty feeds our souls and creating something beautiful is enriching and incredibly rewarding; as is sharing it with others.

Back to perceived worthiness; the garden that won ‘Best in Show’ at last year’s RHS Tatton; ‘Save a Life, Drop the Knife’ was created by prison offenders and was about their journey from crime to rehabilitation.. HOWEVER it was also a great garden, brilliantly executed with excellent & rather original planting. It was a very worthy winner and the public loved it.

I feel that one of the main reasons ‘message’ show garden choice has become prolific is that show gardens by their very nature are incongruous. We view them like someone peeking over a garden wall.. mainly we are not allowed IN.. and real gardens need to be inhabited; we need to be in them to really get them and in turn they need to be congruous with their surrounding landscape. None of this is possible with a show garden; it’s all artificial smoke & mirrors. The key word is ‘SHOW’.

And add to this that the RHS marketing and press machine is a force to be reckoned with. Want to reach a wider public with an affluent demographic & attract lots of media attention? > exhibit a show garden! Tell your story… spread your message. Sponsorship/funding permitting.. it’s a PR dream!


Thomas Rainer June 26, 2012 at 5:04 pm

Is your point that gardens should not have messages? Or that messages are ok, but the ones at Chelsea/Hampton Court were too much–too in your face?


Paul Steer June 26, 2012 at 3:48 pm

I love the opening quote from the man of the moment Grayson Perry, he has haunted my life on and off since studying at Portsmouth,(vicarious name drop!) but he is a philosopher with some very astute observations on our lives.Vanity, vanity all is vanity says the teacher (not my line) This is the truth and we all love to moralise and point fingers and try to be up there with the latest trend, what a strange bunch of creatures we really are. Yes what is wrong with a garden being a garden which speaks on the level of aesthetics, about pleasing the heart and eye ? I fear we will never change… I will never change ? Good thought provoking stuff.


John June 26, 2012 at 3:02 pm

I’m wondering whether my browser has locked up as I cannot be the first to comment a day after the original (and very appropriate) post. Can I?

Anne’s introduction refers to the DMZ garden at Chelsea which has it’s own discussion elsewhere on this site. Here, it’s only important to realise that it had a message, possibly a campaigning one, which was subtle and effective, purely visual.

The average human brain can only take so much “in your face” campaigning. Indeed, the number of “e-petitions” clogging up my Twitter feed every day – often over 100 – has reached such a level that I now filter out any post that includes “Pls sign and RT” or several other similar text combinations.

I know I am not the only one who studiously avoids Chelsea because (apart from the marquees) “theatrical” has effectively replaced “flower”. If at Hampton Court “campaigning” is going to replace “gardening” would it not be far more environmentally friendly (and a lot cheaper) if people were allocated a space on the driveway whence they could hand out a leaflet and all us visitors would need to do would be to walk up the left, turn round and walk down the right before heading to the tea rooms? Even better, move the event online where we can filter out the campaining overkill from home and spend the saved time visiting NGS gardens and making a real contribution to charity.


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