Show gardens: what are they for? by Wanda Oprea

April 20, 2014

in Articles, General Interest

I would like to propose that show gardens could be simply for delight, illumination or challenge – or whatever we would like a great work of art to be.

But that is still whistling in the dark. Maybe they are a form of flower arranging?

The following is what Wanda Oprea thinks. And you?

Anne Wareham, editor

Chaumont Garden Festival 2002 Chaos. Copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

Chaumont Garden Festival 2002 Chaos. Copyright Charles Hawes

Wanda Oprea

We have all been to them, in one form or another. Whether the extravagant showpieces at Chelsea, or the summer-long installations at the Chaumont-sur-Loire festival in France, show gardens attract hordes of interested visitors every year. They also take a lot of money, effort and time. So, are they worth it? What do we expect from them? Why are we sometimes (some might argue often) disappointed? Is there any way to improve them, or are they an inherently ineffective format for garden design?

I’m a relatively young gardener and, on paper, I love the idea of show gardens. I want to learn as much about gardening as I can, but I can’t always travel the world to see great gardens. To me, show gardens are an opportunity to experience the work of garden designers first hand – to be surprised, to think, to learn and hopefully to become a better gardener myself as a result.

Chaumont Garden Festival 2002 Chaos. Copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

Chaumont Garden Festival 2002 Chaos. Copyright Charles Hawes

My own experience with show gardens started in earnest at the Chelsea Flower Show. I will never forget my first visit a few years back – I was blown away.  Coming from Toronto, Canada, where the annual flower show is held at an indoor convention center and show gardens consist of clearly visible plastic pots and a plant palette limited to forced bulbs, hydrangeas and evergreens, Chelsea seemed to come from a different stratosphere.  From a purely technical standpoint, everything from the plants to the construction was of the highest quality. And I actually saw what I wanted to see – interesting plant combinations, atmospheric gardens, new materials, creativity and craftsmanship.  Of course not every garden was inspiring, but the overwhelming majority were.  Later that summer, I went to the Chaumont-sur-Loire garden festival, and I was once again impressed.  Creative, quirky gardens with interesting elements and an ‘artsy’ feel.

But… a year later when I went back to Chelsea, I found myself a little disappointed. Somehow, I felt that I’d seen it all before. Many of the gardens featured the same basic set-up, same plants and same materials as the year before. A return visit to Chaumont produced similar results. I also visited the permanent show gardens at Appeltern in the Netherlands, and found them lacking in imagination and soul. The one-time novelty of show gardens wore off incredibly quickly. I was wondering if I had learned anything from my visits, and whether show gardens were contributing anything to either public education or to moving the garden design field forward.

Chaumont Garden Festival 2002 Eroticism. Copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

Chaumont Garden Festival 2002 Eroticism. Copyright Charles Hawes

In terms of educating the gardening public, I do feel that show gardens have a role to play, but perhaps we also need to adjust our expectations. Maybe this relates a bit to the recent discussion on thinkinGardens regarding  Rory Stuart’s book, “What are gardens for?”  There are no ready-made answers, it’s about asking questions and paying attention. Show gardens aren’t, and can’t be, real gardens. They are instant and disposable, the very anti-thesis of real gardens.  But that’s fine by me, and I don’t think we should reduce their scope in an effort to make them more similar to the average garden.  Instead, we should study their message and extrapolate.

Anything from a particular combination of plants shapes, to the colour of a pond bottom could provide useful ideas. Individual elements may not be directly translatable to our own gardens, but if we have noticed something new or interesting, or are inspired to try for something better in our own backyards or design work, the job is already done.

Chaumont Garden Festival 2002 Eroticism. Copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

Chaumont Garden Festival 2002 Eroticism. Copyright Charles Hawes

On the flip side, much of the burden for improving the show garden experience rests on designers and show organisers. As mentioned, one of my big disappointments has been that all show gardens appear so similar and predictable.  What a lost opportunity, when temporary exhibitions should provide the perfect chance for breaking the mould and trying something new. I know that too much creativity may leave some visitors mystified. But building the same pleasantries year after year is not helping anyone, and creativity doesn’t necessarily mean inaccessibility.  I also think we should broaden the playing field, and allow new designers and creators in.  One thing I really appreciated at the Chaumont-sur-Loire Garden festival was the variety of garden creators, ranging from (truly) international firms, to established artists from outside the field.

Show gardens are a tough format with many potential pitfalls, but just as many opportunities.  Let us all take them seriously, not as pretty things used to amuse the public, but as real opportunities for garden innovation and discussion, for bringing the community (and not just insiders) together, and for providing the sparks to move the field forward.

Wanda Oprea

wanda oprea  Blog – The Garden Wander Blogspot


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Gaynor Witchard May 4, 2014 at 7:49 am

I’m glad you mentioned Cardiff John – the show is a world away from Chelsea, Hampton Court etc in terms of design (same shopping experience though!). As a seasoned show garden designer at Cardiff (five medals to my name) I have often wondered why I exhibit a garden to the public.

It started in 2008, when I built my first one – I thought it would be fun – and it was! With the help of my husband and some volunteers, we built a very simple garden to encourage school playgrounds, churches, halls etc. to turn unused spaces or corners into somewhere for children to start learning about how plants grew.

And so it went on from there. As a designer, my main aim is to help people develop their own private spaces into a place of of enjoyment – but my gardens HAVE to work in reality or it just becomes a piece of art (each show garden I’ve built has gone on to be constructed elsewhere, which is the greatest thrill!). Some of the plants I use in my show gardens are home grown from bulbs or seed, and from the RHS’s point of view, they must be planted in the environment they’re meant for. e.g. plants for shade must be represented in that way as if in reality – that’s where many designs fall down.

Visitors to the show may ask me to design their for them after seeing a show garden of mine, which makes good business sense too.

So what are show gardens for? All of the above from my point of view.

Tristan Gregory April 21, 2014 at 5:10 pm

With the RHS show gardens is it the judging process that results in an entirely reasonable conservatism regarding the designs and the designers? Is it perhaps a case of risking some real rubbish in the hope that you get something remarkable to balance it?

Deirdre April 20, 2014 at 6:28 pm

I agree they are theater.

I don’t know about the show gardens in England, but the ones I’ve seen in Seattle have been busy. Even the so called Zen gardens have been busy.

Annette April 20, 2014 at 2:57 pm

Hi Wanda, I feel exactly the same way. I was sooo excited when I went to Chelsea for the first time, even the second time but after that I just felt I had seen it all before. I actually was yearning for my own garden although I was surrounded by the crème de la crème of design. I think the reason for this is that a lot of designer copy or use similar materials, plants – whatever is “hip” at the time – and very few are really coming up with something new. Also I’m slightly bored when I see that the same designers come back year after year. Why not give new or less well known designers the opportunity to create a show garden? The result may be surprising. Another thing that often irritates me are the plant combinations which are supposed to inspire but would never work out in the real world.

John April 20, 2014 at 11:26 am

As a designer yourself, you view show gardens from a designer’s perspective and gain from them accordingly. As a mere amateur gardener my perspective is different: extravagant show gardens leave me cold (the more intimate ones at smaller shows such as Cardiff, with less razzmatazz, are much better).

Gardens are meant to be experienced from within, not viewed just from one side and that on the outside. Gardens should excite more senses than just sight. Gardens where every plant flowers at the same time, whether in or out of season, are extremely rare. Outside shows that is.

We might get an idea for some big lump of concrete or jumble of metal bits (Heaven forbid, though, not a pod hung from a crane or a tower manned by Chelsea Pensioners) but planting combinations are risky, particularly for the amateur who, having oohed and aahed, goes home to lovingly fail to recreate something because crocus and dahlia just don’t flower together!

Glitzy show gardens are just that – show. Like visiting an art gallery or a theatre. Watch and enjoy. And perhaps reflect on what better uses could have been found for the money thrown at them.

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