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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