Taste and Themes at Chelsea by Daniel Bristow

May 5, 2016

in Articles, Events, General Interest, Shows

Quite a few of us have ideas about themes and taste at Chelsea (see ‘Do themes help?). But we rarely hear a critical comment from a designer who is actually showing a garden at Chelsea. It takes bottle.

Here is Daniel Bristow, (“Propagating Dan”)with his first garden at Chelsea this year, speaking out for thinkingardens.

Anne Wareham, editor

PS My sympathy for those who have been refused press passes to Chelsea. If it’s any consolation, there seem to be a lot of you.

Anne Wareham Portrait, copyright John Kingdon

Daniel Bristow:


What’s in a theme? The commonest query I get asked when I tell people that I’m designing a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show is “Oh, what’s your theme then?” Unfortunately, I really dislike the question.

Why should a garden design have an overt message? Does the visitor really need to cling on to an external motif to have an engagement with our creations? It is so reductive. Would we be able to shoehorn a Henry Moore, Virginia Woolf or Igor Stravinsky creation into a neat ‘theme’? What about layers of inspirations? Surely, you take in the work and respond to it. So the same should be said of garden design. It shouldn’t be neatly dissectible into its constituent parts, this plant ‘symbolising the battlefields of the first world war’, this winding pathway embodying ‘the path to recovery for a former drug addict’. It’s so embarrassing.


A creative use of sculpture at RHS Chelsea Flower Show, 2012.

We, as garden designers, should of course try to create feelings and sensations in the visitor, but this has to be done directly through the medium we’re working with, not via a guidebook. To be honest, the art world, with which I have had fleeting relationships over the years, suffers a similar malaise. I don’t want to have to read the blurb on the wall to understand that the reason we’re looking at a stooped papier mâché gorilla is something to do with a long-debunked theory penned by Nietzsche’s godson. It should speak to me (not the gorilla, literally, mind) itself. But at least, in the art world, real critics do exist. They surely would tear apart the dour, worthy figurative sculptures that ‘adorn’ many a show garden. Let’s put sculpture in that is fresh, or seamless, or even jarring, not these dreadful Giacometti pastiches that somehow pass without comment.


Along with tenuous metaphors and third-rate sculpture, my current unholy trinity of garden design bugbears is taste. I think taste is the enemy of creativity. I love walking past front gardens in council estates or suburbs, seeing what their owners have come up with using unsuspecting plants or materials. A brick wall where lobelias have been planted into the round hollows in the top brick course. An unnatural array of various decorative aggregates, arranged into neat lines. A yucca that’s had its lower leaves curled back on themselves and tied in so that the plant resembles a pineapple.

Yucca ananananifolia Copyright Laura Mannering. @shitgardens


This is where I see creativity. It’s not necessarily cohesive, or even considered, but I find these interventions infinitely more pleasurable than yet another show garden with polished stone and slick lines.

It seems to me that the big budget show gardens want to pander to the lowest common denominator. Their designer’s rough-hewn ideas have all been smoothed off, leaving a smooth but soulless experience. They mostly even use all the same plants. There are countless incredible plant species that deserve an outing in show gardens, but are ignored for the current on-trend Iris or Digitalis. How dull.

In the garden we’re designing at Chelsea this year, I’m trying to explore the further possibilities of garden design. I love juxtaposing various influences, whether from nature or south London suburbia. I’d prefer to fail having tried something new rather than get a gold medal for ticking all the boxes. To revive that old art school cliché, it’s better to have strong reactions both positive and negative, than have everyone say “that’s nice”.

Daniel Bristow

Website here

Daniel K17A7158

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Cheryl Cummings May 18, 2016 at 6:00 pm

I have an idea! Wouldn’t this whole ‘big money sponsorship equals safe gardens’ issue be resolved if the RHS stopped awarding medals at Chelsea? That way designers and landscapers could just actually show what wonderful gardens they’re capable of creating and nurseries could show the plants they’re proudest of without the overwhelming pressure to provide the sponsor with their money’s worth gold medal.
There might be very few willing sponsors of course, it’s just a thought……

John May 18, 2016 at 7:53 pm

Good thinking. After all, how many times has a people’s choice matched that of the judges? Judges tick boxes. People have taste. Sponsors get advertising on the BBC whether or not they get a medal. And the hordes pushing around the showground probably don’t give a damn who the sponsor is (or the designer for that matter). I often wonder what percentage of them, if asked, could say what the definition of “horticulture” is.

Beth May 11, 2016 at 5:06 pm

After checking the link, it is clear that Ms. Madl is actually a spammer. I would delete this whole thread….

annewareham May 11, 2016 at 5:28 pm


Charlie B May 8, 2016 at 6:44 pm

Very interesting article and Thankyou Daniel for writing it… Having produced 3 show gardens for RHS Shows and observed the gardens that are awarded the top marks and those awarded the lowest, I’m afraid it maybe the marking system that is a big issue here, with a massive dollop of ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know’… Having a flair for creativity will not win you good standing in the showing world, sticking to a strict ‘client brief’ and cliched hard landscaping formula will. Having chucked a 1980s Rolls Royce into a road verge, having hand planted every single wild flower and then receiving a Bronze and a very Poe faced judges response, ironically from a judge well known in the industry for some of the largest contracts in show garden hard landscaping, you start to lose your will to be ‘different’ to step outside the themed cliches. I consistently get marked down on my show gardens and truly believe it’s not because they are really crap, why invite me back if they were ( both the BBC and GWL having used images of my gardens to market their products)…..but because I haven’t yet understood the RULES.

Stick to the theme, clients brief, stick to lots of hardlandscaping and tired planting choices…stick to the desired programme. Creativity isn’t marketable, remember big shows are just money making schemes for sponsors and trade stands. You can only step outside the box when you’ve won enough influence. Sad but true.

annewareham May 8, 2016 at 11:15 pm

This is really difficult (- amongst other things): that if you are sidelined or rejected for reasons you think are worth discussion, you are inevitably caught by knowing people may think there were good reasons for the rejection which have nothing to do with your discussion. And yet, you may actually be spot on with a confrontation that needs making.

Keep going, Charlie and make your confrontation. In fact – expand it, on here as a separate post? Xxx Ed.

Peter denton May 8, 2016 at 11:58 am

Sometimes people without a natural eye for art need a helping hand to tease out facets we might otherwise miss .
I do know what I like and don’t like though .
I like fish that swim against the tide.

Helen May 8, 2016 at 10:13 am

Good article. I personally think the show gardens are an exaggeration of professionally designed gardens per se. I have yet to visit a garden professionally designed which has, for me, a spirit or soul. For me that extra something comes from the interaction of the creator with the garden and is a very rare thing.

I find the show gardens interesting as I like to see how plants have been combined to create an effect but for me they are one minute wonders that are meant to be only viewed for a limited period of time unlike a painting, sculpture or real garden.

Ben Probert May 7, 2016 at 11:43 am

Welcome, dear friend, to the club of horticulture’s great blasphemers.

You simply CANNOT criticise the Chelsea Flower Show; to do so is to foul the sweet smells of the GREATEST FLOWER SHOW ON EARTH! How can you DARE to do such a thing? How? Hang your head in shame.

Bull***t. Chelsea is to gardening what the Chelsea bun is to baking; sickly sweet, nice occasionally but quickly becomes nauseating, and much as a Chelsea bun is broadly speaking bread with a bit of icing on top so the Chelsea Flower Show is a veneer of sweet goo with little substance. Oh the horticultural elite will tell you it’s a melting pot of the very best in gardening, but actually it’s a spectator event and has no more lasting relevance to horticulture than a B&Q ‘garden centre’.

Bold words? If Chelsea was truly about creating working gardens that show the designer at their very best then gardens would be marked on their multi-seasonal interest, with the judges not only marking the garden on what’s in flower now but also on how the designer has included interest for the other three seasons! Would you design a garden that costs a fortune but only looks good for two weeks a year? Your clients wouldn’t be too pleased if you did! Chelsea is just about the event itself.

You mention the repetition of plants across the show gardens… to a degree this is down to the season and what will perform, but also there is too much reliance on a small number of nurseries who use designers (apparently it’s called ‘working with…’) to flog the plants that they have chosen to stock. Crocus tells designers they have a particular plant that will be great at Chelsea, the designers use it in their gardens, the media picks up on it as a trend and features it ad nauseum then as luck would have it Crocus have plants in stock ready to shift. Meanwhile, in the floral marquee where Crocus (and the like) has no influence, thousands of superb garden plants are shown to perfection but barely get a glimpse. You could show the world’s finest plant in the floral marquee and nobody would care.

Kudos to Crocus for their marketing savvy, but it doesn’t make for ingenuity or creativity at the one event that is supposed to lead the way.

Charlie B May 8, 2016 at 6:46 pm

Brilliant response.

Solomon Cale May 7, 2016 at 9:55 am

Let’s hear it for creativity. I’m not sure I agree that art should always speak to you without any explanation, but i am sure that being able to examine any work in detail can add to my appreciation rather than detract from it. With those qualifications I find this a very refreshing article and look forward to seeing the garden you create.

Liz Hughes May 6, 2016 at 3:46 pm

Breath of fresh air – can’t wait to see it in the flesh

adam skinner May 6, 2016 at 10:45 am

Thank you, thank you, thank you. I agree absolutely, apart from the poor old yucca, though the website address at the bottom of the photograph is a clue. So here we are , Chelsea again, and obscene amounts of money spent on gardens, sponsored by multinational companies who don’t pay UK tax. How about a ban on sponsors who are registered offshore?
Also , possibly, shortage of press cards because too many ‘celebrities’ to crowbar in. How about a ban on celebrities who don’t pay their tax in the UK?

Robin May 8, 2016 at 5:23 pm

Just followed the link to the source of the yucca pineapples – @shitgardens is on Instagram and seems to be an Oz based warm appreciation of “bad” and kitsch gardens. Well worth a quick tour.

Helen Gazeley May 6, 2016 at 10:43 am

Box-ticking… I’ve just realised what this makes me think of. It’s the “teaching to the test” that goes on in schools, to ensure the schools get good results that reflect well on them. So, the RHS is going to lean towards gardens that they’ll feel confident will make them look good, even if they are rather “safe”. That’s probably inevitable – and perhaps, finally, I’ve found a reason for the Fresh garden category being at Chelsea (in an attempt to stop being quite so safe) when it seems to veer into Hampton Court territory.

charles hawes May 6, 2016 at 10:33 am

What a great and brave piece! It almost gives me some regret that I had not applied to go to Chelsea this year. And I thought the Yucca pineapple was great fun – transforming an otherwise dreary plant.

Catherine Stewart May 5, 2016 at 11:16 pm

Bravo Daniel! Or should that be Brave Daniel? I am heartily sick of nice, although ‘tasteful’ would be worse. Speaking as a Chelsea watcher from the other side of the world, the same-same look of gardens in recent years has been quite depressing, both at Chelsea and at other word-class shows. And the theme statements remind me of my daughter being required for her final year high school art submission to write a lengthy artist’s statement about her work. ‘Out of my head’ wouldn’t do so she spent over a week making up something plausible.
However your comments also raise the question of why designers are building show gardens. As a piece of art, or to market their businesses and that of their suppliers and sponsors? We’d like to think its the former, but realistically it has to be mostly about the latter. Unless you’re designing for a fully funded show, like the Singapore Garden Festival. Aren’t these so-called themes just a way of disguising that commercial reality so everyone feels a little more comfortable?

Solomon Cale May 7, 2016 at 9:57 am

“Out of my head” was good enough for Samuel Coleridge when he wrote Kublai Khan – so should be good enough for your daughter too 🙂

Charlie B May 8, 2016 at 7:04 pm

In response to that, some of us build them because we love it… With my tragic medal tally I’m surprised I still want to do them. There is a definite split between the low end insects, like myself who beg, borrow and steal to put on an exhibit, where blood, sweat and tears have gone into the process and the big end ‘names’ who have a monopoly on the large corporate sponsorship deals. Last yr the Hampton court RHS flagship garden designer upped and went AWOL, leaving his building team in panic and left to finish it…. The big end names don’t have to worry anymore about cash flow, or whether they will receive anyother commission….because they will.

Katherine Crouch May 5, 2016 at 9:57 pm

Yes, here’s to gardens that are just gardens with panache and creativity and no unnecessary agendas. Sadly I have just learnt today that I have been consigned to the ranks of the Chelsea Monday undesirables…….grrrr….will now have to listen to lots of gushing on the BBC instead.

Sarah Coles May 5, 2016 at 8:51 pm

Oh dear. Wish you’d used another example to make your point. When I see those leaves on that contorted Yucca Pineapple I feel as uncomfortable as the plant itself must be.

Martin May 5, 2016 at 7:23 pm

“I love walking past front gardens in council estates or suburbs” – you make it sound like a day excursion to see the poor people and their uncoordinated and random attempts at trying to make a garden: Bless them. Poor as church mice, completely tasteless, but so very very creative darling.

I see gardens like this everyday and so what I mainly want to see at Chelsea are expensive beautifully-finished tasteful beige show-pieces, as unlike my everyday experience as possible. In short; escapism.

I would like to see variety from Chelsea, but I also like “that’s nice” and box ticking, because it gets rather exhausting to be either absolutely hating or loving everything. And you should like those tasteful gardens too, because then your garden will stand out all the more and I hope it does.
Thank you for writing the above too.

Daniel Bristow May 6, 2016 at 3:02 pm

I don’t quite understand your last paragraph, Martin, but just wanted to clarify that I have lived in a shared flat in Peckham, South-East London since 2001 so seeing these fun uses of outdoor space are not excursions. I really enjoy taking inspiration from what I see but perhaps creating a more cohesive space around them.
Also, I don’t want to confuse taste with professionalism. I’m all for beautifully executed designs, I’d just like some ideas in them for a change.
Come and say hello if you’re coming to the show!

Martin May 7, 2016 at 11:40 am

I think when curating for a show like Chelsea, which has an audience with such a wide range of horticultural and design knowledge, the majority of exhibits need to be ‘nice’ and ‘tasteful’ with only a few new/challenging ideas so that the new becomes a talking point – too many ideas and the show becomes a Tower of Babel for the majority and only discernible by the knowledgeable…who are very much in a minority. Similarly in a garden, where at any one moment the majority of plants are supporting cast not the stars. So, I would say it is in your interest that the rest of the gardens are ‘tasteful’ so your garden will stand out all the more.

I was being facetious about the council estates as I see too many glossy photographs saying how wonderful the poor people are when they are just the same as the rich people, but with a lot less money – and of course their gardens don’t have such high fences so you can see inside more easily. To be fair, sell a garage in London and you can by half a street up here in the north east so it’s all relative.

I visited Chelsea in 2000 and enjoyed it, but not so much that I’ve been back since. I now look at the internet comments/coverage and the odd magazine article. However, I will be watching out for how you use Field Horsetail, which is such a visually exciting plant, and far easier to design around in the garden than eradicate.

Paul Steer May 5, 2016 at 5:44 pm

What a refreshing article – hope your garden gets featured on TV coverage as that’s the only way I’ll get to see it – unless Charles Hawes or Anne takes some photographs – and feature it here ?

annewareham May 5, 2016 at 6:00 pm

Sorry, Paul – we haven’t applied this year.

Helen Gazeley May 6, 2016 at 10:35 am

I’ll put some photos up on my blog.

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