This is the entry which won first prize in the 2013 Thinkingardens Competition for an article about Chelsea Flower Show in its centenary year. Congratulations, Lucy!
Anne Wareham, editor
Chelsea: What kind of dream? by Lucy Masters
The Show Gardens are the centre piece of RHS Chelsea and hundreds crush and queue to see them. They are what most of the television and magazine coverage focuses on and are used as inspiration and demonstration of what makes a garden beautiful, what it is we should aspire to.
Of course, everyone understands these aren’t real gardens. There are the paths to and from nowhere, the benches that will never be sat on, the mirrors that reflect no one. However, this doesn’t matter because these are essential artifice that allow the true stars, the plants, a sufficiently remarkable setting. In the Show Gardens the designers create perfect plant combinations. Symphonies of contrasting yet collaborative colour. Patterns that beautifully blend tall, vigorous spikes with soft tumbling meadow flowers and even softer grasses. These are what we might dream of having in our own gardens.
However, stop for a moment and look. Haven’t we all been beguiled by the pure beauty of the planting schemes to see that an impossibility is occurring? Verbascum and Santolina, Cynara and Cirsium, those late summer bloomers are in fact flowering at the end of May. The shade lovers are sitting happily next to the sun worshipers. These planting schemes, that we hold up as the acme of all that is wonderful and desirable, cannot exist.
Does this contrivance matter? As these, after all, are just ‘Show’ Gardens. Well, I think it does. It matters because RHS Chelsea needs to be a more than just a showcase for the talents of the designers. As the horticultural event of the year one of its remits must be to encourage and inspire all gardeners. Can that realistically happen if they are promoting, advocating, marketing a false reality. The designers are creating a living picture, not a garden. That’s interesting, but it’s not what it says on the tin.
We live in a world where we are all too often sold the unobtainable. Buy this and you will look younger, plant these and your garden will be beautiful. Think of all the airbrushed models in all the magazines, is this really any different? If reality isn’t good enough, cheat it. Many of us will not realise that the planting schemes of these Show Gardens are impossible. In fact, plants from the gardens are sold together so you can ‘get the look’. The combinations will be photographed, reprinted and commented on time and again and yet never once will this anomaly be mentioned.
So yes it does matter. Personally, I want to see more gardeners in the world not less and I want those gardeners to believe that they can create and maintain gardens in all the shapes and sizes that gardens come in and to know that as long as they think that they’re beautiful, they are.