We don’t seem to have heard so much of the garden festival at Chaumont recently – or is it simply that I don’t read enough of the garden media? It is clearly still going on its colourful, wonderfully French way and I’m very happy to have an excellent review of this year’s gardens from Anne Hanley.
It should, of course, strictly speaking be called the Chaumont-sur-Loire Garden Festival but everyone seems to just call it ‘Chaumont’.
Anne Wareham, editor
The International Garden Festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire overlaps with Chelsea and is often billed as its French equivalent. The comparison couldn’t be more flawed. Approaching Chaumont – as I did this year for the first time – it’s crucial to get the words ‘flower show’ out of your head.
Chaumont isn’t about flowers. Plants and planting play – on the whole – a walk-on role. The stars here are ideas, concepts and flights of fancy. Which can be excruciating. But whether you’re cringing in embarrassment or tingling with pleasure – and I did both as I sauntered through the 26 show gardens – Chaumont will constantly force the garden lover and garden designer (as opposed to the fan of avant-garde whimsy for its own sake) to ask serious questions about what makes a garden a garden. And that can’t be a bad thing.
The festival sets limits for its competitors: the bell-shaped, 210 square metre plots all come with high hornbeam boundaries. The themes – this year’s is ‘Gardens of Delight, Gardens of Delirium’ – point designers in some vague direction. (I listened in delight as a nursery school teacher tried to explain ‘Delirium tremens’ – the title of one garden – to her bemused three-year-old charges: she needn’t have bothered because the garden in question failed to evoke even mild tipsiness to me.)
But it imposes a weighty freedom too: unlike Chelsea with its too-good-to-be-true, three-day-event, instant gardens, Chaumont burdens its competitors with six months of growth, development and evolution. On show from April to October, these plots change constantly. What I witnessed in mid-May will bear little relationship to what autumn visitors experience. Which may go some way towards explaining competitors’ desperate reliance on structural elements rather than potentially temperamental vegetation.
Some of these heavily structure-dependent gardens are among the least impressive. A rather faded (already?) plywood cake fills the centre of the garden called ‘En patisserie, tout est permis’.
(“The pastry-maker dreams of being an architect and the gardener a seeker of savours,” read the notes in the press pack. “Oh dear,” I’ve scribbled in the margin.) I keep hoping a scantily-clad something will explode from the cake because I’m pretty sure nothing so exciting will happen to the bits of bamboo and tulle-wrapped bay balls around. In ‘Orange mechanique’, from Spain, a large, dazzling orange spiral in flimsy plastic winds forlornly around nothing much at all. “Enjoying a nice juicy orange in this particular garden would be delightful indeed but here, in this season, it would be pure delirium!” say the notes. I’m still wondering why.
Yet stand-out structures can also work. In ‘Emeraude’, a French team has cheated somewhat, filling most of its space with a towering adobe cube; here, however, jungly planting around, and emerging from the top of the cube promises to transform it, as the summer wears on, into some kind of long-forgotten prehistoric wonder. And in ‘Sens dessus dessous’, a multi-coloured palissade twisting around to a raised observation platform really does look joyful amid deep green planting which will, one suspects, tumble over it beautifully as the season progresses, softening the huge model poppies which lend the garden another playground note.
Elsewhere it’s individual elements that constitute the gardens’ USP.
A host of blue butterflies on long sticks,waving slightly above a hornbeam hedge in ‘Le jardin bleu’, is full of charming promise: inside, the blue-tinged rugs on the ground and the wiggly copper wiring in the middle of a bit of gravel and some young eucalypts doesn’t quite deliver.
A forest of vermillion-painted canes for climbing vegetables, with metal bottle tops strung on long strings between them in ‘Le calendrier des sept lunes’ is a lovely idea
which I fully intend to snaffle for my vegetable garden; elsewhere in the garden, someone appears to have dumped a load of unwanted lumber. Seed packets galore strung on contorted bits of rusting metal rods fail singularly to conceal the fact that the garden they’re suspended above is pedestrian.
As you progress around the festival, ‘statement’ gardens can begin beguiling you, to the point where the few gardens which would actually work in the real world stand out rather oddly – at once a moment’s relief and, however attractive, almost a let-down. An Italian team has produced ‘Locus genii, le genie est partout’,
an azure-tinged moorish fantasy which would work beautifully as the back garden of some boutique B&B (real chairs! to sit on! wonderful!). From the US comes ‘Le jardin des renards rouges’, a slick contemporary design which would do credit to the back yard of any hi-tech company HQ (but what’s with the cut-out red foxes?)
Yet in hindsight, they’re extraordinarily comforting, as are all those festival-inspired considerations which, in the final analysis, confirm what we knew all along. Elements which enhance (giant poppies),
good; elements which impose and seek to conceal a lacuna (seed packets), bad. (above) Structures which belong, effortlessly, to their environment (prehistoric adobe), good; structures glorying in themselves with desultory bits of vegetation around (orange peel), bad. And a garden, to be a garden, should, on some level, be a place you’d like to be in, and not just a thing to look at – and certainly, as is the case too often here – not something that has you bursting into guilty giggles.
A word of advice to visitors: it’s best, I found, to look at the garden and only then decide whether to read the pseudo-philosophical ramblings of the gardens’ creators, posted outside each. If you like the design, give the explanation a miss, or risk being put off. I still don’t know what Big Idea lay behind my favourite ‘Paradis terrestre’ – a misty, marshy Irish creation, half Middle Earth, half leprechaun’s lair.
Swirling iron work, Fortuny-ish scarlet lanterns, mysteriously ferny, frondy planting and a giant mossy pod-seat swinging in the centre for anyone agile enough to climb in and curl up: I’m not sure about delirium, but plenty of delight.