Chelsea 2010 – Do Chelsea gardens benefit from having “themes”? by Anne Wareham

October 28, 2010

in Events, Shows

Anne Wareham, editor:

I got an email from Graham Rice, responding to my interest in theming (ie. making gardens based on a theme) at Chelsea:

“Just been watching the video of Chelsea on the Guardian’s website…

And my question is this: Why do all these gardens have to be metaphors for something else? Why can’t gardens simply be beautiful for the way they are – the art being in making them that way on different levels. Perhaps surprisingly, Chelsea can do that.

Ten or perhaps fifteen years ago the Telegraph did a garden that was, basically, no more than a facing pair of herbaceous borders. Backed with yew hedges, it worked in terms of the calming symmetry of its structure, this structure framed a contrasting planting environment (sorry, it framed two facing herbaceous borders, designed by John Metcalf) whose harmonious tones more than satisfied our need for connected and integrated colouring, and this drew us into an examination of the poise and the challenging detail of each individual beautifully grown plant.

It worked on those three levels – without the need to represent anything other than what it was. OK, it was no more a real garden than any other Chelsea garden of the last 20 or 30 years. But it did have a connection with the real world that visitors could both admire as a showpiece and from which they could draw endless inspiration for their own, less exalted, surroundings.

Compare the sad spectacle of Christopher Bradley-Hole’s impressive show garden recreated at Wisley where it looks lost, with no real life – impossible to populate with real life.”

Chelsea 2010 Copyright Anne Wareham 1

As someone who champions garden with meaning I have been confused by my own repulsion at so much of the ‘metaphor’ stuff at Chelsea, and find myself in sympathy with this view, expressed, as you can see, by a polar opposite to me – a plantsman.

So I decided to try to make sense of this by interviewing people at Chelsea about the issue of theming.

It was interesting, though I did gain the impression that most people had never thought much about it, so they may have had more, or different, things to say if they had had time for reflection.

Some people thought of the different types of garden – ‘Courtyard’ ‘Urban’ etc as the themes (those are the categories) whereas the themes are those things which vary from “Dyslexia” – as in “the opening in the wall is partly blocked by books, depicting the barrier to learning that reading can be to dyslexia sufferers” to “The Naturally Fashionable Garden” – “inspired by the bold, artistic movement of the fashion industry”. Oh, or a representation of a section of the Leeds-Liverpool canal.

I was lucky to speak to Geoff Whiten (garden designer, Chairman of Garden Media Guild) first, who remembers pre –theming days:

“Years ago you would put a scheme on the back of an envelope and the RHS would accept it. Now whatever you do, it has to have a theme – though the RHS don’t inflict a particular theme on you (unlike Chaumont .ed)

But actually, every garden does have a theme …”


Chelsea 2010 Copyright Anne Wareham 1036
Adam Pasco (editor Gardener’s World Magazine) then told me just why the theming has arisen:

“It gives the visitor an ‘entrance’, though what grates with me is that because a garden can have a name it gets the name of the sponsor.

It can highlight the designer’s creativity if they can bring a theme to life. And if you have the right theme it can make the garden appear more popular than it is – for example, biodiversity will get good PR for the story it tells.

Chelsea needs tv, so you need to catch the tv producer’s eye by giving them a story. It’s not necessarily about ‘take home’ but wanting to get people talking – controversy.
Someone has paid for the garden so they need some kind of reward, especially press coverage. The designer has to think about the marketing.

Why are celebrities involved? To get their charity promoted. Helps create a photo op for the garden.

The designers want kudos and medal, so they want a sponsor with a budget that will bring a dream to life – meaning a big budget. It would be interesting to see the relationship between the budget and medals. It’s an expensive show to exhibit in.”

Chelsea 2010 Copyright Anne Wareham 1007
I then had a rather confused conversation with Laetitia Maklouf, Mark DiaconoLucy Hall (deputy editor Gardener’s World Magazine) and Emma Townshend (Independent on Sunday’s garden columnist)

“It’s useful for the designer to work to a theme, they need to tell a story.. the public doesn’t know what a garden is about without.. it helps you remember which garden is which. Some things need signposting.

People don’t have concepts in their own gardens. Yes they do – Japanese bits and so on. A garden for most people is just a place to sit and to eat, they don’t think about things like themes..

Are concepts meant to spread out into ordinary gardens? That’s what’s interesting about Chris Young’s book “Take Chelsea Home”. How on earth can you do that? You need help to be able to..

It’s all about where a garden sits in people’s life, whether you think about it or just experience it…”

This discussion then broke down into one of the usual quarrels between Anne and Laetitia and everyone fled…


Several interviews followed. I met Darryl Moore between a Leeds and Liverpool canal lock and a garden based on Candide:

“That has become a problem. Show gardens have become Disneyfied especially at Hampton Court. They’ve become a spectacle. Cheesy.

Would be better if they became more spectacular! Get people’s imaginations going. There’s a problem with a perceived need to be tasteful.

Candide is a wonderfully ironic theme for a finance company. The narrative works here!”

But we looked in vain for representations of the Lisbon earthquake, which would also have been so horribly resonant. What we got instead was:

Chelsea 2010 Copyright Anne Wareham 1006 (Small)


Tim Richardson (eminent garden writer and critic) thought

“the more abstract and symbolic themes were usually quite hidden but it is difficult to generalise and make blanket judgments as to whether themes are ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

Overall I rather like themes in show gardens — it provides a narrative, which can be fun and interesting for visitors, and may also reveal something of the designers’ personalities.

I don’t agree that conceptual gardens have become as cliched as cottage gardens in their way (see below .ed) – that’s an exceptionally jaundiced outlook! Many of the more banal gardens at Chelsea and elsewhere are unthemed, of course, though I’m not saying they all are.

It’s an interesting question which also plays into the whole question of class assumptions and gardening in this country, because self-consciously thoughtful or (heaven forbid) “intellectual” gardens are thought quite beyond the pale by many (usually lady) gardeners in the Shires who want to keep elite horticulture to themselves.”

Cleve West thought that “annoyingly, it is helpful unless you have a really strong idea of your own. He thought it was more help to the designer than to the public.” He also pointed me to this garden, for which I was grateful, The Easigrass Garden, Tony Smith:

Chelsea 2010 Copyright Anne Wareham 1022 (Small) (2)



Stephen Lacey thought that “it is helpful having a clear idea what each garden is about – that it helps the judges. Without the themes the judges would have to judge the gardens more in relation to each other, rather than in terms of how well they have interpreted their theme, so it would become more competitive. At present the only competitive aspect really is the ‘Best in Show’.”

He also pointed out that it delivers variety. “Without themes the gardens would be just pretty gardens, whereas the themes mean designers have to find a subject which is slightly out of the ordinary.” (You might think that the same merit would apply if people used themes in domestic gardens? Interesting thought…)

Chelsea 2010 Copyright Anne Wareham 1023


Camilla Phelps (editor of BBC Learning Campaigns websites and a freelance garden writer) thinks that “there are two types of themes. Some have political point, and given that it is a public exhibition that is quite appropriate. And then there is the ‘could I try that at home?’ approach. It helps the visitors to remember which garden is which. If you remember the theme or the name you can Google it to remind you of it later.”

She would “like to see more conceptual interpretations as Chelsea is a luxury show and the perfect place to play with concepts and ideas. We agreed that Conceptual gardens have somehow become as stereotyped in their way as Cottage gardens…”

Chelsea Flower Show 2010 - Image 8

Juliet Roberts (editor of Gardens Illustrated) sees the issue, as she acknowledged, through the eyes of an editor:

“themes help the RHS differentiate the gardens and so helps them to craft the show: a statement of intent is needed to prevent chaos and enable the organisers to design the show as a whole.

You also want the designers to indicate what they aim to achieve and hopefully then to do it, to show that they know what they are doing.”


Charlotte Rowe, a London garden designer, who was holding the fort at the Society of Garden Designer’s stand, thinks

“that the themes give a frame of reference for the visitors to remember a garden by. I believe that show gardens need to be show quality, but outside shows I don’t like themed gardens. Gardens should be fit for purpose and fit their space.”

And I received a brave tweet or two from Stephen Parker

“ gives the designers parameters to design within and cater to the sponsors…therein lies the problem of Chelsea..

Imagine a Chelsea without sponsorship and designers given free reign…
fantastic……genuine unfettered creativity and designers that never show now as they cannot get sponsorship..

show gardens based on thoughts and designs…not demands of sponsors…horticultural world would leap a century or two forward…”


And so to Victoria Summerley, journalist, editor for the Independent and garden blogger, who said that she

“is looking for integrity and something real, rather than contrivance which doesn’t speak to the heart or the head.

For example, it is possible to convey what depression is actually like – it may not be pretty, but it can be expressed in a garden. Or James Wong’s garden works, because he is sorting plants scientifically, which has a truth to it.”

My talk with Victoria clarified the issue a good deal for me, just with her words: integrity and real, in opposition to contrivance. Themes or concepts can lift a garden – a show garden or any garden – into something greater than decorative, interesting or beautiful. But this is an undervalued, under considered aspect of gardens. So it seems that often when people make a stab at it they are clumsy, they fail to properly engage their heart or their head and the results are embarrassingly contrived.

To make a garden which speaks to the heart and the head as well as the eyes and senses is a rare and wonderful achievement. Rarely found at Chelsea?


Anne Wareham

Anne Wareham Portrait, copyright John Kingdon





From James Alexander-Sinclair: Themes in show gardens are all very well. If done correctly they help with sponsorship, they draw attention to the human stories behind the gardens, they allow charities to promote themselves and they help the public to read the designs.

However, it is a little like a finely balanced see-saw. The garden element must always be stronger than the theme: as soon as the designer/sponsor allows the theme to dominate then all is lost. From there it is a slippery slope at the bottom of which lie the shredded remains of what might have been.

Never let your theme eat your garden.

From Michelle Chapman: Personally, I believe if used in the right way a theme can help to provide focus for the garden. It can be tempting to add lots of features and plants in a design because the designer really wants to show their worth. Having a theme can help to simplify things down to the key elements which really work well together. Agreed, it doesn’t work in all cases, but I think the Thrive garden at this year’s Chelsea is an example of where a theme really works well, delivering a great garden for Thrive’s key messages and showcasing the talent of Jo Thompson, the designer.

“Having spoken to Jo and also Mark Gregory (whose garden for The Children’s Society is another great example of a themed garden which works well) before and during the show, it’s clear that they have both used their head and heart when designing their show gardens. Both have done their research well and have a thorough understanding of their respective clients (i.e. the charity sponsor), but also have a very clear image in their minds of a second client, i.e. the person or family who would ultimately be using the end result. It’s this clarity of thinking which gives both of these gardens heart (and lack of gimmickry) and are, in my view, examples of gardens which would work well outside the show garden arena.”

From Susan Wright:

“There was a fashion, do you remember, for the same sort of theming for interiors – a Moroccan look – all terracotta and chrome yellow, or Italian – strings of garlic, Tuscan colours (what they?) and Pavarotti CD on the player?

I HATE themed rooms.  Gardens too though I can understand that at Chelsea it’s easier to identify a particular one by a name.  Wouldn’t a number do just as well?”

From Ursula Buchan: “Yes I think so,  but not compulsory; more about design interpretation than excessive emphasis on title. I feel the execution and skill of the design is more important than the title, which should only be a guide…. like the title of a fiction book might do no more than mark one aspect of a character or event.”

From Dominic Elsom:

“I read with interest your article: Chelsea 2010 – Do Chelsea gardens benefit from having ‘themes’?

The ‘show junta’ at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show seem to use themes as a form of ‘horticultural Valium’ to calm and reassure the patrons of the show that nothing exhibited will challenge or (dare I say it) shock them. Rather than an informative, inspirational or thought provoking experience, Chelsea seems to have become a Disneyland for middleclass 40, 50 or 60 something gardeners, with themes acting to suppress any hint of individuality on the part of garden designers. The ‘theme’ combined with the sponsorship required to undertake a show garden are undoubtedly restraining Chelsea from being the cutting edge world-class show it should be.

Before arriving on the Monday at Chelsea most of us already knew what the ‘important’ gardens would look like: Big balls of box, pleached hornbeam hedging, still pond/canal or perhaps uber-cool overflowing spout, foxgloves (white and purple), cottage planting restrained and caged by low box hedging etc, etc. The Australian garden contained big palms, a barbeque and bikini girls in a hot tub – who could have guessed it!

My main concern is that the ‘theme framework’ is too rigid at Chelsea and although themes play a part in most garden designer’s early vision, it is essential that they are able to develop and enhance that vision as the work progresses. We only have to look at the x-ray images of many great masters’ artworks to see how the original image or idea was painted over, changed and revived by the artist during the creative process. What I fear most about ‘themes’ at the Chelsea Flower Show is that garden designers will begin to work ‘within themselves’ if the creative process is contained by a theme and is not allowed to evolve during the design process.”


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