Is there an inherent problem with show gardens? And can you have too much of a (maybe) good thing? Does quality shine in the most challenging circumstances? These are some of the questions raised by this piece by Wanda Oprea in her review of the permanent exhibition of show gardens at Appeltern in the Netherlands.
Anne Wareham, editor
Appeltern Gardens in the Netherlands is a bizarre place as far as the gardening world goes. Essentially, it’s a permanent exhibition park for show gardens that features an astounding 200+ individual model gardens. Exhibitors range from large suppliers in the horticultural and construction trades, to various landscape firms, to individual designers. At first glance, the concept sounds amazing. I was picturing a permanent Chelsea Flower Show with fewer crowds, more designers, and real, walk-through gardens. Unfortunately, while there are some interesting and worthwhile things at Appeltern, overall it just doesn’t work. At the end of the visit, I was left with the awful feeling that I don’t want to see another model garden for as long as I live.
Let’s start with the good things about Appeltern. The first, which may seem terribly superficial, was the maintenance. However this is managed, it’s working – the entire place was absolutely impeccable. Formal areas were perfectly trimmed and clipped, while the more natural gardens had just the right balance of contained wilderness.
There were also a few gardens that managed to rise above the crowd – an especially impressive feat in a crowd this size. One of them was Ton ter Linden’s effort (pictured below). I walked into the space not knowing the designer, and immediately loved it. It is a simple, rectangular walled garden enclosing a still, dark pool. Maybe because it is shut off from the rest of the park by tall brick walls, or maybe because it is slightly messier than its neighbors, this garden just felt more real. I was struck by the fact that it still managed to make an impression, despite being buried among countless ordinary gardens. I take it as definite proof that a good garden can succeed even in the most challenging circumstances.
Now to the bad part. It’s difficult to put a finger on what exactly is wrong at Appeltern. As I think some of the pictures show, there are some nice things here, and in fact none of the gardens were obviously “bad”. But at their core, my impression was that they all suffered from an unshakable feeling of artificiality, of “fakeness”, if you will. Clearly, the gardens are fake because of the very premise of the park. In some gardens there were obvious tacky elements, such as perfectly set entertainment areas, or a sponsor’s latest mammoth barbeque. But even gardens that tried to break the mold by offering something new and creative just seemed to be copying the latest trends.
The fact is, gardens don’t exhibit easily. Unlike other visual art forms, such as painting or sculpture, you can’t just plunk a garden down in front of a neutral background and expect it to captivate viewers. I can speculate that it’s because gardens need a link with the greater landscape, the often quoted “sense of place”. Or maybe we need to feel the presence of a real owner or creator, somebody who sits out there in the evenings with a glass of wine and dirty finger nails. Whatever the case may be, show gardens face a tough challenge, though not an impossible one as the ter Linden garden illustrates.
But perhaps the biggest downfall of Appeltern, ironically advertised as its biggest attraction, is the sheer size of the place. At 13 hectares (32 acres), it took a few hours at a brisk pace to get through it. At the end, I was simply too overwhelmed to care. Nobody can absorb this many works in one sitting (or walking), whether they be gardens or paintings. Gardens, especially, require effort to examine and experience, something we only have a finite capacity for. By the time you stumble your way to the exit, Appeltern just seems like a blur of impersonal, assembly-line show pieces. As a source of education and inspiration for the gardener, I suppose Appeltern teaches us that true gardens can’t simply be achieved with some nice paving, a few plants and tasteful outdoor decorations.
by Wanda Oprea blog: The Garden Wanderer