Show Gardens – Have They Lost The Plot?

Show gardens – have they lost the plot?
Their photos adorn the covers of our gardening magazines, they are written about in the weekend sections of newspapers, people jostle with each other to get the best views of them, celebs want to be seen in them and they have hours and hours of television coverage dedicated to them. But what do we really think of them?
Are they rather like the Emperor’s new clothes? Is it that the media daren’t say a bad word against them? Does the bizarre, the clever and the ridiculous have a place in our gardens?
I have visited Chelsea, Hampton Court and Gardeners World live many times over many years (I’ve even had a couple of show gardens myself). I’ve always been excited about my day out, I love the sense of occasion, the pungent flower marquees, and the exhibition stands but recently I have been disappointed by the show gardens. This got me thinking ‘what is a show garden and why do we have them?’
I started to look for the answer on the RHS website: “Every year BBC Gardeners’ World Live brings an exciting collection of Show Gardens to life in a celebration of how imagination and creativity can transform any type of outdoor space. A central focus of the Show, these gardens reflect current trends and design ideas covering a diverse range of themes which together will make up an impressive and inspiring selection for visitors to enjoy”
So, yes it was certainly imaginative use of materials, new ideas, new products, new plant varieties and new styles in planting that over the years had drawn me and my camera to the shows, but I also wanted to see a thing of beauty, to look at gorgeous planting and to really wish that I was sitting in that particular garden with a glass of wine.
So why have I been so disappointed with most of what I’ve seen this year? It’s not the quality of the workmanship and I guess that just as much work has gone into the planning and preparation of the gardens as ever, but I have to say that I really didn’t get any inspiration from the gardens at Chelsea or Hampton Court. I’m fed up with seeing naturalistic planting, it just doesn’t work for the majority of gardens, it looks a mess after a couple of weeks and they are far harder to maintain than anyone lets on. I love wild flower meadows, long grass with cut grass pathways, areas of wild flowers in a woodland area or under a tree but I don’t think that a whole garden of naturalistic planting can look attractive.
I don’t get show gardens that replicate a real place – a bit of Yorkshire, a lock-keepers cottage, a hillside in Jordan etc. Where’s the imagination in that? Which trends and ideas are they reflecting? Are we all going to rush off and buy limestone boulders and mock ruins to make our gardens look like our favourite bit of England? We’re also getting an overload of gardens pertaining to be environmentally friendly, crammed full of recycled materials, often looking like they are full of old junk and certainly not gardens that you would want next to your own.
I’m sure that there was a lack of sponsorship this year, there certainly seemed to be fewer gardens. I guess there hasn’t been as much product development either. It is expensive to build a show garden. It takes far more of the designer’s time than people imagine (Diarmuid Gavin is already working on next year’s already), the contractors have to be extremely organised and their time is 100% dedicated to the show for many weeks. So a show garden should be a showcase for the designer, it could springboard them on to major projects and even a career in the media but it could also be their downfall. I’m not sure if the adage ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’ actually holds true anymore. If you are looking for a designer is the fact that they have had a show garden enough or does it matter to you what the show garden actually looks like? Would you be inspired by seeing a garden full of bits of old metal or by flower-beds full of meadow plants?
So, interesting concepts like Diarmuid Gavin’s seven storey pyramid make for great media and give us lots to talk about but to me it goes no further than that. You could have actually walked past it at Chelsea and not even known there was a garden there – a load of old scaffolding poles is all that you saw. It was nothing like what we saw on the television with the smart Chelsea pensioners all lined up in their red uniforms. It looked great then but to the paying public it was a rip off. I don’t think that it’s me being ‘old fashioned’, It’s always interesting to see how the ‘people’ vote and yes it is usually different from how the RHS vote. ‘People’ appreciate lovely planting, they like gardens that have soul and they want ideas that they can take home and use.
I think that visitor numbers were down this year – it’s not a cheap day out, so perhaps the paying public is voting with its feet. It is my opinion that they haven’t got the mix of gardens right, they have too much of the weird and whacky and not enough of the inspirational and aspirational. I think the large show gardens are too big and that perhaps the designers have had to make compromises with their materials to keep within budget. The designs have become rather samey, you know what to expect before you even see some of the gardens. Let’s not keep having the same designers year after year and lets change it around a bit for the Daily Telegraph, M&G, Laurent & Perrier and Trailfinders by giving them different plots.
So, designers, make sure that you don’t lose the plot. Think about why you are doing a show garden and consider who your audience is. Ensure that the end product is interesting, impressive and inspiring and something for visitors to enjoy.

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