Away from the hype and hubbub of Chelsea’s Main Avenue, two categories of show garden highlight the newest talent and the most innovative ideas in garden design. These are the Artisan and Fresh gardens. Many famous designers cut their teeth here, where the cost of staging a garden is less and the scope to push boundaries is greater. Some graduate to the big show gardens, whilst others are content to stay and play, year after year.
The Artisan Gardens, seven in all this year, are strung out along the shady length of the Serpentine Walk and are major attractions for showgoers. The smaller gardens here are intended to engage visitors with their artistic and naturalistic approach. They tend to be traditional, vernacular and less esoteric, designs with which British gardeners will feel instant empathy. If I have any beef it’s that there is a tendency for them to become overly twee; masterly recreations of traditional British gardens comprising stone walls encrusted with moss and packed with a riot of cottage garden flowers.
Breaking this stereotype for a new years has been Kazuyuki Ishihara, who with his incredible style, exuberance and attention to detail has fast become a Chelsea legend. Mr Ishihara is one of Japan’s best known landscape artists and gardening personalities. Maving mastered Ikenobo, the purest form of Ikebana (a Japanese style of floral arrangement), his tiny flower shop in Shianbashi Nagasaki became the highest grossing florist per square metre in Japan. In 2004, Mr Ishihara created his first garden at Chelsea where he won a silver gilt medal and then from 2005 to 2007 he won three consecutive golds. Not a bad start. Using flowers, greenery and traditional hard landscaping materials he continually expresses the Japanese spirit and identity through his work and this year won both a gold medal and the award for Best Artisan Garden. As always the composition of button mosses, acers and irises around a scaled-down tea house and water wheel was rendered impeccably, clearly guided by a gentleman who understands one of the world’s most precise forms of artistry.
A few gardens away, one of Mr Ishihara’s students, Shuko Noda, created his first ever Chelsea garden entitled ‘Arita’. He won silver gilt, just like his teacher ten years previously. The town of Arita in the Saga Prefecture is where Japanese Imari porcelain is made. This artisan craft was represented by ceramic spheres, tiles and bowls within the garden. In contrast to his tutor’s design, Mr Noda’s garden was consciously contemporary with an elegant modernist pavilion, pale stone paving and rolling swathes of moss. The planting was carefully contrived to echo the rich colours and natural imagery depicted on the porcelain’s smooth surface.
In complete contrast The Topiarist’s Garden, by Marylyn Abbott of West Green House, was a space designed for a theoretical gardener influenced by the tradition of ‘Topia Opera’ – or fancy gardening to you and I. What was so striking about this garden was the quality of the building or ‘bothy’, which looked as if it could have been sheltering below the trees of Ranelagh Gardens for hundreds of years. In fact it had been there for less than two weeks. The clever twist in Marylyn’s garden was that pots of bulbs, annuals and perennials could be placed within the framework of box hedges to create constantly evolving display. Balancing the need for structure and seasonal interest in a small garden is big challenge and this was an inspired way in which to achieve it.
Brooding, black water was not confined to the main show gardens and appeared as the focal point of the Tour de Yorkshire garden. This year the Tour de France has its Grand Départ in God’s Own County and Alistair Baldwin celebrated with a garden evocative of the moors over which the elite cyclists will toil. An elliptical pond fashioned from Corian, and looking rather too much like a very posh bathtub, had its surface broken by a discreet circle of tiny bubbles. In a nod to the prestigious event, the York stone wall at the back of the plot was adorned with bicycle wheels reclaimed from recycling centres around Yorkshire. Iris sibirica, which must have appeared in over a third of all show gardens, featured here alongside yew, ferns and thalictrums.
I will leave you tonight with this detail of a stepping stone, inspired by Nordic rune stones, part of the Viking Cruises Norse Artisan Garden.