Big budget show gardens are all well and good, but it was two of Chelsea’s smaller gardens that really impressed me on Tuesday. The ‘Fresh’ category is where the RHS loosens its corset and affords designers a little more freedom, provided they remain on the right side of good horticulture. Designers are permitted to choose the shape and size of their plot (in modules measuring 3m x 3m) and are encouraged to embody an idea or concept whilst experimenting with new materials and technology. Sadly these gardens often struggle to deliver the impact of larger show gardens; not for lack of brilliance, but because they float randomly between trade stands that are attempting emulate show gardens themselves. The unfortunately stark backdrop of the Great Pavilion does not help matters. A shake up of Chelsea’s layout is long overdue and it would be good to see the Fresh garden promoted to a less confused position.
Nevertheless, in today’s featured gardens designers John Warland and Howard Miller manage to capture the current zeitgeist without being pretentious. Eye-popping fluorescent yellow and rusted steel combined with burnt orange flowers were common sights at this year’s Chelsea, whilst inky black water, bamboo and umbrella plants suggest more global influences filtering into garden design. In neither garden are flowers given centre stage. Each is completely different, and yet together they epitomise much of what is new and exciting in garden design.
I could not take my eyes off The World Vision Garden and the camera loved it too. Inspired by the beauty of rural Cambodia designer John Warland swapped rice plants for fluorescent acrylic rods, ‘planting’ them deep in a pool of dark water. Growing through and around them were frothy water buttercups, cyperus and taro plants providing shade beneath their elephantine leaves. The garden’s message is a harsh one: surviving on just two bowls of rice a day, the life of many children in Cambodia is permanently blighted by poor nutrition. Contrasting with the yellow rods, purple irises and water violets are planted to indicate that water conditions are improving enough to allow delicate plants to thrive in the paddies. As well as attracting attention with the mind bending suggestion of a reverse oasis (or should that be anti-oasis?) mirrored boxes filled with cacti are sunk into the water representing light at the end of the tunnel for the country’s impoverished rural communities.
Although this garden probably isn’t something you’d emulate at home (the water needed relentless filtering to maintain that lacquer-black appearance) it is wonderful to look at and in my view deserved better than a Silver Gilt medal. Perhaps one take-out would be the idea of planting cacti in a mirrored glass cube. If sharp drainage could be provided the light, bright habitat would be perfect for these prickly customers.
Architect Howard Miller probably thought he had the toughest brief of all when he was asked to portray the entire universe and the unidentified constituents within it using plants and rusty metal. Since I am no astrophysicist, I will not embellish what the accompanying leaflet tells me, that is without what’s known as ‘Dark Matter’ there would be no planets, stars or galaxies. Pretty dramatic news for us Earthlings. No one knows what Dark Matter is, apart from a cloud of mysterious invisible particles that float around in empty space. Its presence is only known because it is believed to bend light and create huge gravitational effects. Lost? Me too, but let’s go on ….
The garden uses wind as a metaphor for Dark Matter as it cannot be seen but its effects can. Plants have been chosen to be sensitive to the slightest breeze, so that the garden is continually moving in response to air movement. The presence of Dark Matter is reinforced by undulations in the ground, symbolised by a hollow where Dark Matter exists above it and a mound where it does not. I know now why I studied plant science and not astronomy, but evidently when the two disciplines collide the result isn’t too catastrophic. There is no explanation of the large cut-out cogs, but I like to imagine that this is what the Large Hadron Collider looks like, only shinier.
Given the rather esoteric message behind this garden, it’s just as well it’s attractive its own right. The ideas Howard Miller presents in this garden could be translated into a small urban strip, roof terrace or balcony, coming together to make an edgy, private yet usable outdoor space. There’s a boundary of bamboo, focal points in the giant rusted steel sculpture and planter, and plenty of year-round interest. The finishing touch is a bench on which to sit and contemplate the meaning of the universe. I may be some time.
The Dark Matter Garden for the National Schools’ Observatory won Best Fresh Garden and a Gold medal. How would you have judged it, and which of the two gardens do you prefer?