What is it about the appeal of quarry-inspired gardens this year? Is because as a nation we seem determined to dig ourselves into the deepest hole possible? Is it because we feel stuck between a rock and hard place? Or have we suddenly discovered our inner Stone Age selves? Whatever it is, a second quarry garden has won Best in Show at the RHS Chatsworth Flower Show, cementing stone as the landscaping material of the moment.
To celebrate the centenary of the Institute of Quarrying, garden designer Paul Hervey-Brookes was commissioned to design one of the largest show gardens ever presented at an RHS show. Measuring a generous 4500 square feet, the garden is inspired by the requirements of a professional couple who have built a modern house, and who are inspired by brutalist form. All I can say is that it must have been a very impressive house and that the clients’ brutalist brief was fulfilled in spades.
Although the IQ Quarry Garden was not without its prettier side, beautifully realised with jagged rocks and foaming flowers, the attraction ended for me where the plants petered out. A deep, sunken pool at the centre of the garden was filled with reeds and intended to look ‘stark, yet beautifully serene’. The effect for me was a little bleak and the reeds reminded me of hair sprouting from somewhere that it ought not to. Then came vast expanses of Derbyshire gritstone and Corten steel, fashioned into an austerely sculptural piece measuring 8ft x 30ft. At this point, all I could imagine was the set for a Bond villain’s lair, with the distinct possibility that the reed bed might also double as a piranha pond for the purpose of returning secret agents to nature.
As an advertisement for the pivotal role of mineral extraction in construction the garden was exemplary, but I found it too large and too hard to have much empathy with the overall design. I could accept this, but not the choice of garden furniture, which was very pedestrian for such a stylish garden. If one’s going to ‘do’ brutalist, one needs to go the whole hog. Even if it had existed at the time, I don’t imagine Le Corbusier would have plumped for faux rattan.
I am being unkind, I know, but this garden won gold and therefore should have been perfection. Had the wind and rain not thrashed the planting at the front of the plot, the soft landscaping certainly would have been as good as it gets. A palette of pale pinks, mauves, blues and soft yellows associated well with hefty shards of mottled slate and huge slabs of grey concrete that segmented the garden. There were also lovely textures, varying from tight clumps of sedge and epimedium to billowing clouds of birch and oak leaves. The prevailing weather on press day, fulfilling the stereotype that ‘it’s grim up north’, did a grand job of providing more movement and drama than money could buy. I pitied the poor female model, painted head to toe in copper body paint, who had been hired to cower against the Corten steel and dip her toes tentatively into the concrete piranha pond. I was willing someone to offer her their coat.
Make no mistake, this was an impressive garden, skillfully realised. For me, the enormous scale took away from what could have been an attractive idea for an urban garden. There was simply too much ‘hard’ and not enough ‘soft’, with insufficient blending of the two and not enough consideration for how such a space might practically be used. I have a feeling that the fictional professional couple might find themselves hankering after a soft patch of lawn and something decent to sit on before too long. The balance was struck much more deftly in Sam Ovens’ A Classic Re-imagined garden for Wedgwood, which would have been my personal choice for Best in Show. Both gardens celebrated the beauty and honesty of quarried materials, but I preferred it when plants were given the upper hand.
For those of you who can’t take another quarry garden, I am pleased to report there are none planned for Hampton Court in a month’s time. However, water and water conservation will continue to be a big theme at this show and expect to see more monolithic protrusions, such as those in the Brownfield – Metamorphosis Garden designed by Martyn Wilson. TFG.