One of the things I like about the Chelsea Flower Show is that it encourages one to think about naming one’s own garden areas, or designer conservatories, in more imaginative ways. What I dislike about the Flower Show is that the cult of perfection also has a way of making you feel depressed about the state of your own garden – despite the thousands spent to date trying to make it even presentable.
But the Chelsea garden names are often ingenious. Even the names of the garden ‘rooms’ at Sissinghurst are frankly, pretty dull: The White Room, The Herb Garden, The Rose Garden; but then when Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicolson were designing and creating Sissinghurst from the 1930s, there wasn’t much competition from aggressive and cut-throat retailers, banks and even off-shore tax centres (Monaco had a garden at Chelsea some years ago) spending six figure sums to create a garden with a name (it helps if a charity is a co-sponsor) that suddenly discovers the the poetic, sensual and creative ‘side’ to a bank or corporation. Thus The Homebase Garden is called ‘Time to Reflect’ – when the ethos of the DIY superstore is hardly slow-lane retail traffic.
Another trend this year is the blurring between the outdoor and indoor designer space. Greenhouses used to be places you grew tomatoes and orchids. No longer. Now Marston & Langinger have created an outdoor living room of a greenhouse which is so chic, huge and expensive that, despite being made from glass and powder coated bespoke aluminium, it is called their ‘Grand Dining Room’. At £142,000, it is the price of a sizeable house in Scotland. This stand alone glass palace can seat thirty comfortably for dinner.
Another company called Khora have built an enormous glass Rotunda dome conservatory, inspired by The Palm House at Kew, which is fit for a Sultan and several hareems. Fittingly, display cases of opulent ‘Anoushka’ jewellery are displayed for the benefit of Black Amex carrying Chelsea.
But as a PR gimmick, or marketing tool, creating a garden or conservatory that evokes the senses can be clever and effective as it allows clients and potential new customers to enjoy an emotional connection with a brand or organisation that they may have struggled to connect with otherwise.
To my mind, the most successful gardens at The Chelsea Flower Show are those that become a living and aesthetic extension of the existing brand rather than those that try to use a Chelsea pop up garden to deflect from the public perception of a brand.
The art of the grape
This year, the two most successful are both gardens that chicly celebrate the art of the grape. The first is the Cloudy Bay ‘Sensory Garden’ (pictured below) – designed by Wilson McWilliam Studio in London. The garden is witty, unexpected, romantic, classical, quirky, playful, as well as being a little wild and even the limited space allows the visitor to embark on a vineyard tour of the senses – with the colour, planting and palate of the garden evoking the ‘diverse yet refined’ character of the terroir of New Zealand’s Marlborough wine region.
‘We have tried to emulate a classic and romantic English garden by choosing plants that are suitable for planting in England in all weathers’ said designer Gavin McWilliam at the opening.
‘We ran into trouble with some red Iris that we had planted which were meant to have conveyed the depth of the colour and palate of the pinot noir so we had to change these to English roses as we got closer to opening. Making such choices and adaptability to conditions is exactly what wine makers have to do every day – so we hope the garden has an authentic New World winery feel as well as having elements that make it a classic Chelsea garden’.
The garden evokes an English summer meadow with planting that includes Gertrude Jekyll roses and Jude the Obscure roses, ‘Dutch chocolate’ Iris, Bowl of Beauty Paeonia and Hadspen Blood Baptista australis. The garden reveals how enjoyment of wine is all about connecting with other senses – food, landscape (the limestone wall and other features of the garden are being moved to the roof terrace of Harvey Nichols after the show) the EM Forster philosophy of how the senses are best appreciated and enjoyed when they all ‘connect’.
The combination not only complements the idea of the Cloudy Bay brand as being the sort of wine anybody would like to enjoy after work in their own garden – the Flower Show also includes the pleasantly shaded Cloudy Bay Bar on South Ranelagh Way – but also succeeds in educating wine lovers about the range of Cloudy Bay wines beyond New Zealand’s iconic Sauvignon Blanc of which doubtless dozens of official cases were drunk on the recent Royal tour.
Cloudy Bay Sauvignon is to New Zealand what Sir Peter Michael’s iconic chardonnay (as served at the White House and Buckingham Palace) is to Napa Valley. The idea is that visitors to the garden are ‘immersed’ in a ‘full sensory experience’ with limestone (evoking ‘mineral notes’), and charred oak (a ‘note’ often referred to in tasting Pinot Noir) being used to accentuate the wide palate of colours and textures found in the various varieties of Cloudy Bay wine.
As the garden celebrates a classic New World wine (now owned by the Moet group) it seems only fitting that a small stream winds through the garden, almost wanting you to tip your glass into it and wash it before moving onto the next tasting wine. There is a latent symbolism of water/wine and natural wellbeing that flows through this very special garden.
The other garden that works so well – also using water as a symbol of life and creative energy – is the Laurent Perrier garden, once again designed by Luciano Giubbilei, who won Best In Show this year. And rightfully. The sculptured feel of the Perrier carden, punctuated by a bold use of topiary and the most immaculate yew hedge I have ever seen is a work of art that brings out the complex and sophisticated structure of the Laurent-Perrier champagne grape, effortlessly associating the champagne brand with a chic outdoor garden space that appeals to all the senses.
Depression-inducing yew hedge
Seeing the immaculate state of the eight foot high Laurent Perrier yew hedge – erected by Crocus in under a week – frankly made me depressed. Back home, I recently spent a month putting in what was meant to be a Perrier-style immaculate yew courtyard.
But for some reason the wrong height yews arrived – around 1.8m-2m high, and uneven in height. They will take at least three years to establish although I am glad to report the yew trees do perform their main function which is to work as a enclosed ‘pug prison’. We call it The Pug Garden.
This is due to a need to create an Alcatraz environment around the rear of the house for my wife’s new pug puppy called Thimble (Thimbelina in full). We very sadly lost her first dear pug puppy called Damson, who fatally escaped from the garden during the Lear-like storms, gales and floods that raged at Upton Cressett back in February. I prefer to forget the incident now but anybody wishing to know more can read an account in the Mail on Sunday.
Our new garden at Upton Cressett has been making progress thanks to the work of our landscape designer Lindsay Bousfield. She may not be well known for her Chelsea Gardens but she used to tun her own highly regarded nursery so there is very little about growing and planting that she doesn’t not know. This cannot always be said for the more contemporary landscape designer who like to work in abstract pebbles, water and slate probably can’t tell an Iris sibirica from an Iris germanica.
Lindsay is a throwback to the days of Edwardian gardeners like Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson who not only designed gardens for clients but also did much of the planting themselves – as opposed to using the sort of fancy contractors (such as Crocus) that are preferred by most Chelsea Garden designers today.
It was Gertrude Jekyll who first pioneered the use of permanently planted perennials – as opposed to a vibrant kaleidoscope of bedding flowers such as petunia and amaranthus lifted out the hot-house – which could be planted ‘artistically’ and with disciplined planting schemes.
According to Kelways’ Gardens of Delight manual (the Edwardian planting bible) Jekyll’s new planting technique (which involved ‘double digging’ and other laborious soil preparation techniques) suggested that ‘for every flower that thrived with heat and constant coaxing there were 50 still lovelier that thrived in ordinary fresh air and that flowered with greater vigour, colour and scent’.
So, working towards this noble ambition, we now have recently dug two huge new Gatehouse Lawn borders that have taken a month alone – just to prepare and another month to plant. The 3 metre wide borders were inspired by a visit last year to Hampton Court by Lindsay, who used to run her own nursery for many years.
Lindsay arrives each day with her huge dog ‘Hank’, who is tied to a long blue rope like a medieval bear whilst she digs and plants away like a modern incarnation of Gertrude Jekyll. Her hours are erratic but long – often stretching into the night, working under the moonlight.
The other night, my wife Laura was just locking up the house to go to bed around 10.30 pm when she was nearly pounced on by Hank in the pitch black outside the front door – all I heard was a shrieking noise as Laura saw this giant Baskerville-style beast rearing up towards her. Only to find Lindsay still toiling away in the garden planting her armies of Delphiniums and Clematis.
It is refreshing to know that there are still landscape designers working today who are of the Gertrude Jekyll school – and know how to use a trowel and spade.