Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show. “Soft Chelsea” by Michaeljon Ashworth
Sono veramente contenta che il mio caro amico Michaeljon, raffinato storico dei giardini e appassionato botanico, abbia accettato di scrivere per il mio blog e per i miei lettori un post di riflessioni sull’ultima edizione del Chelsea Flower Show. Sono come leggerete, e mi scuso ma ho pensato che la traduzione avrebbe sacrificato la spontaneità e l’ironia di Michaeljon, delle riflessioni molto personali e acute sul significato degli show gardens con qualche interessante proposta per il futuro.
MJ mi ha mandato qualche foto ma se volete avere una panoramica di tutti i giardini che sono stati esposti potete consultare il sito http://www.rhs.org.uk/shows-events/rhs-chelsea-flower-show
I am at home in rosey June reading the notes I made at Chelsea Flower Show. Was it good? Yes, it was. Did I enjoy it? Yes,I did. Was there anything new or different in a significant sense? Yes, there was. I am not sure if I can define it but “soft” seems right as strong encounters with world famous designers were absent and new entries making gardens for the very first time were noticeable and in quantity. I shall name them later as these notes are a series of reflections made at the show (and revised later) and the names mean little this year but maybe, in the future… Soft also suggests to me material that can be formed into something new and different. Yes I saw raw material and young designers and above all everything I would expect to see at the “Greatest Flower Show” on earth. I am never certain I believe that but it is part of the mythology and legend of the event. A social and media event. Champagne tents and three hours a day on television thanks to the BBC gardening people.
I’ll go with media and feel safe to write freely as this year’s episode of the Chelsea “soap” is over. I am addicted but with once a year transmission I feel no particular problem! I go for the atmosphere, sense of occasion, shopping, oh! Yes, and the gardens and flowers too! I go to remind myself just how high the standards and quality are. English gardening is about horticulture over design and with the vast array of plants available I sometimes dream of “plant free” gardening for designing with something alive and growing means that the biggest element in the garden design is TIME. Chelsea is an illusion set up from May 1st for just one week when real gardeners know that in real gardens we have a year of seasons and weather annually.
Back to Chelsea which stimulated all these thoughts. Its real marvel is The Great Pavilion with the floral and nursery displays. The whole gardeners’ world creates stands and the colour, the variety, rarity and novelty seem too much at the tired end of a long day. Too much until I imagine less. Chelsea has enchanted me for many years and seeing anything related to gardens is a very big part of my life. The whole point of Chelsea is that it is too big, too crowded, too rich, too much and too impossible. I go to look at the other side of gardening where I never want to be. In English we have the expression: “to see how the other half lives” well at Chelsea I see how the other half gardens.
Now. I had a big question with me at Chelsea. Here is the question. “When is a garden not a garden?” Answer: “When it is a Show Garden. The problem about my question rests with etymology. Most English houses have “gardens”. Sometimes made by “Capability” Brown and sometimes by Ikea. Most English gardens have houses. Sometimes (well once) called “Buckingham Palace” and sometimes called number 7. There simply is not enough words to give one to each scale or style of garden. Therefore a definition of “garden” probably requires a book.
I saw 16 Show Gardens at Chelsea this year. How many can I remember? The answer is few. They are all the same size (10x20m) and with this week in mind tend to have a very similar range of plants and flowers. They are also designed to be full of interest (or just full) and therefore crowded. Their design becomes a question of organisation and their difference becomes a question of what the sponsor can afford by way of artefacts, sculpture, water features and archistructure.
I saw 16 high quality creations designed to last a whole week. I saw a fascinated crowd around each one and television cameras. The name “Show Garden” seems magnetic. “Show” is easily their purpose and they also showcase their designers. But garden? First of all the word garden and how much do the show versions agree with it? As far as I am concerned any garden worth visiting is a work of art and unique because I can actually penetrate it and move around inside it ( and take photographs!!!). Come on. How many of you dear readers remember the scene in Mary Poppins when they jump into and move around in the fantasy landscape? I’d love to jump into a Chelsea Show Garden even without Mary Poppins.
I feel that in the broadest design terms a garden is a balance between Space and Enclosure. Open and enclosed areas. Parts enclosed are hidden until discovered through exploration with surprise. What a garden contains is not important it is how it is incorporated and why it is chosen that matter. Plants are there, artefacts and maybe sculpture (be warned! the high price of quality sculpture tempts people to use rubbish- even at Chelsea so it is the sculptural use of objects which can be low value that is more likely to be successful.) In a real garden and one less grand than Chelsea there is furniture, toys, pet animal houses, rubbish containers, laundry (perennial), barbecues, jacuzzis and dare I say it ?People. The life of the family fertilises the garden. The family! Ah , yes! A garden should contain a house. Ok. In the case of a houseless show garden I would say that the show garden should convey the location of its absent house and declare its orientation and position.
We can’t have houses and hidden enclosures and people at Chelsea and I have never seen a football. I wonder if the new generation of Chelsea gardeners will make things different? If a show garden occupied two adjacent plots then we could immediately walk through it and penetrate it. If a raised viewing platform were made then there could be secret enclosure. Soft gardens is good. It is where I am at ease. Young designers! In particular I call to the twentysomething brothers , Harry and David Rich because I loved their evocation of their native Wales in 2013 (not a show garden) and this year they created a naturalistic homage to the night sky. Well, I failed to notice the night sky but the naturalistic planting was refined. In twenty years they will be the age of Luciano Giubbilei (Chelsea’s adopted Italian) who won gold medal and best show garden. Two not very surprising Chelsea awards but don’t go away Rich brothers. In 30 years the age of Cleve West who produced the boring show sponsor’s garden. Boring because every year there is a garden like this “Paradise” garden. Dear Cleve please note that if a garden is called Paradise that is what I expect to see. I just saw a dry garden with a stone fountain at the centre. The other young designer is Hugo Bugg who for The Royal Bank of Canada created one of the few gardens that contained excitement. He bravely changed levels and built elevated walkways and seating areas with a lot of water. I liked his geometry which was not very soft but the provision of ways of human movement (although not permitted) is very soft and human.
Luciano’s garden was soft through its contemplative planting and there was enough evidence that when the crowds went home the atmosphere would come out to play. The Rich brothers were soft and naturalistic and for the rest there was the softness of easy to interpret similarity. Similarity for me suggests another future line for Chelsea. Why not make the show gardens a competition?
They are all the same size. If the designers ,who access the same plant material (supplied by Crocus), had a similar budget and a theme to interpret then I am convinced that the resulting gardens would look more different than they do now!
The show gardens I saw follow the same pattern every year. They are vitrines of condensed garden making on view from two sides. Like plant acquariums which I believe are called terrariums. They are not “gardens” as in real gardens but they are designed gardens, contain gardened material and are made by garden designers. Like pictures at an exhibition in three dimensions- which I would call sculpture – they fill a gallery (the Flower Show in the grounds; actually football grounds , of the Royal Hospital). They attract enormous crowds (180,000) and the design apart are variations on late spring gardening meeting the promise of early summer.
I saw everything familiar and expected at Chelsea. The English gardening tradition has produced another crop of roses, alliums, lupins and delphiniums. I saw some “beginner” Chelsea designers (a new person in English is a “newby”) in their twenties adding an important note to the cv. This could change the direction of the Chelsea soap. The big designers don’t need to be here but could be invited as guest designers. This is not after all a design show but a flower show. Horticulture is top. To the new designers I wish good luck. Useful in a soap. How they handle and maintain the Chelsea tradition is important. We wave bye bye to conceptual and vertical gardens. They are not part of the tradition. I welcome new hands and ideas to make good horticultural gardens that I will want to see in the future. Safe hands for the next 100 years of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show!