A well-planned garden is a sight to behold. As Spring shifts up a gear, and the borders begin to fire on all cylinders, we enter that unusual part of the gardening year where high-profile gardening shows dominate the landscape. The incredible coverage of shows like Chelsea or Hampton Court bombards our senses with images of horticultural perfection, chic design and the latest gardening style.
I have enjoyed visiting many gardening shows, although these days I find myself avoiding the crowds trying to see the show gardens, and I am more drawn towards the tents filled with specialist nurseries displaying beautifully cultivated specimens. There have been numerous heated discussions about the validity of the show gardens asking if they are achievable for most people or questioning their sustainability credentials, but these show gardens are exactly that, gardens for show. They demonstrate the designers ability to work with a brief, effortlessly combining ideas with their unique style and aesthetic sense. Most importantly these gardens give designers and construction teams a rare opportunity to try and push back the boundaries of what a garden really can be. They raise the bar for the art of gardening, making our outdoor rooms into more than just a place to kick a ball or dry the washing, but a miniature Eden, embodying concepts of philosophy, stories and beauty into one coherent whole.
I have been told the Japanese word for a garden is made of two symbols. One meaning ‘cultivated’, and the other meaning ‘wilderness’. I think this idea sums up the fundamental idea of a garden elegantly; a cultivated wilderness, striking the fine balance between control and wild. For myself, if a space has to combine both cultivated and wild elements it must therefore also contain plants. They are the essential element which can transform a utilitarian space so it can truly become a garden. It could be as small as a patio, a balcony or window box, or as large as a rolling countryside estate, but plants are uniquely capable of softening the hard edges of the built environment and introducing a vibrancy and life into an otherwise dead space. The pinnacle of good planting is often seen as the herbaceous border; the most quintessential part of what is often seen as an ‘English garden’. Revered by most of us as the height of plantsmanship in the garden, they are testament to the skills of those that tend them, with beautifully cultivated specimens blending seamlessly together to create a naturalistic-looking tapestry rich with complementing and contrasting colours, forms and textures, buzzing with life and energy.
For some of us, our plants are like our most treasured trinkets displayed with pride on the mantelpiece, each one carefully selected its unique beauty, cultivated to perfection and carefully displayed to be appreciated as a single entity. For others they are like the fabric of the room, dressing the surfaces and creating the patterns of rhythm and harmony which resonate throughout the display. Sometimes even the wilderness of the neglected garden has a beauty in the unique selection of plants which may have chosen to colonise the space. The plants that thrive will tell as much about the garden as those that don’t. Some plants have unique abilities to isolate nutrients from the soil better than others, giving them an advantage in the stakes for survival, thriving where others cannot. Their self-sufficient nature only deserves to command our respect rather than the disdain many people have of a self-seeded garden.
Somewhere in between all of these must lay the ideal for a gardener; to appear natural without looking contrived, to blend seamlessly and appear harmonious without harsh juxtaposition and to appear cultivated and presented to the absolute pinnacle of perfection for as long as possible without appearing staid and lifeless. Walking a tight rope of these facets is a task that only the best gardeners can do without wobbling, one that can be inspired by close observation of the elite at work, and hopefully one that we will also one day manage to achieve.