Saturday, 29 May 2010

Hyperreality in SW3

The Chelsea Flower Show which closes today is many things - a market, a showcase, a networking opportunity, an entertainment.  
For me the most interesting facet of the whole enterprise, though, is the extraordinary way in which the show gardens are devoured by visitors, television viewers, other designers, garden magazine writers and photographers.  The competition for the coveted top prize is intense, the downcast mien of those designers achieving silver-gilt rather than gold palpable.  Every detail of the design is scrutinised, eviscerated and displayed to the interested public - the plantings dissected and praised or dismissed out of hand.  Only perfection will do for a Chelsea garden, and hyperreal perfection at that.
These gardens are fascinating because they are amazingly controlled simulacra of gardens - they cannot exist in the real world, and can only exist at Chelsea for the briefest of times because, having been constructed with something as unruly as living plants, the illusion of perfection is utterly unsustainable.  Within a few days the plants will change proportion, exceed their allotted space or start to shed leaves and petals as the natural processes of growth and senescence, held in perfect balance at the point of judging, begin to unravel the image presented.  A show garden is nature at two removes - if a garden is a synthetic version of an idealised 'nature', the show garden is a further distillation of that garden - the 'authentic fake' of Umberto Eco ('Travels in Hyperreality') or 'reality by proxy'.
Only something arranged so perfectly that it could not possibly exist in nature, or even a normal garden, is good enough to satisfy our media-driven need to experience the idealised world we are sold under the conceptual term 'garden'.  The 'garden' (as opposed to the garden) always looks immaculate, is the setting for impossibly glamorous parties, never needs maintaining, contains plants looking at their best and is a powerful symbol of human dominance over nature, time and decay.  The 'garden' is outside reality - until the third week of May when, after up to 18 months of planning, it is created in several versions in the centre of London and displayed, in the manner of a saintly relic, for the populace to wonder at. 
And it is a wonder - plants that would, in nature, flower at very different times are artificially held back or advanced to be shown in peak condition next to each other, purely because they look good together - one of the show garden plant lists even had snowdrops this year (although I didn't spot them on the ground - presumably a total inversion of the growing cycle is still a little beyond our capacity).  Stonework is made to look ancient, moss is grown to insert into gaps in brickwork, brown leaves are individually cut from plants, a leaky canal lock spurts water.  The big lie, and one that we willingly swallow, is that these gardens somehow show us what we can achieve in our own plots - we can hold on to the fact that the 'garden' is a possibility for ourselves because we have seen it done, the alchemy has been performed in front of our eyes.  Smoke and mirrors (both to be seen this week, incidentally).
It is Disneyland, Las Vegas, the horticultural equivalent of Dubai - a non-place where our every garden craving can be met, where the consumerist dream is realised, made flesh.  Why do the cameras lovingly dwell on the bees which hover over the flowers in the show gardens?  Because the bees validate the claim to authenticity - the 'garden' is proved to exist, because nature has visited, unbidden.
The photograph shows one of the more pleasing plantings from a show garden this year.  An artfully arranged combination of colour and form, well-balanced in terms of mass and texture, this also happens to be one of the more achievable combinations - the woolly verbascum is rather advanced for the time of year, and the euphorbia (E. mellifera) will grow in a couple of years to swamp the space, but of course the whole thing will have been dismantled by now (7pm on the final Saturday), so that problem will never arise.  The effect lives on in a thousand hastily grabbed photos, such as mine, and the images that will accompany the post-mortem articles in the gardening press.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Chelsea 2010

It's the blue riband event in the gardening year, and the RHS Chelsea Flower Show is well under way.  The judging of the show gardens and floral displays was completed a few days ago, and the crowds let in to see the results.
Much of what I wrote in my piece on the Flower Show in February still stands, of course - an RHS show is always littered with nasty surprise sculptures, bizarre plants and little garden-related knick-knacks, and is a full-on shopportunity for those with the patience to lug their trophies around with them.  I have read somewhere that Britons spend £3 billion on their gardens a year - £2 billion of that goes on twisty metal plant supports if my experience yesterday was representative.  However, it's hard to argue with the capacity of the Chelsea show to lift the spirits in the way that the small shows can't manage. 
It is hugely demanding in terms of resources, of course, and only the sponsors are in a position to know whether the vast sums they expend on the creation of their gardens is money well spent: a close look at one of the big show gardens, with its handbuilt dry-stone walls, the obligatory whizzy water feature, mature trees shipped in for the week from Italy and thousands of plants brought to perfection for the day of judging gives you an idea of what £350,000 buys you in the world of show gardens.  Even the small gardens cost tens of thousands of pounds to construct, and most of this will be torn down and sent to landfill next week.  There is a welcome move by designers to reuse elements of show gardens in 'live' projects - you will know if they are doing so because they will make sure the publicity spells it out - and the final day of the show sees the plants sold off to the public, but a garden show is in no sense an ecologically sound undertaking.
But is this a waste?  It would be easy to argue so - equally easy to say that most human activity is wasteful of resources, given how little we really need to live on. 
Does it bring enjoyment?  Undoubtedly, for the hundreds of thousands who brave the crowds and the millions more who devour every word and hyper-real image of the TV coverage.  Most definitely to the gaggles of sponsors, designers, mates and mums who were enjoying the parties in the show gardens and loving their moment on the right side of the rope - and yes, it's my goal to be with them next year!
For a designer it is a chance to pick up on trends in design (oversized arbours with circular holes in the roof, if you are interested), planting ('wild-ish with a gorgeous iris' and 'meadow-type with a little Euphorbia' were big this year) and materials (dry-stone walls - again).
I want to pick up on some of these themes in my next posts, but for the moment here is a picture of a lovely plant combination from one of the show gardens.  If you are going, enjoy the show!
Paul Ridley Design

Monday, 24 May 2010


Even at the most exciting time of the garden year, when the growth rate of plants and flowers seems exponential and every day brings something new, the garden is in decay.  The short lifespan of many flowers goes almost unnoticed at this time of year, as hundreds of new sights vie for our attention, but there is as much beauty in the fading flowers of, for instance, the iris shown here, as in the grass seedheads we celebrate at the end of the season.  Close inspection of this flower, curled in on itself to make 'horns' at either side, revealed amazing texture, which I hope is captured in the black and white image.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Ugly Plants

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so is ugliness.  You may well disagree with me on my selection, but on a trip this morning to a nearby garden centre I saw so many plants that I felt were truly hideous that I started to photograph them with a sort of grisly fascination, not quite believing what I was seeing.
There were some flowers that looked as though they might have started off as aquilegias, inflated to ridiculous size and shorn of any of the woodland simplicity of the species.  Chlorotic-looking foliage seems to be a speciality this year, particularly partnered with flushes and veining in salmon pink.  Nice.  I found a bizarre bedding plant with a nasty netted flower in similar colours - it looked as toxic as the henbane it mimics.  Puce hebes and a collection of ghastly rhododendrons were in abundance, as was a nosebleed-inducing Tradescantia.  And of course, the season's must-have Heuchera, a plant which increasingly resembles an extra from one of the more lurid episodes of Star Trek.
Enough said - suffice to say these beauties won't be gracing my designs or garden, ever.  But presumably somebody appreciates them, for the breeding and supply nurseries continue to churn out ever more improbable variations of size, form and colour in both flower and foliage, and no doubt make a tidy packet selling them to the novelty-seekers amongst their customers.
In the interests of fair play the images above are as they came out of the camera.  The colours are more or less true to the plant originals.
Paul Ridley Design