Thursday, 4 August 2011

Chaumont International Garden Festival 2011

The Chaumont Garden Festival is a very different kind of garden show.  Forget impeccably manicured show gardens produced at vast expense for a few surreal days as at Chelsea Flower Show.  At Chaumont on the Loire the focus is on ideas - the show gardens are selected for their novelty and elucidation of the annual theme, produced to a small fixed budget and allowed to stand for a long season between April and October.  The show is located in the grounds of the Chateau, in a permanent setting which retains one or two of the most successful experimental gardens from past festivals.

The theme this year is 'Gardens of the Future', and the gardens all attempt to illustrate the importance of encouraging biodiversity as a means of improving the health of the environment.  In a way the theme is restrictive - clearly no one is going to seriously suggest that we should be reducing biodiversity at a garden show.  However, a garden that represented the logical outcome of continued over-exploitation of the environment would have made an interesting counterpoint to the plethora of pseudo-compost heaps and recycled mini-beast hotels that were widely displayed this year.

The most literal comment on environmental health was in the installation which had trees bandaged up, supporting 'blood transfusion' drips which ostensibly fed the ground and the red-dominated planting.  A hospital bed planted up with varieties of Sedum reinforced this clunky message.  More impressive was the garden of extinct plants - the labels showing the names of plants lost to us ranged in serried ranks as in a war cemetery.  Set in blocks with paths between, this was a true Garden of Remembrance and a very sobering illustration of the havoc being visited on natural habitats.

There were a number of gardens with structures of recycled materials - orange boxes, timber laths and bamboo were in evidence, chosen for economy (these structures only have to last a few months) but also, it seemed to me, for the fact that they weather so rapidly.  Within a few weeks the timber starts to sag and colour with mould, the shapes settling into squashier versions of their original selves, the intervention beginning to decay and return to the earth.  Demonstrating the inevitability of death and decay these gardens were relatively subtle entries in the field.  In the cases where plants had started to scramble through the structures it was easy to see how the latter would rapidly descend into compost.

A few gardens used the idea of miniature environments - supported in plastic bubbles or planted up in floating oil drums, for instance - to highlight the fragility of a variety of natural habitats as well as the duty incumbent on us all to protect these.  Another garden acted as a sort of herbarium, with seeds trapped in resin blocks waving on tall wire supports - the point being, I suppose, to draw attention to the need to preserve plants lest they become merely a label and join those in the memorial garden.

There were other gardens that just revelled in the opportunity to have some fun - I think the message was still there, but what one really noticed was the colour or daftness of the installation.  I particularly liked the hanging ribbons with bells - in patriotic red, white and blue (tricolor or Union Flag - take your pick) this garden was a surprisingly reflective space in still weather, although the wind might make it a bit hazardous to negotiate, especially when crossing the stepping stones...

The celebrated Vallee des Brumes - an installation that has been a fixture at Chaumont for some years - was still a foggy delight, though less impressive in dull weather than in sunshine, when the mists are penetrated by shafts of light, and was joined in the wooded valley behind the show site by a sinister/comic group of figures clothed all over in jazzy knitted body-stockings.  

The festival continues until 16th October - if you are in the Loire Valley before then it is worth a detour to see how the theme of environmentalism and biodiversity has been interpreted by these thirty-odd garden designers and artists.

See more images of the Festival here.