This year Chelsea actually felt slightly out of sync for me, so much was right but my heart wasn’t stolen. The show was wonderful as always and I took a lot from it. But a feeling was missing from the show gardens – it’s not them, it’s me – and I’ve been trying to figure out why.
Chelsea Flower Show can set mainstream trends, no doubt. However really, with anything that creates a media frenzy, the trend has already been set by the minds showcasing their work. Chelsea is the platform that shows the world trends already afoot.
Rather than looking at micro trends like colours of flowers (although I do love that) if we step back, right back into outer space and look down on our planet it’s more telling. At night, our world is lit by dots of lights, many in large clusters. Over half the world’s population lives in cities and as of 2014, 83% of the UK population (43 million people) lived in urban areas, which will now be higher. This is a trend widely recognised as growing populations gravitate toward cities for work.
Since I first started visiting Chelsea Flower Show in 2014, I’ve noticed an ongoing divide in opinions of what is and isn’t good garden wise. At first I put this down to “oh it’s always been like that, people like different things”, the tussle between naturalistic vs formal is not new. Then I thought, perhaps it’s also to do with age gaps and differences in generations where the things we’re exposed to vary and alter our tastes. Of course, it could be my own taste and bias. Certainly these things will be a big part of it, adding to the conversation.
As I reflect on it more though, I really feel there is something bigger. I see Chelsea as a window into gardening and societal trends and it’s tied to this bigger picture. Guiltily and sadly, I’m slightly too young to have been hugely exposed to Beth Chatto and John Brookes – even Christopher Lloyd, one of my literary heroes – instead my influences come from those they influenced. Personally in recent years I’ve been drawn to Howard Miller’s Dark Matter garden, Dan Pearson’s Chatsworth garden, James Basson’s M&G Maltese Quarry garden and Charlotte Harris’ Bank of Canada garden. Gardens that seem to be fairly divisive, usually the sign of iconic design.
Working in the youth sector for the best part of my career I know that to predict the future, you simply have to ask those who’ll create it (though youth is a mindset and a ninety year old can be equally as creative as a nineteen year old!) Younger people are certainly attracted to more naturalistic gardens but not naturalistic for the sake of it. They don’t get excited by recreations of sheds surrounded by wildflowers for instance, but they do love the creativity and plant excitement of Sarah Price’s M&G garden.
Over the last two years I’ve been in meetings with established garden firms who’ve described garden design to me as a business and saying that the plants don’t matter compared to hard landscaping. These two opinions are counter to my own approach to design – where landscaping and plants are intertwined – and is not my experience of what all garden owners want. It surprised me because how can design not be founded on art and how can a garden not be equally weighted with plants.
Two thirds of the world’s population will be in cities by 2050. A majority of us live disconnected from nature with virtually no space to garden. I live in London with a small backyard, commuting eight miles to my allotment to get my fix, so perhaps I feel this more keenly than others. It’s not about being deprived of a hobby or an outdoor room. People are deprived from an intrinsic human need that can rip to the soul.
An underlying need for some people to feel connected to nature, truly connected and part of it. It’s not just about hopping on a train and walking through a wood, as wonderful and freeing as that is. It’s about the whole package, about being part of the ecosystem. Playing with the bees and the flowers. But also creating beautiful spaces. Creativity is part of human nature. Doing what only we as humans can do: nurture, artistry and craft. Perhaps why Chelsea can leave some people feeling a bit detached.
Chelsea can give us that feeling in small doses. This year it was slightly missing for me but it was there – some of my favourites were by Sarah Price, Jo Thompson and Paul Hervey-Brookes. Where naturalistic planting, art, craft and sculpture combined. Yet they went ever so slightly under the radar because they were peaceful escapes surrounded by the fairground delights of the show. Like displaying a Monet in a nightclub.
Yesterday Chris and I visited the most wonderful garden on the National Garden Scheme called the Chauffer’s Flat in Surrey. Owned by two artists, once art teachers. The garden is far removed from immaculate Ibiza style garden perfection – there’s not a rendered wall in sight. It’s filled with fun, adventure, handmade items and experimental sculpture from found items. We were both overcome with the emotion of finding an escapist place. It was wonderful.
The biggest shame of Chelsea is that people can’t walk through the gardens. Chris Beardshaw’s was virtually blocked to visitors though I can see that inside it, this is a worthy winning garden. If people could experience them from inside, that would be a good thing although the challenge for show designers is to make guests feel part of the scene from the edges. It makes me wish that such a place existed where designers could create more permanent designed gardens for people to walk through and explore – like a garden equivalent of the National Gallery.
So the trend I’m going on about, what is it? I’m not entirely sure, sorry! I don’t believe anyone can at this point. It’s something to do with a complex picture of helping people detached from nature to feel more connected with it in conjunction with a personalised, beautiful private escape. Naturalistic gardens in theme, designed by our hands with landscaping that’s well crafted and artful. There’s probably a word for it but I’m not sure what it is. You could call it modernism, the signs are certainly there with asymmetric design, minimalist landscaping and natural planting. Yet they do not forget the past, they’re imbued with it. Futurism then, possibly but it’s more than that too. I think this is a trend that’s just starting and being figured out – you see it bubbling away on Instagram – and like all genuine trends we won’t know it for another 50 – 100 years in retrospect. For now I call it Viewtopia, a snapshot of our own imagined utopia.
As with any trend, gardens that help people reconnect with nature and creativity will come in many different forms and won’t be for everyone, that’s the joy of being human: we’re all different and for every one trend, there are a dozen others.