Having left the radio on from when I woke in the middle of the night, I woke early yesterday morning to hear that there would be six gardens interpreting Shakespeare plays at The Hampton Court Flower Show.

Could I have heard that?

Or in an early Saturday morning daze was it an ongoing nightmare that I was finding hard to shake off?

I guess I could check that out. But you know I actually can’t be bothered.

And not because I am going. It’s high summer for us now, with too much to do to spend two person days attending a flower show. We will certainly glean in passing what we need from a variety of sources. Chelsea, which we did do, will have to do for us.

I also didn’t check it because it sounds all too likely. Certainly in Saturday’s Telegraph gardening section, the coverage of HC suggested that the themes were plentifully in evidence. Pansies symbolise homophobic crime, lego symbolises itself and even the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are represented. Themes, or to put it even stronger messages, are the thing and, worryingly, in more than just show gardens.

In fact last winter Thinking Gardens held a supper to discuss whether gardens should be a place off philosophical and political comment. Thankfully the answer was that they could. The difference is important. When message gets that strong, as in totalitarian states, it is bad for art and life!

Now, I have no problem with themes per se. Gardens, like any other art form, can be used or developed in this way. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. The danger is that the theme can overwhelm and can lead to lazy and incorrect anwers to the questions which designers should ask themselves. At Stourhead, whether you understand the message or no, it works. At The Garden of Cosmic Speculation, most of us frankly do not understand it and it overwhelms. A garden also needs to respond to the site. Sometimes the theme, however subtle and well intentioned, can work against the site practically.

In show gardens I do see how themes help judges, designers and, in some aspects, the punters. Anne Wareham discusses this on the Thinking Gardens website in ‘Do Chelsea gardens benefit from having themes?’ and includes the views of a number of individuals from the garden/garden design world.

But should we be making life easy for designers and judges, and punters come to that?

The pitfalls of these aids are clear: they can be used to cover a lack of imagination. Rules make bad art. Abstract designs represent the true challenge. Themes can also  lead to gimmickry, lack of soul, loss of sight of a potential user etc.

Paul Ridley of Paul Ridley Design in his post of 29 May 2010 highlights another pitfall. The public begins to think that this show is what real garden design is all about. They want the Chelsea wow! factor without realising how inappropriate that might be or its potential cost. As designers we think of our client’s need for useable space. I didn’t see it either side of the rope in quite a few Chelsea gardens!

In the real word clients have a real site, with its own negatives and, hopefully(!!), some positives. They will provide a brief which often involves compromises between partners if the client is plural, and always involves compromises with their aspirations versus the site. They will with difficulty be committed to a budget which will never be enough. And so on.

The show site rarely has a ‘genius’, the designers, who are medal hungry, construct their own brief and the sponsors do not all spend the same amount.

Perhaps there is a way forward.

Give the designers a brief, the same brief. Give them all a 3 metre deep hole, an eyesore or whatever problem you conceive they need to deal with – that after all is the real world! Give them a budget. Let them have at it! This is true garden design. Let them then interpret that how they will.

Have different projects and budgets for each group of designers, be they, aspiring, student or professional, and according to the size of the various plots.

If concept is really your thing, have each group interpret the same theme. This happens for example in floristry. Then we have the joy of a compare and contrast! That way we will also see the true merits of the various designers and also learn ourselves what works for us and what doesn’t.

R

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