Chelsea set go for touch of 'grunge'

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FIRST music, then clothes, now gardening - the 'grunge' garden appeared on the horticultural catwalk that is the Chelsea Flower Show last week, and won the award for the best design, the Fiskars Sword of Excellence.

On the face of it, Julie Toll's flotsam-strewn wildflower and seaside garden was a heap of sand littered with rocks, driftwood and plants. It was natural (apart from a beach tent), rough and ready, right down to the short, rabbit- grazed turf.

Ms Toll, who has collected four gold medals in as many years at Chelsea, said: 'It's designed, but not so you'd know it. It's a habitat, rather than a garden, which tries to show what you can grow in light, dry, sandy soil. Every year at Chelsea we've noticed more and more wildflowers. People are becoming increasingly attracted to the natural look.'

That 'natural look' took three weeks to build and cost pounds 30,000.

The hand of design did not fall much heavier than on Pershore College's 'The Touch of Midas' display - a terrace with a ruined balustrade, from which steps swept down round a waterfall, the water transforming the rocks it splashed into gold. Last year, its designer, Paul Cooper, picked up the Sword of Excellence. This year, he had to content himself with a silver gilt award.

The power garden is out. Labels do not impress. Designers triumphed where they sought to remove evidence of their involvement. Arabella Lennox-Boyd, whose clients have included the Belgian royal family, Sir Evelyn Rothschild, and the National Trust, earned a gold medal for her 'Romantic Woodland Garden'.

Her silver-birch-lined plot, with ruined tower and a brook, was, she said, an attempt to buck the contrived formality of previous years: 'I felt that if I saw another box hedge, I would scream. I wanted to go against the grain. It's turned out I was going with it. I've called this year the year of rock and stump.'

Some say anxiety over Britain's disappearing meadows and permanently scarred landscape is behind the drift back to nature. Nigel Phillips, of the Society of Garden Designers, said: 'People are becoming more aware of what is being lost from the English countryside and are looking to encapsulate that in their gardens.'

Few of the designs at Chelsea will, in truth, end up en masse in the back gardens of Britain. Stephen Bennett, the Royal Horticultural Society's director of shows, said: 'Inspiration is the key. They are there to trigger the imagination.'

Gardening remains Britain's number one hobby, design one of its number one growth areas. A proliferation of courses at horticultural colleges has led to a flood of aspiring designers. The Society of Garden Designers has seen its membership leap from five in 1982 to 46 today. The top names command anything from pounds 100 to pounds 400 an hour.

But there are pitfalls. Douglas Knight, of Formby in Lancashire, is a designer who uses Chelsea as a showcase. His 6m x 3m exhibit - a slate waterfall finished off with a herbaceous edge and conifers - was sold on day one for a tidy pounds 25,000. In 1989, John and Joan Hoban bought another of Mr Knight's designs. A month after it was built, rain fell overnight. Water poured down the rockery and from the pond, the couple awaking to the sound of waves gently lapping against the house. A judge ordered Mr Knight to pay repairs, damages and legal costs.

(Photograph omitted)