Urban gardener, Cleve West: What a performance

The Chelsea Flower Show will be preening its feathers this weekend as exhibitors put the final touches to their creations, hoping for acclaim by way of a coveted RHS gold medal. Judges will be poring over the clients' briefs for each garden and making their own assessments (before judging begins in earnest on Monday) so they can be clear about the designers' intentions and make sense of gardens that have been conceived over a period of months, created in weeks and destroyed in days (or even hours). Their transient, theatrical nature is said to have no relevance to real gardens but John Sales, RHS judge and former Gardens Advisor for the National Trust, believes that our backyards have just as much, if not more, in common with theatrics than exhibits at flower shows.

Sales is well respected as the most experienced judge on the RHS show gardens panel. He's also one of the most insightful. Regardless of where the garden is coming from - historical, contemporary, traditional - he single-handedly dispels the notion of the judge who raises a golden hand only for nostalgia.

He believes that gardens rely not just on the designer's masterplan, but the processes (often spanning decades) that sustain them, and that change, through decay and growth, is at the core of what people find so captivating about gardens. He sees the combined aesthetic and emotional experience as more process than product and that, through constant interaction, gardens become "closer to the performing arts than to the fine arts, bearing loose comparison with a long-running, slowly developing ballet or opera (even a soap opera), the cast and musicians consisting of the plants, which have to be trained, directed, encouraged and cajoled into a satisfactory performance".

Coming from an artistic background, I have always been interested in the potential of seeing gardens as an art form. Lately though, largely through working on my allotment, the notion of elevating gardening to art has seemed a little pretentious. But Sales's notion of "the performance" is a tasty morsel to chew on, as it explains why some show gardens, as wonderful as they may seem at first glance, don't quite hit the spot.

My theory is that many fall foul of the "magic boomerang" effect, where every flower is a picture of perfection. Anticipation can be achieved only by including plants that may not be in full bloom or at their best, but have all the promise of growth or successional flowering. In other words, like any good soap opera, they leave you wanting more. Exhibitors are often nervous of including plants that are not in full bloom (and I'm sure there was a time when they would have been marked down for it), but expectation and imagination add so much more to a garden than one preserved in aspic.

On this basis I'm guessing that some of the more notable gardens this year will make plants, not gimmicks, the centre of attention; look out for The Daily Telegraph Garden (designed by Gabriella Pape and Isabelle van Groeningen and inspired by the work of Karl Foerster) and A Tribute to Linnaeus (designed by Ulf Nordfjell, as mentioned in Anna Pavord's piece), celebrating the tercentenary of the Father of Taxonomy. You might also keep an eye out for Sarah Price. A couple of years ago I nominated Sarah as an up-and-coming talent in the garden design world. Last year she won a gold medal at the Hampton Court Flower Show and this year QVC has sponsored her to build a small garden at the Chelsea Flower Show.

These, in my opinion, are often more challenging than the larger gardens. The same design rules apply, but with limited space mistakes are amplified and more noticeable. Selecting the right plants to use is, without a doubt, the most difficult part of making one of these small gardens look and feel comfortable. More often than not planting will be either minimal (the safer bet) or crammed tighter than a Northern Line tube at rush-hour, with no real hint of successional flowering. Sarah has opted for a delicate layering and a rich mixture of gemstone coloured plants and, like many other exhibitors, will be hoping that her limelight performance won't be upstaged by the season being two weeks early. Seedhead stand-ins will, no doubt, be waiting in the wings - for the show must go on.

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