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.

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
health
News
science
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
News
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
News
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Sport
football
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power