Urban Gardener: French lessons

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The Independent Online

It's taken a long time to get to the Chaumont-sur-Loire International Garden Festival in France. Sixteen years to be exact. I'd meant to go in the early years when my first tentative steps into the world of garden design had me wondering just how far boundaries could be pushed in the UK. Tradition hindered experimentation in urban gardens in those days, despite the fact that the majority, with their token lawns, skinny borders and no view to speak of, couldn't aspire to anything traditional in their wildest dreams. Things have loosened up a bit since then and much of the credit should go to the late Paul Pigeat who sounded the rallying call in 1992 for innovative gardeners, artists and landscape architects to use the garden as a means of expression. Since then almost 400 thought-provoking gardens have been created at Chaumont, bringing the idea of conceptual gardening to a world-wide audience and spawning the likes of Jardins de Metis in Canada and The Festival of the Garden in the UK (which will re-invent itself as Future Gardens next year).

My journey, albeit a little overdue, still felt like a pilgrimage and, if I'm honest, was a much needed tonic to remind myself what attracted me to the profession in the first place. Any concerns that the show would fall short of expectations were quickly extinguished as our guide, Vincent Thibault, began a tour of the gardens, exploring this year's theme, "community and sharing". Two hours is recommended to see all 26 gardens. We needed five including a fast lunch, "fast" referring to the time it took us to eat it (45 mins – extremely fast by French standards), not the food quality which, as you'd expect, was extremely good. Coming to the end of their six-month growing period, and the demands of over 170,000 visitors, some gardens had fared better than others, but the majority were flourishing and it was encouraging to see that good design had not been sacrificed for the sake of innovation.

I expected maybe two or three gardens to stand out but many, such as Eternal Rest, impressed. Here, students from the Universita di Roma "La Sapienza" invite visitors to lie face up and strike their burial pose. Vincent told us that this was a difficult and repulsive concept for some people ("a few couldn't bring themselves to go into the garden"), but the space didn't feel morbid in the least.

Further on a log screen invited us into Nordic Dreams (by the Danish partnership, 1:1 Landscab), a forest of pines under-planted with wild strawberries and a contemplative space where a panoramic, optical illusion – seen through ghostly stems of willow at the garden's centre – explores the notions of division and exchange. Curiously, unlike the shared graveyard, I wanted this space to myself. I also wanted solitude in Sharing, by the Landscape Architecture Bureau (USA), particularly as the message here (using escalating densities of Populus tremula) concerned the need for sharing space and resources as the world's population continues to increase. Bruno Marmiroli's clever use of camouflage netting and fog in Coral Gardens, a homage to the anthropologist Borislaw Malinowski, explores the fine balance between virgin rainforest and cultivated garden necessary to sustain communities, while Reflexions by the partnership A P Art (France) considers the divisions in man-made landscapes using a mist of tiny oscillating mirrors, suspended by fine thread.

There were more, too many to mention here, but the garden that will haunt me is Forest Table by Tori Johnson and Judith Wong, of Professeur (USA), where 200 oak seedlings in fragile wooden pots on an earth-rammed table are flanked by ranks of scorched wooden blocks and overlooked by several poplar trees symbolising the forest. Depending on one's mood, the atmosphere could be either poignant or playful. Vincent said the garden was often interpreted as The Last Supper; the table seen as an altar then – yes, this could be sacrifice and/or adoration. Either way, a little disturbing, so we came up with this: that the rules in a complicated horticultural version of chess have been mislaid and everyone has sauntered off for a more leisurely game of boules in the local square. Vive Chaumont!