A cottage garden with buffalo and old tyres

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The Independent Online
I SEEM to be giving Chelsea a miss this year. It's not a priority for me. I would learn infinitely more from a visit to a real garden, and there are thousands of these that I do not know, or would like to revisit.

Why bother with what you get shown at Chelsea? Things that call themselves gardens but are in fact flower arrangements using plants rather than cut flowers. Very clever, some of them. Very stupid, others.

Last year there was a supposedly ecological garden which won a prize and featured an amazing impossibility - a pond at the top of a sand dune. 'To think of all the marvellous ways/They're using plastics nowadays,' as the old song exclaimed.

What is shown in the main tent (where the emphasis is on flowers) is exciting. But when the emphasis is on design, I tire quickly. People should pay less heed to all this talk about design, which is usually an attempt to devise a variation on the simple question: how to plant a small town garden? To which the simple answer is: fill it with the plants you like best, buying them as and when you can.

Garden designers are a lobby. They have an economic interest in drumming their lessons into us, making us feel that if we can't match their expertise we should hand the job to them, along with a fair wad, of course.

And this lobby is inexorable. Not long ago there was a series of television programmes in which somewhat apprehensive couples, clearly with no interest in gardening, were offered front gardens designed and laid out for them to their very vague specifications. At the end of the operation, still somewhat terrified, they were asked whether they liked the results, and they all said 'Yes'. They liked the result, I guess, because they hadn't had to pay the considerable sums which these little designer hells would otherwise have cost them.

A garden should proceed from personal fantasy. Where I think the English miss out, as compared with the Germans, is in the regulations that govern our allotments. Buildings are forbidden, and sheds can be no more than a certain size. I loved my allotment, and loved the other allotments around me - the immaculate working-class ones with their strict ratios of potato to onion to cabbage, the middle-class ones with their inefficient weeding, their courgettes and sweetcorn, their wigwams of climbing beans.

But, at least when viewed from a train, a Schrebergarten in Germany is another thing. On these, the plot of land is a place to spend the weekend or summer evening, and each plot has its own cabin, built according to the developing fantasy of the owner.

When I see an English allotment going to decay, I often think how much more popular the system would have been if you could have planted a few fruit trees and a little lawn and built your own cabin, in addition to the vegetable patch. There used to be the remains of gardens of this kind, with decayed wooden bungalows, visible from the London to Southend train. Planning permission finished them, I suppose, and building regulations. The structure I am thinking about is something between a summer-house and a bungalow. The wartime prefab house, with its own plot of land, was an enduring success as a permanent home because it spoke to this deep, simple fantasy.

Gardens that have sprung from an eccentric taste, gardens that show a little local pride - like the old gardens of railway stations - are infinitely superior to gardens that sprang from the drawing-board, with their depressing concrete containers, hexagons and shallow, inverted cones repetitively planted with items from an approved list of labour-saving shrubs.

Gardens can please by being of a piece with other gardens in the neighbourhood - as the North Oxford gardens look good with their trees, even when the trees have all but obliterated the garden beneath them. In the former East Germany, as you go from village to village, you see how the plants migrated from one garden to the next. The range of species might be limited, but the gardens grew up as variations on a theme - what was possible, given limited resources? What was available from neighbours and friends?

English cottage gardens (about which a great deal of rubbish is written) would have been like that. They weren't the astonishing gene-pools of award-meriting rarities that people like Gertrude Jekyll have made out. If you want to see what cottage gardens were like, you have to go to countries where the majority of people cannot afford to buy any plants, where everything is begged or passed on through cuttings, divisions or seeds.

The gardens of the Filipino barrios are like that - mutatis mutandis, they are about as well stocked as an 18th-century English cottage garden would have been. There's a balance between fantasy and the practical. There's always a low bamboo hedge on which to spread out the washing, and often an agave or two, with eggshells placed on the tips, to serve the same purpose.

Then there are plants drawn from the local flora (orchids, hung in coconut husks from the eaves) and pre-eminently the exotics, which are the plants by which any garden makes the distinction between itself and nature. And, just as sometimes when walking through the Lake District or Wales you will find evidence that there was once a cottage there - in the form of a garden flower, or a holly planted near a front door, as a precaution against lightning - so in the tropics you can look into the roadside jungle growth and tell, from the presence of a hibiscus or a great straggling dracaena, that there was once a habitation here, perhaps a hut which needed a little embellishment. Now all that's left is the embellishment itself.

In a real roadside cottage garden from the tropics, flowerpots are made from car tyres, cut and stapled into shape. It has a few bougainvillea and some spider lilies, orchids and pepper plants, and it hugs the roadside because the rest of the landscape is planted to rice and under water. Between the house and the paddy there's a tubog, a water-hole in which the buffalo can frolic in the mud. And beside the tubog there's a great clump of cannas, flowering their heads off, because cannas and water buffalo share the same taste in mud.

If I were designing a garden for Chelsea, that would be it - a Jacuzzi full of mud with a real water buffalo, a shrieking fringe of cannas and a yelling assortment of bougainvilleas grown in stapled car-tyre pots. A real garden, in other words - none of your designer muck.