Victoria Summerley: Green-fingered but lily-livered

If gardening is an art form, it must be subject to criticism like any other
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The Independent Online

So did the earth move for you? I'm afraid it didn't for me, even if it was covered with expensive hard landscaping and admittedly gorgeous flowers.

The 2009 Chelsea Flower Show was never going to be a vintage one, for economic reasons beyond the control of the Royal Horticultural Society. Many of the show gardens were beautiful, or interesting, or well-designed and even all three, but there was nothing that really made my heart beat faster, and there usually is at Chelsea.

The trouble is, in tough times, people resist the urge to be different or surprising – that's if they can afford to do anything at all. This is a shame, because there is a growing feeling among some members of the gardening community that the boundaries should be pushed not only back a few feet but perhaps redefined altogether. Many gardening figures want to see a new approach to garden criticism that goes beyond whether the plants are too close together or the York paving is finished to the highest possible standard. They think gardens should be treated like any other art form, and subject to the same rigorous analysis.

It sounds fine from a philosophical point of view, but you only have to put it into practice for, ooh, about five minutes before you trip over a whole rock-garden of sensibilities. We British are very sensitive indeed about our gardens. We know what we like (flowers). We know what we don't like (concrete). And we persist in clinging to a nostalgic view of gardens that prevents us from appreciating anything new.

It's the same in other art forms, of course. New music, conceptual art, experimental theatre: all of these have been resisted by popular opinion, up until the point when the shock of the new is healed with a sticking plaster of familiarity.

The strange thing about gardens, however, is that criticising anyone's backyard comes perilously close to questioning the virtue of the owner's mother. Why is this? Perhaps it's because our gardens are hedged about with emotional significance. Memories of a grandfather's allotment may have inspired the vegetable patch. A mother's love of pink might have led to a floriferous froth of roses and pastel colours. A visit to a garden in childhood might have resulted in an enthusiasm for lavender and box parterres. There is a great love of billowing, untrammelled wildernesses in which the very word "design" has no place, and is resisted with much the same vehemence as a rogue bramble fights any attempt at uprooting it.

So the idea of a series of lectures, like the Vista debates at the Museum of Garden History, exploring such issues as "Should gardens contain plants?" – seems to the average person, content with a lawn and a couple of flowerbeds, to be at best irrelevant and at worst downright mischievous. ThinkinGardens (www.thinkingardens.co.uk), which posts actual reviews of gardens, is condemned by those who describe any garden as "nice" as cantankerous and combative.

We can't have it both ways, though. We British can't regard ourselves as expert gardeners (a rather spurious, chauvinist claim in any case, in my opinion) and proceed to ignore any trends, ideas or arguments that move things forward. We should learn to think outside the box parterre.

v.summerley@independent.co.uk

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