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Should Our Garden Shows Have More “Far Out” Gardens To Inspire The “Different”?
by Art Drysdale
by Art Drysdale


Art Drysdale, a life-long resident of Toronto and a horticulturist well known all across Canada, is now a resident of Parksville, British Columbia on Vancouver Island, just north of Nanaimo. He has reno-vated an old home and has a new garden there. His radio gardening vignettes are heard in south-western Ontario over radio station Easy 101 FM out of Tillsonburg at 2 PM weekdays.

Art also has his own website at

November 27, 2011

Above, Diarmuid Gavin’s 2005 Chelsea Flower Show garden (that is him just in front of the closest sphere at the right); and four shots of his Gold-medal-winning 2011 Chelsea “Irish Sky Garden”. Below, one shot of a completed Diarmuid Gavin home garden, and one of Janet Rosenberg’s unusual garden at the 2006 Canada Blooms show; followed by two shots of “The Living Room” from the 2010 San Francisco Flower & Garden Show—it was a perfect cube, complete with windows and all planting done on a vertical plane; and a final one from Habitat Horticulture from the same show, also with highly varied planting on a vertical plane. Initial six photos courtesy Diarmuid Gavin; all others are author photos.

As our 2011 outdoor gardening season rapidly comes to an end (here on Vancouver Island anyway!) most folks will be starting to think about next year’s garden. And, that includes garden shows. Anyone who reads my ramblings here at all regularly will know that over the past half-decade or more I have not thought too much of the premier Canadian garden show—Canada Blooms in Toronto. On the other hand, other shows seem to be mak-ing great strides ahead—thinking particularly of the Northwest, Philadelphia and San Francisco shows.

Of course, the numero uno of flower shows has been and continues to be the Chelsea Flower Show in London England each mid-May. I saw my first one in 1973 I believe, and one year in the later 70s I attended for each of the 5-day run. I last saw the “great show” back in 2000 when they had just scrapped their large tents in favour of two more impressive semi-permanent poly structures.

Even though I had attended the show on average at least every third year, I was able to notice a gradual emerging of a more “modern” show with much greater emphasis on landscape architecture. The large “pyres” or mounds of flowers and plants were almost all gone in favour of some very interesting designed gardens. More and more, the emphasis was on landscape architects—and many of them were presenting some unusual gardens to say the least.

Now, it would appear that some designers don’t think that the Chelsea Show has advanced sufficiently to keep up with the trends of gardening. For example, in a recent issue of the U.K. gardening trade magazine HorticultureWeek Bulletin, gardening celebrity Diarmuid Gavin said that garden designers need to “up their game” and produce more exciting gardens.

“Speaking at the Horticulture Trades Association Garden Futures conference a couple of weeks ago, Mr. Gavin said designers should be challenged to be more innovative at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

‘“Designers don't do justice to Chelsea,’ he said. ‘We know that it's the same names coming up over and over again. Designers are getting lazy and they need to be challenged. We see the same gardens in the same shape year after year. We should be showing people something that's new, fun and exciting.’

“He warned that the UK's preeminent position in horticulture, gained from events such as Chelsea, could be lost. ‘Chelsea is a great thing, but somebody will come and take that trophy away from us. We should do better--the designers and the retailers and suppliers. Gardening is seen as conservative and we don't push it enough,’ he said.

“Gavin added that his aim was to design meaningful gardens. ‘If I can design a few good gardens each year with soul--not just rolling things out but something that means something--I will be happy,’ he said. ‘We need to up our game, to stimulate and entertain.’”

The Irish Diarmuid Gavin might well be considered the “bad boy” of U.K. garden design. He has designed gardens all around the world but perhaps his most controversial ones have been at British shows such as Chelsea. His 2004 garden there (shown here) received both vast praise and criticism, but I guess that is a sign of a good design, because it causes those who see the garden to think!

When his suggested design for a garden in the 2006 Chelsea Show was rejected by the show’s owners (the Royal Horticultural Society) it caused large front-page headlines in the British press.

But he was back this year with an even more “shocking” garden—the Irish Sky Garden. On Press Day Monday, the so-called flying machine… a hanging Garden of Eden, aka the ‘Wonkavator’ dangled high above a massive crane off to the side. The garden, which won ‘Gold,’ revealed an expansive, lush landscaped realm of reflecting pools playing off the dense greenery of plantings: an evocative layout that brought to mind the emerald country-side of Ireland. Not to be mistaken, the site proclaimed itself in no uncertain terms as the largest gardenscape ever to emerge at RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

Diarmuid Gavin's "Irish Sky Garden" however courted controversy when Cork City Council in Ireland agreed to put the garden on permanent display at Fitzgerald's Park in the Mardyke area of the city at a cost of at least €300,000 ($415,702 Cdn.) to the cash-strapped council. Already more than €1.7 million had been given to the project by Fáilte Ireland, the Irish tourism body. The decision attracted widespread criticism.

Clipped boxwood, yew, and stately conical Carpinus contributed structure, allied with masses of exuberant grasses. Once the ‘pod’ touched down, in a bright punctuation of the space, the form appeared comfortably ensconced on the earthly plane. Note: Gavin drew inspiration for the project’s floating structure from Dublin animator Richie Baneham’s visual effects work in the film, Avatar.

He spoke to a packed hall in nearby Seattle back in 2006 and shocked some of the attendees with his comments. For example, in some of his expensive designs world-wide from Korea to The Netherlands, these days, he says, he needs to integrate not one helipad but two in many of the gardens he designs!

Obviously, with this little bit of background, his comments on the need for the Chelsea Show to kick it up a notch, the man knows of what he speaks. And, his comments should not be ignored by those who plan other such shows.

I remember several years back the Canada Blooms show tried to set the design precedent ahead, and in some of the cases did so quite well. Janet Rosenberg, for example, in her 2006 garden showed an entire interior setting set upon a floor of Granny Smith apples. The ‘furniture’ was all made of foam rubber so as not to crush the fruit! It was a fascinating, different approach and came off quite well.

Finally, just last year, I visited the Northwest Flower and Garden Show in Seattle, as well as the San Francisco Garden Show in nearby San Mateo. At the latter were two gardens featuring plantings on the vertical plane—something that was of considerable interest to the viewers.

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