The People’s Choice Posted on May 27, 2009

Most conversations about Chelsea, after the Show, start with ‘Which garden did you like best?’ This year there seemed to be more consensus than usual. The judges’ difficult task was made easier by fewer and generally less ambitious gardens. The winner, Ulf Nordfjell’s Daily Telegraph garden (it seems to be The Telegraph’s year, one way and another) was uncontentious, pleasing, relaxing and idiomatically modern without startling colours or textures. I don’t want a black metal cube for a garden house (it reminded me of House & Garden in the ‘60s) but how can I take exception to those who do?

‘Light’, said Nordfjell, ‘is the most important thing’. At the light end of his garden he used greys, white, some blue and a little purple, with blocks of pale stone on which shadows could play (when the sun came out). In the centre, where light sparkled on moving water, the principal colour was green. At the shady end he used clipped hornbeam, graceful Cornus kousa and Rosa mutabilis, the only pink or red note.

Voting for the People’s Choice, as distinct from the judges’, preferred Robert Myers’s curvaceous abstract plot for Cancer Research, which seemed to me rather underplanted; so much white stone was on display that you needed sunglasses. Among the small gardens the Plasticine Paradise was the unsurprising winner. Did you know they made it in such powerful colours these days?

My concern, this year and every year, didn’t apply to the plasticine entry. It is the judging of gardens frozen at a moment (and an entirely artificial moment) in time. They don’t have plants that have just gone over, and nobody asks what you are expected to enjoy after the current display. You can’t, I know, expect judges to give points for things (plants yet to flower, for example) they can’t see. But gardening is as much about the passage of time as music is about measuring and dividing it. Gardening is essentially a process with no fixed conclusion. Not even the cycle of the seasons brings you back to precisely where you were before: substance, girth, patina change; light and shade reveal and conceal different facets; the gardener accepts many things that are beyond his control – loves them indeed, for adding effects beyond the reach of his imagination.

So what is your criterion for judging such disparate and ever-changing creations? The only answer I can give is the mood they evoke.

It seemed to me there was more sculpture in the show than ever – certainly if you include metalwork of divers kinds and sometimes doubtful purpose. I’m delighted that so many purses apparently stretch so far; a far cry from the traditional gardener’s resource of scrounging cuttings. A sculpture is a sure way of fixing a mood. Whether it is one you want to wake up to every morning, spring, summer and winter, calls for careful thought.

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