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Concept or Conceit?

Concept or Conceit?
Posted on 20/07/10 | Posted by The Fat Gardener

One of the most discussed issues at the Hampton Court Flower Show over the last couple of years has been the inclusion of Conceptual Gardens alongside the more traditional show gardens. As the show drew to a close last weekend I thought it the perfect time to assess whether these gardens have any place at flower shows or would be more at home at the Tate Modern?

This year three conceptual gardens were awarded gold medals including the 'best in show' for this category, The Pansy Project designed by Paul and Tom Harfleet. This relative 'gold rush' in the conceptual category was not reflected in the show garden format which produced just one gold medallist, Reflections of Thailand - Sala Rim Nam: House by the River ably designed by James Clarke. This does not necessarily mean that the conceptual gardens were of a better overall standard than the show gardens, just that within the framework set down by the specialist judges for awards in each category, more conceptual gardens reached the highest level than show gardens.

I must admit I like looking at the conceptual gardens, most seem to me strong visual statements and although I am not sure that the quality of the planting has yet reached the level of the garden's concept or 'idea', I am certain that no gardener should be afraid of looking at something new. I am often saddened by the negative comments I hear from visitors to the concept gardens at Hampton Court, some of whom seem unwilling to embrace any change from the English gardening tradition of the early to mid 20th century. Evaluation of these gardens should surely encompass both concept and execution - for instance, would a cracked concrete pavement planted with 4,000 pansies have won best in show at Chelsea this year? Almost certainly not, but this interesting garden should be assessed in conjunction with its idea that it is 'a metaphoric reflection on the disruptive nature of homophobic hate crime on contemporary society, and The Pansy Project’s resistance to it'. In this context of evaluation these gardens bring something more akin to sculpture than traditional show gardening and at their best these gardens reflect not only raw, unrefined emotion and sensationalism, but also an underlying message. Like so much modern art these gardens are designed to shock, engage and question without reference to colour, scale, season or other of the gardener's more traditional assessment criteria.

So, good or bad I hope that these conceptual gardens are here to stay, they test our horticultural comfort zones and develop our understanding of how a garden can be used as metaphor without sacrificing beauty. Henry Moore the sculptor once said 'One never knows what each day is going to bring. The important thing is to be open and ready for it.' and I couldn't agree more.

I realise that those of you who follow this blog for expert analysis of garden tools may find this posting slightly esoteric - don't worry, normal service will resume shortly!

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