Some of our greatest gardens are built exclusively around native plants and home-grown traditions, but American gardeners have always looked far and wide for ideas for their back yards. For gardeners around the world, whether they're novices or experienced old hands, the deepest and most fascinating well of outside inspiration is the annual Chelsea Flower Show in London.
The spectacular display of the ideas, skills and showmanship of world-renowned English garden designers helps set the direction for garden design. The scope and scale of the spring event is daunting -- and Chelsea's show gardens are magnificent -- but the ideas presented are entirely accessible and adaptable on both sides of the Atlantic.
The gardens at this year's flower show were quickly labeled "moditional" by the press. Each of the 20 show gardens, created from scratch on the grounds of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, combined modern and traditional ideas of garden design styles and features. People are by no means willing to give up the romance of old-fashioned gardens, but it appears that clean, modern lines will figure strongly in the gardens of the 21st century.
"Moditional gardens are very much the way forward," London garden designer Stephen Woodhams says. "Gardens are the perfect canvas on which to create a picture using old and traditional materials alongside fresh new features and ideas."
The best modern gardens do not reject history, but use it as a foundation. In Chelsea's gardens, minimalist ornaments of bright steel harmonized strikingly but comfortably with billowing boxwood hedges, lush flower beds and ornate antique garden decorations.
The garden designers mixed their materials fluently, combining wood decks with handsome sandstone pathways, and laying blue-glazed bricks next to lustrous black limestone. In one garden, smooth blue pebbles were set into a patio to give it texture and color, and the same stones were used as mulch around plants in an adjacent flower bed.
Elsewhere, colored gravel from South Africa was arranged in a pattern inspired by abstract geometric paintings of the 1920s. This walled garden's hard edges were softened with plants massed in neat rectangles. Lavender, rosemary, boxwood and juniper contributed their fragrance, texture and subtle color to the design, which was billed as "a modern parterre in the neoplastic style."
Every garden is the result of interaction between people and nature. The gardens at Chelsea also showed off careful collaborations between garden designers and craftsmen. In a garden designed by Piet Oudolf and Arne Maynard, three artisans -- a stonemason, a fountain maker and a furniture designer -- combined their geniuses with spectacular results. A series of leap-frog fountains, an idea borrowed from the 17th century, splashed along the garden's central axis. A handsome garden bench, made from a huge tree trunk carved down to a simple, massive rectangle stained jet black, rested serenely in the midst of it all, surrounded by artfully clipped shrubbery and a Persian carpet of flowers.
Woodhams' garden played on unusual water features -- an outdoor bathtub and a shower sheltered only by ancient chestnut trees on the Royal Hospital's grounds. The tub seemed to float in a shallow pool edged with limestone, and the shower was surrounded by a bath mat of real grass. A transparent plastic chaise lounge emphasized the beauty of the natural surroundings.
Some elements of his show garden were "playfulness in the extreme," Woodhams admits, but he made an important point: The garden is just an extension of the house, a green room full of possibilities.
"For too long there has been a preconception that outside space and inside space are separate," he says. "I try to challenge that by linking the two."
Flower show gardens are theatrical and ephemeral -- a few days, perhaps a week of glory, and then they're dismantled.
But good gardens, even if they're temporary, make a lasting impression. A gardener can do a lot with a couple of snapshots, sketches of a garden plan and some careful notes on plantings, whether they are taken on a garden tour in the neighborhood or at a colossal flower show across the Atlantic Ocean.
"Imagination is everything," Woodhams says. "If a garden doesn't fire the imagination, I don't consider it a success."
The Royal Horticultural Society
P.O. Box 313
London, SW1P 2PE, England
Phone: 011 44 20 7821 3000
The group organizes 20 flower shows every year. The Chelsea Flower Show is considered to be the first event of the English gardening season. In 2001, the show will be held May 22-25. RHS members receive the society's monthly magazine, The Garden, free admission to 40 gardens (most are in England) and discounts on tickets to the society's flower shows. Membership costs $53.
A video of the Chelsea Flower Show is available by mail from The Royal Horticultural Society's garden at Wisley, Woking, Surrey, GU23 6QB, England; phone: 011 44 1483 224234; fax: 011 44 1483 211750; e-mail: mailorder @rhs.org.uk. The video (ask for the American version) costs $40, including air-mail postage.
"Chelsea, the Greatest Flower Show on Earth" by Leslie Geddes-Brown (Dorling Kindersley, $19), was published to coincide with the show this year. The book was not released in North America, but it is available from the RHS mail-order shop at the address above.