Understanding Show Gardens

I had a lovely time at the Gardener's World Show at the NEC Birmingham yesterday, at a Press preview hosted by the RHS. It was extra useful because we had the chance to talk to the designers of several of the show gardens and other exhibits, which this year were apparently particularly good, and I'm just thinking about starting a new garden myself (about which much, much more anon). What better way to get some inspiration? I'm a total doofus when it comes to design; gardens are dreamt up and planned in an incomprehensible language. To my untutored mind Diarmuid Gavin's Irish Sky Garden at Chelsea didn't so much say Capability Brown, Charles Jencks and the Italian Renaissance gardens as shout "GREEN!" and have a bit of a laugh. I seem to spend most of my time at shows in the floral marquee bit, pondering on how amazing the nurseries we have are. Anyway, in true naive blogger style I thought I could try to categorize the gardens I've seen over the last couple of years to try and better understand what sort of garden I want, which seems to be none of them: 1. Designer This is what Chelsea seems to do best; Cleve West's garden this year was a fab example of aspirational chique. Like that kitchen out of House and Garden, the kind of thing you yearn for but know would be disastrous in real life outside SW3. Amazing planting, tasteful and wildly expensive hard landscaping. Even I could tell it was destined for stardom. 2. Eco friendly People seem to get confused about "eco friendly". It doesn't necessarily mean sitting in its own zone of the show like a naughty child (as happened at Hampton Court last year), looking like a more or less coiffured and largely green bio-hazard, or generating enough power to warm a house. Why can't it be something like this that looks like... well.... a rather beautiful garden? 3. Idyll I'm not sure what the point is of recreating sylvan scenes like this, but the judges seem to like it like we do Vaughan Williams. There's usually a charming back story too, so the whole thing feels like a bucolic diorama out of which you expect Rumpelstiltskin to spring. Last year at Hampton Court we had "Shakespeare's Comedies Gardens", which was as good as it gets for enthusiasts of the style. 4. Conceptual/wacky These gardens sit like a Damien Hirst in the National Gallery. Once you've appreciated the message I'm not sure what their merit is. There were a couple of classics at Birmingham, including "Grass", where Tony Smith made a succinct point about monoculture - I think - by creating an exhibit out of it. And got a Gold. 5. Uncle Vern These are close to the idylls; the kind of garden you remember as a child through the rose tinted glasses of memory. Like my Uncle Vern's; he grew dahlias and begonias, lupins and delphiniums, giant tomatoes and potatoes. There's good potential for jokey elements in this type of exhibit too, like the giant pink tap at last year's Hampton Court show. I'm not necessarily dissing any of these approaches, but as a mug punter I find it curious that they are so distinct. Was it ever thus? Interesting things seem to start to happen when, occasionally, these gardens stray into more than one genre, which I suppose is of course what real gardens do. It's certainly going to be a right old potage at our place, which I hope will have small meadow/woodland/pond/orchard/veg areas with a modest formal garden too, which I guess will be principally "eco" and "designer" - though re-engineer "expensive" with "sustainable" when it comes to the hard landscaping element! I'd like to use native as well as helpful non-native plants in a relatively formal, contemporary look which will (of course!) encourage biodiversity. No prizes as to which of the gardens above it will most resemble! All I need to do now is to come up with a name for the style... any ideas, oh better informed and gentle reader? In the meantime it's time to have a chat about it over a beer with my local landscape designer friend Phil.