Tuesday, January 01, 2013

The Constant Gardener has moved house

I've got a nice shiny new place to blog - you'll find it here. Please come on over and visit: if you're an email subscriber you will also need to re-subscribe (sorry...) and generally set everything up again but I hope you won't find it takes too long and promise it'll be worth it.

See you there!

Sally x

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Postcard from Japan: The best of the rest

Well - not everyone could win a gold medal, I suppose.

The standard this year at the Gardening World Cup was very high, as you'd expect from international designers of this calibre: so the competitive element was particularly controversial, and there was much heated muttering in corners about the judges' reasons for awarding anything less than gold.

But the decision, as they say, is final, so in recognition of the fact that there were some damn good gardens among the lesser medals, I couldn't leave without showing you them, too.

David Davidson + Leon Kluge: Hortus Consensus (S Africa)
An uncompromisingly African garden with its ochre colouring, you'd hardly believe these plants were sourced in Japan. The garden is divided by a sweeping wall, planted on top with spiky, forbidding Aloe vera (the closest Japanese plant David could find to South African Cape aloe, A. ferox) symbolising the transition from the apartheid era to the age of peace and reconciliation

Behind the wall, all is wild, with a meadow of Panicum virgatum punctuated with lipstick pink Lycoris radiata (I think: the Japanese tend not to use Latin names, so this is a 'best guess' from me). These grow wild along the sides of the paddyfields here - the Japanese equivalent of dandelions - and their exotic looks earned them a place in several of the show gardens  

Set into the walls were these charming 'wildlife boxes': I've seen them filled with grass and bamboo before, but never teapots. One of David's Japanese contractors apparently went and raided his mum's kitchen cupboards for this lot

In front of the wall, all was ordered, with beautiful wavy lines of planting giving the garden a lovely movement. David and Leon design the Kirstenbosch exhibit at Chelsea each year, and have won umpteen gold medals. It's their 20th year next year, and David may make it his last: his subtle, plantsman's designs will be sorely missed.

Gabino Carballo: Dragomed Garden (Spain)
If there was ever a garden that gave away its designer's nationality, this is it. This was a garden which needed bright sunshine to make it sing. Luckily, the light in Nagasaki is particularly pure and set the scarlet of the painted bamboo off against the deep purple central courtyard beautifully.

This was a playful garden, though the message behind it was serious: the red bamboo is the skeleton of a dragon 'bleeding on a reflecting pool': a reference, too, to the 'rauxa', a Catalan term for uncontrolled passion and rage. The contrast with the blue peace of the central patio is absolute.

Planting was sparing and set off well against the pale gravel background: as well as these aeoniums there were aloes, shimmering silver Leucadendron argenteum and olives

Jihae Hwang: Mother's Sewing Basket (Korea)

Probably the most controversial decision of the lot, Jihae's garden was the pick of many of the other designers for top honours but ended up getting bronze. It was an exquisitely detailed depiction of the positive side of life in poverty: the tranquillity and peace in having little, and therefore valuing family and community more

Colour was used sparingly, but exceptionally beautifully in tiles (here at the base of a giant silver needle sculpture which dominated the garden) and in little touches like tiny ceramic flowers set into the steps

A rusted metal wall is set with Korean domestic implements: a cooking pan and a gardening tool. In the white rendered wall opposite, Jihae set a little cluster of rusted bolts and springs: the symbols of humility pervaded this garden 

Inside there was a simple wooden bench with tiny pairs of shoes underneath in a neat row, pots and a basket of fabric resting on top. The tale is of domesticity and simple pursuits, and the importance of family

Karen Stefonick: Passage Under the Sun (USA)

This was gardening as modern art. The abstract dominates: a burning sun over two concrete slabs (four lorries' worth, apparently) trickling with life-giving water that flows down into a pool surrounding the seating areas and cutting them off

The stepping stones between the two areas 'connect past and present, continents and countries': though separated by water, this is a garden of unity, simplicity and clean, uncluttered space

The planting is sparing, too: I couldn't help but notice in these gardens that wherever the designer came from, there was a noticeable Japanese influence on the designs. Plants were used in single, emphatically isolated specimens or groups, often juxtaposed against a rock - a very Japanese technique. Perhaps that's to do with having Japanese contractors build the gardens; perhaps it's just that you can't help breathing in a little of the culture while you're here.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Postcard from Japan: The home team

No doubt the home supporters among you have been wondering how the Brits got on.

There were two gardens from British designers at the Gardening World Cup, by Jo Thompson and Richard Miers, both quite different interpretations of the peace theme.

Actually it's slightly cheating including Jo in the British contingent as she was representing Italy (James Basson, too, is a candidate for the Brit team, being an Englishman who lives in France). She comes from Italian stock, so she's allowed to defect temporarily, but she's on our side really.

Anyway, Jo won a silver medal (equalling her medal from last year's show) for her stone-arched garden, taking its inspiration directly from what happened at Nagasaki almost 70 years ago.

Richard, making his first show garden here (now that's a baptism of fire if ever there was one) was awarded bronze for his very English garden that simply embodied the everyday peace we all feel when we kick back and relax of an evening in a beautiful garden.

I thought I'd shut up for once and let them talk about it in their own words.
Jo Thompson: The Butterfly Effect

"The garden is a direct response to a visit last year that we made to the Nagasaki Peace Museum... It really sunk home quite how important this message [of peace] is.

"What stayed with me were the images of these atomic shadows, which are the remnants of people who were essentially vapourised by the bomb. The people have disappeared but their shadows still remain on the concrete walls: you've got somebody sitting waiting for a bus, a ladder with a man up it going about his daily business - and all of that is just spine-tinglingly awful and it does make your blood run cold.

"Then next to these shadows were some wooden window shutters which had survived, and onto them there had been imprinted the shadow of the acer leaves on the tree that had stood in front of them, and it was beautiful, the most intricate pattern.

"And I found myself standing in front of it thinking, well this is beautiful but in fact it's come from something so ugly. And I wanted to use that.

"So that was the first idea - and then as we walked out of the museum we were met by a host of butterflies. It was extraordinary - we came out from this place of gloom and were just met by them flying around, their fragility contrasting with the sadness of the place we'd just been.

"So I've designed a space that has rendered walls for shadows, it's a very plain, simple floor surface for shadows; it has arches in it to frame shadows, and plants that attract butterflies."

Richard Miers: Serenity

"It's a garden to entertain in: to get people to sit down and have a meal and discuss and talk, aiming for peace and tranquillity.

"The theme of the whole show was gardens for peace  - my interpretation was peace within oneself, which you get being out of doors in a nice garden with wildlife all around you, the sound of the running rill - it all just helps you bring peace to yourself.

"The Japanese love asymmetry, and Europeans tend to like symmetry, and I wanted to show them what an English town garden could look like.

"I wanted to bring elements of water, I wanted to bring in the sun, represented in Emily Young's sculpture, and show them how an English herbaceous border would be put together but using Japanese flowers.

"It's getting the rhythm around the garden, having the space to breathe between the flowers which I thought was important."

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Postcard from Japan: Gold-winning gardens

When you get eleven of the world's best designers together, give them the same brief and more or less the same conditions - limited budget, two weeks to build and source the plants, and a Japanese contractor with translator - it's a fascinating insight into the way different nationalities approach the same challenges.
The best of the gardens at the Gardening World Cup in Japan were simply superb. There were five gold medals this year: each of them, in their own different way, interpreted the theme of peace with intelligence, subtlety and thoughtfulness: all the more extraordinary given the constraints they were put under.
Lim in Chong chose an Islamic garden to corner the Best in Show prize, but the four other gold medal winners took different approaches, taking inspiration from the path of a bullet to water as the source of life to Japanese castles.
Xanthe White: Regenerating through the water
(Best Design)
Xanthe's sunken garden envelops you the moment you walk in, with its burnt-wood pergola and enclosing planked walls. Orchids and bright yellow daisies cascaded down green walls and dark pools dripped with ferns and broad-leaved petasites
The planting was lush and green, with water in two black pools edged with rock and wood: this garden was unmistakeably New Zealand, but with a Japanese accent
...and the planting on the living wall outside was just ravishing

James Basson: Dulce et Decorum Est
(Best Interpretation)
Taking inspiration from the Wilfred Owen poem Dulce et Decorum Est (Pro Patria Mori) James's garden took the passage of a bullet through solid material as its theme: the small hole in the back wall widens through to a jagged wreckage in the front, also symbolising the terrible effect of war from a small cause to devastating consequences

Soft planting of sanguisorbas, grasses, eupatorium and chocolate cosmos soothed the blasted concrete and emphasised the role of nature in healing
Kazuyuki Ishihara: An Alcove Garden
(People's Choice Award)

Ishihara is already a familiar name for his regular gold medal winning forays to Chelsea: this time he's on home turf and designing an uncompromisingly Japanese landscape, with tea house, cascading pools and a maple just turning bronze
This is the lower pool, covering the width of the garden: the upper pool, overhung by a low branch from a nearby pine, is fed by a bubbling cascade

Behind the pine is this moongate - or perhaps moon window - let into the stone walls lined with moss and sedum,
a wooden carving of dragons set across it

Hiroshi Terashita: Peace Blooms in Forest

This was a garden which looked as though it had been there for centuries. The sweeping walls are in the style of ancient 16th century Sengoku castles, constructed with sloping walls to keep the enemy out: each stone was hand carved by Japanese stonemasons working on the garden in slippers
Planting was simple and understated: I loved this sweep of white-flowered water plants skirting the edge of the wall. Birches, ash and konara oaks (Quercus serrata) sheltered the ferns and moss beneath
...and there were little details like these hand-carved stone dragonflies set into the paving which just caught at your heart. Exquisite.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Postcard from Japan: Medals Day at the Gardening World Cup

Sometimes I can't quite believe my luck. This week I get to spend in Nagasaki, Japan, visiting the Japanese version of the Chelsea Flower Show.

A peek into the little paradise that is 'Eye to Eye', the winning garden by Lim in Chong
The Gardening World Cup, held in the slightly incongruous setting of a Dutch theme park (of which I hope more later: it is bizarreness in a class of its own) takes place over 10 days and as the name would suggest it's a competition, between eleven garden designers invited from all over the world.

You enter the garden through a barren space stabbed with shards of rusted metal like shrapnel
Among them this year are our very own Jo Thompson, of Doris the Chelsea caravan fame, and Richard Miers, usually to be seen designing the likes of 15-acre gardens in Surrey and landscaping the grounds of Grade I listed houses and the like but this year dabbling in the show gardens game for a change.
The journey ends when you step through the last eye gate and into a tranquil haven of bubbling water and gentle flowers
The standard is incredibly high. There are leading designers here from the US, New Zealand, South Africa, Malaysia, Korea and of course Japan, all at the top of their game. Today we found out the medals, and also the winner of the coveted title of 'Best in Show' (that particular gong comes with a 1 million yen prize cheque - over £8000).
One day I would like the kind of garden you can pave with blue-and-white Islamic tiles
(and the climate to go with it, please)
The winning garden, Eye to Eye' by Lim in Chong from Malaysia (known to everyone as 'Inch'), took the theme of 'World Peace' to heart.

It's a garden of two halves, in which you make a journey through 'eye' gates across a barren space filled with monumental rocks like gravestones. Everything here is sharp and uncomfortable: the colours are black and white and grey, and the path is of jagged rusted metal shards, raised unevenly so you pick your way gingerly across them. Two stone 'Tourou' lanterns are Malaysian symbols of death, lighting the way for the spirits of the dead.

This was a garden of all the senses: the bubbling star pool in the centre is a gentle backdrop of sound
There's a mirrored sliding door set into the framework of the second eye gate. Closed, you're trapped, shut into the harsh, conflict-ridden world of war. But it opens to reveal the second part of the garden: a classic Islamic enclosed courtyard full of flowers and running water.
The planting was charming, but very English to my eye... but look at that strappy pandanus behind
This is as much of a contrast with what went before as it's possible to have. It's a moving, beautiful space where I just wanted to sit for hours. A raised star-shaped pool at the centre bubbles quietly: the floor is tiled with white-and-blue ceramic, and there are exquisite little touches like the pool of floating rose-madder flowers off to one side. Latticework windows allow you to look in from outside.
Other corners were unmistakeably oriental
The cool shade inside is a welcome refuge from the searing Japanese sun (it's 25°C and humid here, and the sunlight is dazzling: sorry, I realise this won't go down well with British readers, but if it makes you feel better there's a typhoon forecast for Sunday). The planting is in soft pastels, and oddly English in feel: cosmos and roses are everywhere. They're unusual exotics here, of course: you have to 'read' gardens differently on the other side of the world.
And this was a particular favouite: the buds, set along the length of the stems, are claret-red, too
It's saved from cottage garden twee-ness by a cluster of gingers in the corner, a sumptuous cream abutilon with a blood-red eye, and what looked to me like variegated pandanus grass (we have no indication of plant names here so you're stuck with my hit-and-miss plant identification skills, I'm afraid). I thought it a breathtaking garden, thoughtfully constructed and lovingly planted. It's about time we saw more of Inch in the UK, I'd say. This is the kind of garden design excellence we can all learn from.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Of very small things

I've mentioned my talented friend Pattie before on this blog: she's a floral artist of the most patient and dedicated kind, and I am regularly rendered speechless by her extraordinary creations.

Here's her latest.

She's something of a specialist in miniatures, compositions made entirely from plant material but measuring no more than 10cm in any direction.

It was for the annual NAFAS competition at the Wisley Flower Show, this year moved out of the rather gloomy tent it's usually in, to take up a much sunnier spot in the Bicentenary Glasshouse.

The theme for this year's miniatures was 'Just Perfick'. Which, I think, it is. Luckily the judges thought so too and gave it first prize.

The level of detail is just astounding: as you can see, it's a little picnic scene with bowls of berry 'apples' and a basket of buns made from pearl barley kernels delicately painted red along the crease.

Here's the second prize winner, by Rachel Sherwin: I can't work out what the 'apples' are on this one (there's one on the tree and a couple on the little chair underneath). They're seedpods of some description, but nothing I recognise: these artists are geniuses at seeing miniature shapes in things you or I would just pop in a seed packet and forget about.

And third prize: perhaps a more straightforward arrangement from Anne Blunt, but nonetheless exquisitely pretty for all that. Those little blossoms so artfully arranged on the twig look just like a Japanese cherry in springtime. In fact now I come to think of it, there's more than an echo of Japanese tradition in these delicate little creations.

If you're one of the many people who scuttle past the floral art tent at flower shows on the way to something more obviously gardening-related, do stop next time and take a look, if only just for these little jewels. They're like nothing else you'll ever see.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Wisley Flower Show in pictures

Glorious sunshine beckons this weekend for the Wisley Flower Show: for my money, one of the very best small shows there is.

I popped by for the first day on Thursday and accidentally discovered the way to 'do' the show with minimal discomfort. As regulars will know there's a killer of a traffic jam right down the A3 and on to the M25 which builds up gradually until by mid-morning you're waiting well over an hour to get to the front gate.

Because I had a ridiculously over-committed day which involved collecting £200 of wood from a sawmill, visiting Wisley Flower Show and hacking the 2 1/2 hour drive back to Somerset, all by lunchtime, I turned up on the dot of 9am when the show opens. What a revelation.

I swept regally in without so much as a hesitation and was politely waved to my place in Car Park No 1 (right by the entrance) by a small phalanx of attendants. I strolled through the garden, almost alone bar feverishly lawnmowing gardeners, and had the whole show very nearly to myself for the first half-hour.

By the time I was ready to leave it was only 11am and the queues were well on the way back to Junction 9. Once again, I swept out, waving (slightly sadistically) at all the sweating punters on the other side of the A3 still waiting to get in. You couldn't help but feel a bit smug.

Anyway: if you get the chance to go this weekend, don't miss it. Here are a few of the many delights you'll enjoy.

Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora 'Emily Mackenzie', Leonotis leonurus and Astilbe x chinensis taquetii 'Superba' in joyous union on the Best in Show stand by Madrona Nursery

Flower of the show was definitely Rudbeckia laciniata 'Herbstonne': it was everywhere, about 7ft tall and supremely elegant. Probably my favourite of all the rudbeckias and superb in big, in-yer-face planting schemes

Solanum quitoense, a gorgeous sultry big purple leaf with the dew still frosting its upper surfaces, from tropical woodland in central America - one of an extraordinary and inspiring display of exotics from Plantbase Nursery

Aralia cordata flowers catching the sunlight on the Edulis Nursery stand

I rather liked the funky pink frames used to set off the plants on Bean Place Nursery's stand

Dichroa februga, an evergreen hydrangea relative (The Botanic Nursery)

An intriguing heather from Trewidden: don't you just love the way the stems carry on up out of those huge blowsy flowers? It's Erica verticillata - and 70s and boring it ain't

And last but not least: one for all you heuchera lovers out there. Heuchera 'Sashay' from Heucheraholics had the most gorgeous ruched leaves with just the right touch of purple petticoat showing. Exquisite.

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