Showtime: Hampton Court's Conceptual Gardens

Hampton Court has more categories of garden than at Chelsea and I've found the Conceptual one to be the most challenging and thought provoking in the past. The work of Tony Smith has been the most memorable to date. However, he's not exhibiting at Hampton Court this year, having had a garden at Chelsea already and is now girding his loins for Tatton Park at the end of the month. So what is this category all about and what is there to see this year?

The show programme describes this category as:

The conceptual gardens question and redefine existing design boundaries and express a level of innovation and creativity that is not always possible within other garden categories. The brief requires horticultural knowledge to be finely balanced with artistic licence and an understanding of the principles of design.

To my mind conceptual gardens capture the essence of a strong idea or theme using horticulture and design stripped down to just a few key elements. It's not necessarily what I'd call a garden per se because they're really about capturing a moment or thought and it would be difficult to continue to practise my gardening with them. But they do require the onlooker to think, which I believe is a good thing. There's 6 conceptual gardens this year (from an entry list of 25) and I was surprised to find on my first viewing of this kind of garden 'in the flesh' (rather than via my TV or other media) that I had a very strong reaction to three of them.

This is Journey to Awakening. I overlooked this garden at first, but I was soon captivated by it on trying to take a photograph. For me it has a message about small mindedness: I think of the black slats as holding in my thoughts and opinions with the pathway through to the tree on the other side showing how I should strive to be objective and fair minded.

The (Japanese) designer has a different message as his design is influenced by Buddhism: the slats represent our human desires which cause suffering and it's only by journeying to within ourselves that we can break free of them and reach enlightenment. The use of Elodea on the water outside the circle is important as it masks the meaning of the words placed on the slats. Only by taking the journey into the circle are the actual words revealed by looking down at the dark pebbles and the reflection in the water. It's simple and very clever, but I think my interpretation is just as valuable (even if it 's only to me) as the designer's own intentions.

This is a close up of The Pansy Project Garden, another design which is simple, perfectly executed and had me wondering how on earth did they do that? as the planting emerges from the cracked concrete with barely a seam showing. It has a very strong and powerful message about the unacceptability of homophobia. Lia has written far better than I can about it's importance here and I will certainly take note should I come across pink pansies planted in the street in the future. Of course I would prefer not to see them just as I would prefer not to see the poignant reminders at the side of the road marking where a fatal accident has occurred. This was awarded Best Conceptual Garden.

I was drawn to Falmouth University's A Fable For Tomorrow because it tells the story of plant succession which I remember so well from geography lessons at school: from the pioneer marram grass at the foot of the dune, through to the denser more mature vegetation at the top. It's also a precautionary tale of how many of our plant species are threatened by extinction with their preservation in seed banks seen as the solution to preserving biodiversity. Here the seed bank has been broken open and I see that as both a warning and a triumph. In the future our seed bank solution might fail, but given half a chance plants are great survivors.

There's been quite a bit of chat on Twitter this week about the relevance of themed gardens and having seen these examples, I believe they're a strong argument in favour. However, they also demonstrate that these kinds of gardens still require a strong idea and excellence in execution to have that relevance and resonance. BTW these three designs all achieved a gold medal. Lia's report in The Guardian on The Pansy Project Garden demonstrates that gardens can break free from their natural 'pigeonhole' in society and make the World News pages. That's got to be a good thing in my view.

It's a shame that many of Hampton's visitors won't have the opportunity to go into the centre of the Journey to Awakening garden like I did because that experience did take the people I saw doing it (and me) from Huh? to That's amazing! That's also food for thought: I had a very strong reaction to both this garden and A Fable for Tomorrow, even before I'd read the designers' information about their intentions (I can't say the same about The Pansy Project Garden because I'd read quite a bit about it beforehand). Would I have reacted so strongly to all 3 gardens if I'd just seen them on the TV? I think not: just like with art, I've found I need to be physically there to really feel what these gardens are about.

Goodness, I see I've reached an important blogging milestone today - my 1,000th post :0 Many thanks to all of you who've stuck with me thus far - I couldn't have done it without you :)


  1. Thanks for such a detailed report. I missed HC this year, and it is always the Conceptual Gardens that provoke the most thought for me. I recommended that they should be judged by artists, as well as garden folk, and still hold to that notion. Great that at last, these remarkable creations have struck gold. But let's hope they never become 'establishment.'

    And thanks for linking to Lia's brilliant piece, too. Two cracking reads!

  2. great post! i liked 'fable for tomorrow' best. the appearence, the reason behind it, & becuase it reminded me of geology class i once took. it's been 25 yrs., & i still feel for the teacher--poor thing, so cruel to put a new graduate who's so in love with her major into a class full of non-majors.

  3. What a great entry, I enjoyed seeing the pictures and reading about the gardens.
    Love, Mrs. Slug

  4. Nigel - thanks for adding your insight from behind the scenes. I hadn't realised that this category had 'come of age' so to speak by achieving gold. And yes it would be a shame if they did become 'establishment'.

    Petoskystone - I took geology as well as geography but vegetation succesion was firmly in my geography syllabus.

    babbler - welcome! I'm glad you enjoyed your tour :)

  5. A great 1000th post. The image of the pansy pavement will stay in my mind for a long while but my favourite must be the 'fable for tomorrow'. When I first saw a picture of it I was struck with a wave of nostalgia for lovely Llangennith beach on the Gower where there is a cutting from the field car-park through the dunes onto the long stretch of sands. Funny how these gardens evoke different feelings from individuals.

  6. Oops - the comment from JD above is me.. I have so many wretched accounts now that I forget who I am logged in as!

  7. Arabella - you're very welcome in all your guises :) Perhaps my childhood memories of the Gower are another reason why this piece resonated with me.

  8. Hehe! I was doing a late night blog hop via the "next blog" button and ended up at your place! LOL!

  9. Helena - what a great coincidence. Good to see you!


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