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Creating your own show garden

By Andy McIndoe

Want to create your own show garden?

Whether you feel starved of the real flower show experience this year or not there is always plenty of inspiration in newspapers, magazines and on the internet and television. Images of beautiful, manicured outdoor spaces tempt us and we crave for similar results in our own back yards. However Show Gardens are not real, they are created for a moment in time, maybe they last a week, but after that they live on only in pictures. No time for plants to fail, get too large, for weeds to grow or pests and diseases to cause havoc. Having said that there are lessons to be learnt and several of the show garden principles are easy to replicate in your own garden. Even if your plot is small it may well be much larger than the space occupied by a garden at a flower show.

Framing the view

Take a look at your garden from wherever you admire it most: from a window, the conservatory or the patio for example. That is how you would look at a show garden: from a certain point. Framing the view by bringing height into the foreground and focussing the eye further afield makes all the difference. It makes the space look larger by creating a vista. Chris Beardshaw’s garden at RHS Chelsea 2019 is a good example. The mature, character pine in the foreground and the light height of the other trees frames the vista to the outside living space beyond.

Light trees with an open structure and layered branches are particularly good in the foreground of a garden picture. They add that light height in the foreground and work in small gardens as well as in larger spaces. In this garden Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ in the foreground frames the view to white barked birches beyond. The white variegation of the cornus brings out the colour of the birch stems in the distance.

Leading the eye

Most gardens reveal everything at first glance. A garden is made more interesting and attractive if it leads you on to explore, if only in your imagination. Creating an illusion that there is more to see is frequently used in show garden design; here again it makes a small space seem bigger. These steps in Andy Sturgeon’s winning design at RHS Chelsea 2019 do just that.They lead you through the garden down a tempting pathway. The simple green planting softens the stone and is calming. It does not distract from the focus of the pathway.

Focal points can be effectively used to lead the eye. These can be features but can equally be achieved with the planting. In this tiny courtyard space filled with acers and phormiums in pots the bright lime-yellow foliage of a heuchera leads the eye.In the wrong place yellow can be very distracting in a planting scheme, but here it is used to advantage.

Maintaining the effect

We live with our gardens throughout the year. Therefore it is really important to consider what will be there through the seasons. Yes you will add seasonal highlights, but the garden needs structure and permanence. In this show garden box hedges and trees provide the structure, but when those lupins and foxgloves have faded the effect will be very different. Their light and bright hues are very uplifting, even reflected in the soft furnishings of the garden furniture.But next week? Perhaps a gloomier picture.

For successful planting foliage is the fabric. The flowers are merely embroidery.We all crave colour in our gardens and think that comes from flowers. However some of the most admired gardens at RHS Chelsea over the years have been the tiny Artisan gardens created by Kakuyuki Ishihara and his team from Japan. These sum us the mastery of the Japanese at creating an entire landscape in the smallest space.The planting is based on form, texture and foliage. A wonderful picture that will endure through the seasons: Wonderfully retrained, yet abundant.

Creating an illusion of space

In this tiny Japanese garden, height and interest in the foreground once again are such an important element in enhancing perspective and framing the view.In any garden, planting in the foreground will improve the picture. Planting that allows you to see the garden beyond, but softens the focus on the distance. Light height from grasses and soft perennials is easy to achieve, but use some bold structure plants too that you can see past. Here the bold phormium on the right of the picture flows into the planting surrounding the terrace.

Restraining the colour palette

We are all attracted by the individual attributes of individual plants. Gardeners are by nature collectors and acquire plants without much thought as to how they relate to what they will grow alongside.Show gardens use a limited colour palette and in doing so present a more balanced and cohesive picture.Soft, naturalistic planting such as this green and white scheme from a small show garden may be too subtle for you, but there is no doubt that the effect is cool, calming and spacious.

Often plants are transformed by combining them with a simple planting partner.These red astrantias are striking on their own, but combine then with the silver-lilac, starry heads of Allium cristophii and they become something special. Different flower forms and well-chosen colours have great impact.

Having said all that gardens are very personal. A show garden is created to capture the attention and admiration of the visitor. Your garden is there to please you. There is no right or wrong way – gardening is an adventure; enjoy it!

Andy McIndoe

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