I visited the new Future Gardens ‘show' last week. I say show, as I'm not quite sure what it is - an exhibition? Demonstration gardens? Design inspiration? Installation art? Designer showcase? However you define it, there is no getting away from the fact that this is a great addition to the summer-garden-visiting line-up.
Some of the gardens are beautiful, some shocking; some will take time to grow, others give instant gratification now. This isn't about perfect plants or high horticulture, but it is about what gardens can be and how you might want to think differently about yours. It is also, thankfully, about letting ‘show' gardens settle into the ground and grow from now until 4 October. Watching how they change will be particularly exciting.
In essence, this is a garden design show in the similar veins to those of the festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire, France, the International Garden Festival at Les Jardins de Métis, Quebec, Canada, and the International Festival of Garden Design at Westonbirt, Gloucestershire (which finished a couple of years ago). In fact, the same organisers from Westonbirt (particularly Terese Lang from TJM Associates) is responsible for Future Gardens. Located at the as-yet-unbuilt Butterfly World Project, just off junction 21a of the M25, 12 sustainably themed gardens (and one charity garden) have been created by British designers and artists such as Andy Sturgeon, Fiona Heron and Tony Heywood, and international designers such as Bruno Marmiroli.
Together, the designers have created a suite of gardens that challenge you to consider gardens differently - from art installation (such as Tony Heywood's semi-autobiographical ‘Anthroscape 3' (above), that references his parents, memories of beach-time childhood and his ever-changing view of landscape: stunning) to a beautifully considered outdoor garden design by University of Falmouth graduates Hugo Bugg and Maren Hallenga (‘Narratives of Nature' (below) as it was called, features log walls, plants for food and foraging, and cutlery-lined water pools).
Other highlights were Fiona Heron's sculptural seedheads in ‘Nature's Artistry'; the dense, forest-like entrance of branches and twigs in Michelle Wake and Chloe Leaper's ‘Release Garden'; and Jane Hudson and Erik de Maeijer's cosy ‘Nest' of Stipa tenuissima (these three below).
The 13 gardens, all surrounded by the same wooden fencing, have a consistency in shape and area - and as a result, you can really start comparing like for like, understanding how different designers have used the space and asking yourself how you feel in the different gardens. The sense of entrance and exit to each garden is as much part of the experience as the design itself and here some designers did better than others - when you have such a strong message in a garden, letting the visitor just wander out onto the next one without any sense of finale or welcome is a disappointment. In addition, some of the hard landscaping and planting in the communal areas between the gardens - in terms of paths, beds and screening - was not yet finished, and looked pretty weak: the organisers will need to sort this out urgently if they are to stem disgruntled visitors, especially considering the entrance price of £12.50.
However, the net effect is a set of gardens that will make for a great visit. On their own and en masse, they make for a different take on garden design and will inspire different people in different ways. The benefit of Ivan Hicks' permanent creations - including the truly amazing ‘Theatre of Insects' gabion walls filled with anything from car doors to old vinyl records (above) - gives a substantial ‘added value' boost to the visit. As James Alexander-Sinclair (infamous blogger and member of the Future Gardens selection panel) implored at the press launch, ‘we want you to debate and argue about these gardens. Do not hold back.' Given the nation's enthusiasm for gardens, I would hope a great debate can ensue.