Chelsea Flower Show: the scope of the landscape

Around 2500BC, Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk, took a break from exercising his droit du seigneur upon the brides of the city and decided he needed the world’s first pleasure garden.

Since then there has been a rivalry in the world of gardening; namely whether plants people look down on designers or designers look down on plants people. It’s a jolly silly argument, of course, as any garden worth its salt has to combine both disciplines with balance, dexterity and taste.

Garden design may often be considered optional because gardens evolve over time. They grow slowly as the homeowner becomes more knowledgeable, as children are born and leave home. But a good and sympathetic garden designer can soothe a newcomer’s worries, sort things out and, in the long run, save them money.

The profession of garden design is becoming more international too. Gold medal-winning designer Andy Sturgeon has opened a new office in Singapore, for example, while other British designers are working increasingly in Russia and China. It seems that the whole world wants a taste of the English garden, which may be because London hosts the most famous garden showpiece of them all: the Chelsea Flower Show.

The show is 100 years old this year and, as always, it will be a week when he eyes of the world are on gardens and, in particular, the cream of garden design. In years past the show’s biggest draws were the nursery stands in the Great Pavilion; the gardens, such as they were, occupied the perimeters of the Royal Hospital and usually consisted of beds of rhododendrons arranged around scatterings of rock and the odd terracotta pot. Garden design remained at the lower end of the pecking order until the late 1980s, when a combination of television, books and an increased awareness of style meant that people started showing an interest.

For those gardeners that still insist on going it alone, though, here is some advice: there are three main criteria when designing a garden. First, the style of the building: a Tudor-style knot garden does not sit comfortably outside a glasswalled modernist dream. Second, the view: if you are looking out over rolling farmland, the garden needs to fit, not fight, the landscape. Third, and probably most important: the people. If you have four children and a small pack of romping puppies, then intricately woven herbaceous borders are not for you.

Is garden design essential outside grand schemes and international flower shows? Millions of people get on perfectly well without designers. They learn from their mistakes and bumble on regardless. However, a designer can be very helpful and good to have along for the ride. At best we help create something completely glorious for which you may claim the credit. At worst, you have somebody to blame if it all goes horribly wrong.

James Alexander-Sinclair is a garden designer and founder of

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