Shot! The Oregon Garden at the 2017 RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show

Attempting to bring a little of the Oregon landscape to England proved a big ask

One of the quirks of the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show is whilst it’s billed as the world’s biggest annual flower show, despite all the space afforded by 34 acres of showgrounds, its show gardens are way smaller than Chelsea where space is at a premium.

Why this should be has always bewildered me, never more so than this year when, just like at Chelsea a few weeks earlier, there was a significant decrease in the number of show gardens.

By my reckoning, there were around 25, compared to some 40 in 2016. And just like at Chelsea, the RHS even funded a few to make up the numbers. In fact, they claimed there were “more than 30 exciting show gardens.”

All I know is this year’s show felt strangely empty. What show gardens there were were all very small, and appeared to be even more scattered around the site than in previous years.

Walking around on an extremely warm press day, it was easy to miss some of them, either because they were so tiny or they were hidden among the exhibitors. It used to be that most of the show gardens were grouped together, almost side by side and you stepped from one to the other. To make things even more bewildering, the RHS had added yet another category — Gardens for a Changing World — to this year’s show gardens.

Whatever their intentions, the effect of all this was less than positive, diluting the visitor experience. The show gardens were not just harder to find, but in most cases, compared with previous years, way less impressive to look at.

It’s also interesting how there have been subtle changes recently in defining exactly what a show garden is. At Hampton in 2015, there were 12 show gardens among a total of 30 gardens at the show. Now bit seems the RHS is broadly referring to every garden, no matter what it’s size or budget, as being a show garden.

Personally, I think this is a huge mistake. Big budget show gardens are what people come to see. They’re the ones with the wow factor, the ones that get people talking and usually look the most impressive on TV and in pictures. Calling everything a ‘show garden’ just devalues that whole notion. But it’s not the only problem the RHS have created.

One carry over from past events was the reliance on charities and tourist boards to provide the funding. It meant that virtually every garden had a story to sell, a story that over the years has become the driving force for the design. In most cases however, unless you were told what the story was, you really would be none the wiser. You either liked what you saw, or you didn’t. And when you’re sponsoring something as high profile as a Chelsea or Hampton Court garden, no charity will want to be accused of overspending. As a result, they tend to err on the side of modesty.

And, if one were to be brutally honest, this year’s Hampton Court gardens were modest not just in size, but in ambition. One, put together at the last minute by Andy Sturgeon, was even made up of bits and pieces from previous Chelsea gardens. I’m all for recycling, but like many people I spoke with, I felt that was an idea that should not be re-used again,

I may be a tougher critic than most, but for me there was no one stand-out garden this time. Indeed, for me this was the least impressive Hampton I’ve been to. That’s not to say, there wasn’t some good things to see on the show gardens, just nothing truly exceptional. And certainly very little deserving of commendation.

Of course, that’s subjective. But ultimately it’s a matter of opinion, and mine clearly differed from the judges, who in their usual munificent way managed to reward every single show garden with a medal of one colour or another. Receiving one now seems almost a given for taking part, rather than a recognition of outstanding planting, design or conception.

I really struggled to find more than a handful that caught my eye, let alone that I wanted to spend time photographing. In the end, I focused on just three, which for different reasons, seemed worthy of their story being told.

The first of these was actually the least impressive of the trio, but had the potential to be so much better.

Visit the USA has been a regular sponsor of show gardens at Hampton Court, with each showcasing a different part of America. I’ve always been somewhat underwhelmed by them, because it looked like they were trying to stretch their budget too far and instead of having one stunning show garden, ended up with several less impressive ones.

This year was no different. Sitting alongside each other were three gardens showcasing South Carolina, Florida and Oregon. All were the creation of the same designer, Sadie May Stowell. The Carolina and Florida gardens were both similar in concept with each so formally laid out that both sides of the garden perfectly mirrored the other. Both were a little twee for my taste. Indeed, they were so little they were more like a front garden, than a show garden.

But The Oregon Garden was a different story, all be it a familiar one, because somewhat curiously the same designer had also created an Oregon garden at Hampton Court last year.

Now it has to be said Oregon is not that well-known among us Brits. When it comes to the West Coast, we know California and we know its big cities like LA, San Francisco and San Diego. We also know something about Seattle which is up near the Canadian border in Washington state.

Between Washington and California lies Oregon which with a total area of 98,378.54 square miles, happens to be America’s ninth largest state. It’s also one of the most geographically diverse, with volcanoes, abundant bodies of water, dense evergreen and mixed forests, as well as high desserts and semi-arid shrublands.

Trying to encapsulate such a large and diverse landscape within a 7m x 7m square plot was always going to be a challenge and, not surprisingly Sadie May took the naturalistic approach for this one.

If you look at her sketches, you can see what she was trying to do: to evoke some of that vast Oregonian landscape of huge conifers, massive mountains and powerful rivers and also include a selection of native flowers. If that wasn’t enough, she wanted the planting to reference two of Portland’s most popular gardens: the Rose Test Garden and the Portland Japanese Garden.

Her rendering shows a rocky outcrop surrounding a narrow pool of water. The backdrop is formed by half a dozen tall conifers and three maroon maples and apart from a seating area by the water, the rest of the garden is filled with plants predominantly in white and tones of pink.

The BBC presenter Joe Swift recording a piece to camera on the garden

But, as is so often the case, what looks good on paper, doesn’t necessarily impress quite as well in reality. The problem was the Lilliputian-sized space Sadie May had to work in was so small, there was no sense of scale, no sense of drama.

And, with so little space, much of the planting felt like every last available inch was having to be stuffed with plants. As much as I liked her selection, I felt the garden was overplanted.

Neither did I like the pool. Rather than the blue of the rendering, the actual water on the garden was so dark it didn’t even look like water.

What was much more successful was the use of rocks and boulders which provided a naturalistic backdrop to the planting tableau which also included a number of species found in Oregon such as Sidalcea, Godetia, Ammi majus, Deschampsia Cespitosa and Achillea. But if it were me I’d have ditched the two wooden seats. Not only did they look incongruous, but they diminished the feeling of scale.

It could have been so different if Visit USA had used their space to focus on just one state with just one garden. Triple the size and I could see The Oregon Garden having the scope to create something that would truly have represented Oregon and sold the state so much better.

As is often the case, the garden looks better in pictures than it did in real life. Whilst it made for good photographs, I’m not sure it was good enough to merit the silver gilt the judges gave it. That’s one off of a gold, which is the top prize. But there again, the USA tourist board is bound to be back at Hampton Court next year with more show gardens.

Behind the image: All these images were shot handheld with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and either the 12–40 2.8 Pro or the 75 1.8 lens. Getting good shots of entire show gardens is almost impossible as there are so many things that get in the way, from pink signage, white tents, other gardens or trade stands, other visitors and not forgetting other photographers. For me, that means finding interesting compositions within the garden to shoot. I wasn’t able to go onto The Oregon Garden itself which restricted what I could do as the garden could only be viewed from the front. Even so, I’m pleased with the images I came away with, although looking at them you wouldn’t realise just how small the garden itself really was! Shot at Hampton Court on 3 July 2017.
Joe Swift on The Oregon Garden

See my review of The Perennial Sanctuary Garden here

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