Shot! The Lavender Garden

The gold-winning summer garden at RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show

I like a garden that tells a story, but I’m no fan of those that have one forced upon them or their viewers. Once upon a time, show gardens were unconstrained from sponsor’s demands, nowadays though most seem to be financed by charities, causes or tourist boards and as a result, their ‘sales’ message literally dictates the design. At first you think you’re just looking at a garden, when in fact you’re supposed to be experiencing the challenges of having a weak bladder or the joys of some faraway tourist destination.

Producing even the most bijou of show gardens can cost a small fortune. And if it’s at Chelsea, it requires one much larger. But whilst I understand the need to find a generous patron, to me what works best is a garden where you know the narrative just by looking at it.

The Lavender Garden at this year’s RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, did just that. As soon as you saw it you knew it was a stylised, yet authentic representation of part of a lavender farm. In essence, it was a mini stage set. You could see the lavender growing, the lavender harvested, the equipment used to extract its oils and bottles of the finished product. And it told its story beautifully.

Having lived, albeit briefly, in Provence and having holidayed there many times in the past, lavender is a plant I have a lot of affection for. I love its colour and the way it makes a landscape so quintessentially Provencal. Although I have to say, unlike some, I’m not overly keen on its heady scent!

At Chelsea earlier this year, lavender also featured prominently on James Basson’s gold-medal winning show garden for l’Occitane. On Main Avenue, that was a much larger plot and whilst both gardens heroed lavender, they each took a very different approach. l’Occitane was all about bringing a patch of the Haute Provence to SW1 in as realistic a way as possible by recreating the edge of a lavender field.

At Hampton Court, the world’s biggest flower show with a record number of show gardens this year, there was a lot less room to play with (a curiosity when the 34-acre site has so much more space than Chelsea) and the idea here was rooted in the South of England rather than the South of France.

The story behind the garden is as interesting as the finished result. No less than four designers were involved. And, as far as I’m aware, none had ever created a show garden before, having all recently left Sussex’s Plumpton College with diplomas in garden design.

Original sketch of the garden
Original floorplan for the garden

Now most show gardens tend to be the work of a single designer, so having four involved was pretty unusual. I don’t know if anyone took the lead, or whether they each had responsibility for a particular aspect, but it does appear everything happened pretty quickly from their deciding to create a garden to their design being accepted and the garden itself going from sketch to reality.

Apparently, the ideas of the four designers, Leonie Etherington, Donna King, Paula Napper and Worthing-based Sara Warren, were inspired by the scent, colour and romance of lavenders grown at a dairy farm on the South Downs National Park. Now, I know there are a few lavender farms in the south east, but I reckon their inspiration must have come from Lordington, near Chichester, which is owned by Andrew Elms, who just happens to be a former lecturer in agriculture at Plumpton College.

But while Lordington may have inspired this garden, its sponsor was another producer, Shropshire Lavender, who grow 25,000 lavender plants in 3 acres of land and produce a range of products including lavender essential oil, dried lavender bunches, dried loose lavender as well as hand made bath and body care products.

The finished garden contained 13 different varieties of lavender, grown not in Shropshire or in Sussex, but in Kent by Derrydown a specialist lavender nursery in Tonbridge who were also exhibiting in Hampton Court’s giant Floral Marquee.

Built by Burnham Landscapes, The Lavender Garden immediately reminded me of A Trugmaker’s Garden, my favourite artisan garden at last year’s Chelsea show. In many ways, it was a direct copy: a faithful recreation of a traditional manufacturing process. Trugs by the way are handmade wooden baskets used in gardens, indeed there was even a trug full of lavender on this one.

Both gardens had a rickety wooden structure as the backdrop and featured the tools of the trade scattered around as if the artisans working there had just gone for lunch.

And, importantly, both were very photogenic. Having a closed backdrop helps. So many conceptual gardens at Hampton Court are almost impossible to get good shots of because you can see other gardens, structures, signage and people through them. Of all this year’s gardens, this was the one I spent the most time shooting. Despite its small size, it was packed with so many interesting details, offering lots of opportunities for different shots. I could only shoot from the front and sides as when I was there no one could go onto the garden.

Without access to the garden itself means your vantage point is exactly the same as everyone else, be they other photographers or the public. On the one hand, it restricts what you can do, on the other, it does force you to find interesting ways to shoot it.

The central feature of the garden was a wooden pergola complete with a rusting corrugated iron roof. It certainly appeared old and weather-beaten. This contained a gorgeous copper still, which I think goes by the name of Big Bertha, wooden trays of bunched lavender and stacked blue bottles of essential oils. Although it looked as if it could have been a genuine lavender production and shop, I’ve no doubt it took considerable effort to style it so authentically.

In front of the pergola, which was constructed from beams supplied by Sussex firm Traditional Oak & Timber Co., was a circular sunken seating area complete with suitably weathered chairs, an upturned crate acted as a table and aged oil lamps and a milk churn added to the rustic authenticity.

The planting was appropriately naturalistic, although I didn’t spot any weeds which were one of the surprising features of the l’Occittane Garden. The colour palette was exclusively shades of mauve and shades of green.

As much as it was supposed to be an English lavender farm, I for one was immediately transported back to Provence. All that was missing was a bottle of Pastis, a bowl of olives, a baguette and the Provencal sun. Unfortunately, press day was for the most part fairly overcast, so those dappled shadows that add so much to garden photography proved elusive.

Show gardens now are as much about creating an experience and telling a story, as they are about about landscaping and planting. The Lavender Garden may not have been the most creative show garden or indeed even the most original, but it succeeded by creating an atmosphere and taking you to another place.

The judges agreed, awarding it a Gold Medal. Experiencing the sweet smell of success, not a bad outcome for your first show garden!

Follow Leonie Etherington @LeonieEthering

Follow Paula Napper at @NapperPaula

Follow Sara Warren @SaraLWarren

Follow Shropshire Lavender at @shroplavender

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. Despite the lack of great light on press day and that I was unable to get onto the garden itself, I’m really pleased with the images I managed to come away with. Shot at Hampton Court on 4 July 2016.

Read my review of A Trugmaker’s Garden

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