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Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show is the world’s biggest annual floral event. For garden designers, it’s a showcase for new talent and, for the lucky few, a stepping stone to the big one, Chelsea.

Needless to say, reviewing such a vast event, with its multitude of show gardens, floral marquees and exhibitors across 25 acres, is impractical, especially when one’s exposure is restricted to the limited hours of press day. Much better is to focus on just a few of the highlights and fortunately for us in Brighton, three of them were from Sussex.

The first of those was to be found in the conceptual gardens area. Now, when it comes to the show gardens one should point out that two things are especially challenging at Hampton Court. The first, is actually finding them, as rather than being grouped together as they are at Chelsea, they’re rather annoyingly scattered across the site. The other is coming to terms with how some define a garden. This is a show where the word ‘installation’ is often a better description. Now there’s nothing wrong in that, but the reality is most people’s definition of a garden is something that at the very least contains some plants. And, yes, some here, like Tony Smith’s Freestyle Turf, are entirely plant free.

‘Equilibrium’ was hardly awash with plants, but then again this was a conceptual garden that highlighted the fragile balance between the sea and seashore. It consisted of a large circle of shingle, pierced by ten upright wooden groynes, and enveloping a small pool within which is a flaming firepit. Nestled in the shingle were plants that grow naturally by the sea, many like sea campion and sea holly are ones we see all over the Sussex coast. The garden’s designers, Andy Hyde and John Humphreys took their inspiration from Pevensey Bay near Eastbourne, itself a shingle beach and Site of Special Scientific Interest. In many ways, this was more of an educational installation than a garden, but however you described it, it met with the judges approval. They awarded it a gold medal and named it best conceptual garden.

Like many gardens at Hampton Court, ‘Equilibrium’ was difficult to capture in a single photograph. It really needed to be viewed from above with one of those boom cameras the BBC uses for its coverage. Images from the side were less impressive and most close-ups looked like they were taken on the beach.

The two other gardens by Sussex designers were easier to shoot and happened to be side by side. Apart from the plot, they both shared the same landscaper: Living Landscapes who are based in Horsham. Both were Summer Gardens and both were about creating a garden of tranquility in small urban space. Sarah Keyser’s City Twitchers garden focused on attracting wildlife and especially birds, whilst Rae Wilkinson’s Healing Urban Garden was all about relaxation and well-being.

City Twitchers featured a neutral palette of white flowers, reminiscent to the planting in the White Garden at Arundel Castle. Many of the plants were chosen for their abilities to attract wildlife and numerous bird houses were placed on the white washed fencing and hung from the garden’s beautiful white cherry tree. In one corner was the garden’s focal point, a round bird hide, beautifully hand-woven in willow by Carole Beavis, complete with holes from which you could observe the wildlife. Repeated circles were the visual theme throughout with white stepping stones, a small round pool, a round patio area complete with a curved willow planter and a circular camomile lawn. Everything about the garden was meticulously put together and the result was elegantly cool. It was one of the best show gardens to photograph and deserved a gold, rather than the silver gilt it received. The fact it was Sarah’s first ever show garden, can only mean she has a bright future and that Chelsea beckons.

Rae Wilkinson’s adjacent Healing Urban Garden had a similar cool feel to it. This time, the planting was predominantly shades of mauves and purples with a lot of lavender and grasses, perfectly set off against grey walls, grey planters and grey stone domes. Its main feature was a wonderfully curvaceous wooden bench. Made of bleached oak by award-winning furniture sculptor Alun Heslop, its organic form reminded me a little of Heatherwick’s East Beach Cafe. Again, the RHS awarded the garden a silver gilt, when to my eyes it really merited a gold.

So three award-winning gardens, all emanating from Sussex and all telling an interesting story. Perhaps the biggest shame however, is that none of them will be able to be seen after the show. At a time when everyone is focusing on sustainability, it’s really  time the RHS insist that every show garden had an on-use. All three could easily have been recreated elsewhere for people to enjoy long after the event has finished. It does happen with some of the show gardens, but surely it should be a prerequisite for them all.

By Gary Marlowe

Sarah Keyser: www.coucoudesign.co.uk
Rae Wilkinson: www.raewilkinson.com
Alun Heslop: www.chaircreative.com
Living Landscapes: www.livinglandscapesuk.com

Photos by Images Out Of The Ordinary