This will probably come as no surprise to you all, but I love going to flower shows. I love checking out the new plant varieties, I love learning from the growers, I even love the scent of bark chippings on the pathways. But perhaps what I love the most is the eavesdropping: learning what visitors really think about the exhibits. There is one frequent comment, however, that always makes me feel slightly uneasy: “Why doesn’t my garden look like this?” This is almost always said, not with a note of humour, but of disappointment. If you have ever found yourself thinking this, let me fill you in to what happens behind the scenes.
One of the most fun things about working in garden design, whether that’s a huge exhibit on Chelsea’s Main Avenue or the tiny terrariums posted on Instagram, is pulling off an illusion. Fundamentally, that’s what all gardens are: attempts to engineer highly stylised visions of what we think nature should look like, rather than what it actually is. All the bits we tend to like (abundant flowers, crystal-clear water, shaded resting spots) are heightened, and all the bits we don’t like (mud, mess, pests, sick or unhealthy plants), airbrushed out.
In the past I have used fishing line to invisibly position tree branches at exactly the right angle
Working on show gardens is, to me, such fun because what we are doing is taking that to the next level – showing not an accurate view of what gardens look like in reality, but an absolute fantasy of how we might like the world to be. It’s sort of the horticultural equivalent of a glossy music video or fashion magazine cover. The difference, it seems, is that not all visitors realise these are more akin to the magic of movie sets than the reality of actual gardens.
In the past I have used fishing line to invisibly position tree branches at exactly the right angle, hidden aquarium heaters in insulated pots to trick tropical waterlilies to flower outdoors, and got on my hands and knees every night to sandpaper away any tiny scuffs and shoe marks on limestone flooring. And that’s before we talk about the hundreds of thousands of pounds of budget and dozens of super-talented people working day and night for months to pull the illusion off. On Instagram, that beautifully distressed, industrial wall I take my photos against? A piece of printed card. The perfectly unblemished leaves? The magic of Photoshop. So don’t ever feel bad you can’t live up to the professionals’ illusion!
The very nature of shows and media is that it is all about the outcome – a perfect snapshot in time – whereas, in reality, all gardens are constantly evolving works of art. They are never finished and most certainly never perfect. To me the real joy of gardening is in the process itself. The excitement as new seeds burst into life or the sense of achievement when a shrub you planted flowers for the first time. My indoor garden at home is only a pale imitation of the vision I post of it online, but it brings me happiness every day, nonetheless. So enjoy your garden for what it is, not what you think it should be, and give yourself a break.
Follow James on Twitter @Botanygeek