by Sarah Naybour
3rd March 2016

When it comes to gardens, plants and artistic design, there is one thing that I would love to see more of in the UK, and that’s conceptual show gardens. That desire probably comes as much from my background in fine art as it does from my training in garden design and my interest in architecture.

If you’ve not heard of conceptual show gardens before, take a look at this link to the Hortillonnages Amiens 2016. As part of the seasonal Maison de la Culture D’Amiens, it is a garden festival that has visitors enchanted by its beauty. Attracting visual artists and landscape designers from around the world, it includes forty gardens – some are hidden to provide a sense of surprise and wonder when the visitor finds them, and others may include an expanse of water. This year, Hortillonnages Amiens runs from mid June to October and is well worth a visit if you can travel to France.

Pushing boundaries!

The idea behind conceptual show gardens is that they are based on existing gardens, giving designers a natural, organic canvas and an opportunity to really think outside the box. The designers can then experiment with pushing the boundaries of landscape design. Because they are existing, real life gardens, less planting is involved, so the finished design tends to introduce artistry and new materials to the area. This, in turn, creates a visually stunning, tactile environment with different textures for the eyes and hands to feast on. Although, of course, there are times when little hands may not be allowed to touch!

‘Normal’ show garden planting can sometimes be misleading. They may be stunningly beautiful, but the visitor may not be able to envisage, let alone actually transfer, their favourite design to their home garden, however much it may look as if they could. For that reason, shows such as Amiens, with their semi-permanent gardens, mean that the planting needs to be more representative of reality.

Intertwined design mediums

One of the things I particularly love about conceptual show gardens is how different skills are overlapped and intertwined. The meeting of the minds behind the artists, architects and horticulturalists involved in these conceptual show gardens all blend to create unique, innovative designs that can be quite breathtaking.

The International Garden Festival at Chaumont is another French conceptual show garden that is quite fascinating. There is nothing like either that or Amiens in the UK, apart from one attempt – known as Future Gardens – that only lasted one year back in 2009! But what we do have, of course, is the Chelsea Flower Show. There are many innovative and beautiful displays at Chelsea – we’ve been lucky enough to show there ourselves, commissioned by David Harber – and it truly is a fantastic experience. But the displays at Chelsea are static and have to be removed, leaving an empty lawn in the Chelsea Royal Hospital Garden, as it normally is for the rest of the year.

Even though the Chelsea Flower Show cannot truly be considered a ‘Conceptual Show’ like the ones in France, you do get to see some inspirational garden designs there, as well as some unique structural concepts. Here are a couple of pictures of what to expect at this year’s show, which runs from 24-28 May.

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