Both useful and beautiful
Often a client’s design brief for their garden will require that the approach to planting is dictated by a certain ‘theme'. A cottage garden style is a good example, or a site might require shade-tolerant or boggy planting. Perhaps, a client has a particular love of all things grassy. Or, in our case, it has been crucial to find and use plants that have utility – commercial, industrial, nutritional and medicinal.
In this particular instance, two problems have presented themselves: availability and aesthetics.
First, some of the plants on our original list were not commercially available – certainly not in the quality and quantity necessary for a Chelsea Show Garden. Secondly, while many of the plants are very good for humanity, they are not exactly pleasing on the eye.
Our solution was to approach the ‘theme’ by selecting utility on the basis of genus rather than cultivar. This allowed us to choose beautiful cousins of useful plants. For example, rather than selecting the specific rose that is used in drinks manufacture or perfumes, we were able to select a rose that worked with our planting scheme. It has been a valuable lesson to learn: adapting the limitations on your ‘theme’ will help you create a more beautiful result that remains true to your initial approach.
It is also useful to remember that in any scheme where a theme is dictating planting choice, it is important not to fall into the trap of trying to tick all the boxes and cramming your beds with just about every plant that fits the theme. To do so would result in a ‘bitty’ and confused planting design.
Once all the technical and horticultural requirements have been met (aspect, soil, flowering periods etc) and you have a list of suitable plants in front of you, pure design should dictate progress from this point.
Limit your palette again – not because you have to but because you should. Create structure, aim for continuity. Balance colour and texture. This can be achieved by planting in groupings and drifts (space permitting). I always aim to repeat combinations throughout a garden so that there are visual markers and a sense of intention as one moves through the space.
Thinking in 3D also helps, rather than always seeing your planting design from above. And approach the garden as a whole, rather than dealing with each bed as a separate project – even if your purchase of the plants is phased.
In our Chelsea Show Garden there is a light-filtering canopy of Betula utilis ‘Doorenbos’ and the denser canopy of Pinus sylvestris. These trees also provide scale and a vertical counterpoint to the pavilion at the centre of the garden. Secondly, a Taxus (yew) boundary hedge adds form and height and, lastly, appropriate colour, foliage and texture are introduced by planting of small shrubs combined with perennial planting, informal in style yet illustrative of the core theme.
Marcus Barnett is known for combining geometric, modern design elements with a traditional English garden aesthetic. He made his Chelsea debut in 2005 with a gold-medal winning small garden created with design partner Philip Nixon. The pair went on to build full-size show gardens in 2006 and 2007, winning gold and silver-gilt. The Times Eureka Garden is Marcus's first solo show garden at Chelsea.