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28 October 2014
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What's more important – plants or design? We asked an eminent garden designer and an expert nurserywoman to give us their views.

(image: Ao Arashi (Blue Storm))

The plants have come to the fore in show gardens as never before in this year's RHS Chelsea Flower Show. The Daily Telegraph Garden, which won best in show, is a plantsman's garden: several others put plants before landscaping. So have designers had their day at Chelsea? And what’s more important in the garden anyway - plants or design? We asked garden designer James Alexander Sinclair, and nurserywoman and TV presenter Carol Klein, to give us their views.

James Alexander Sinclair, garden designer

(image: The 4Head Garden of Dreams)

Design is very important. But the plants come first. You can have a garden that's strong on structure, but unless you have the plants to fill that structure, then what you really have is a fancy car park. I know everyone thinks designers are a load of silk-shirted 'arty types' who just ponce about and never get their hands dirty. I have very clean hands. I do gardening at home - I spent yesterday in the rain planting box - but I don’t do that for my clients. I'm there to design things. And quite frankly, a garden designer is not a cheap item, so if you're going to employ a garden designer to dig holes then that's not very sensible. But then you get garden designers who come straight off a course and don't know how to dig holes, don't know how to plant a plant, don't know how to stake a tree, basic gardening things - if you don't know how to do these things you will always, always be a bad garden designer. You can be a gardener without being a garden designer – but you cannot be a garden designer without being a gardener.

Carol Klein, nurserywoman and broadcaster

I don’t think it's just this year. I think over the last 10 years or so plants have been taking a much more important role. Twenty years ago at Chelsea very few people would have asked where a plant came from. They weren't really interested. But nowadays the gardening public are so much more educated, and so much more interested in the provenance of a plant, what conditions they need, whether they're actually going to be able to grow them, and I think that’s rubbed off on garden designers. I do think it’s that way round though.


(image: The Daily Telegraph Garden)

Even when you've got quite minimalist designs, within them usually there's some sort of oasis – it's almost as though everybody realises that the plants have got to be there. And when they’re there, you've got to let them be themselves. I think some garden designers are brilliant plantsmen - Tom Stuart-Smith is a really good example. He really knows and understands what he's dealing with, because he grows them. Most of the time I think you shouldn't put plants in unless you know them quite intimately. And that's what makes his gardens so telling – so no wonder he’s won best in show.


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