How will we garden in the next century? Anticipating a changing climate, designers from across Europe and beyond address this theme at the 25th annual International Garden Festival in the grounds of the medieval French château of Chaumont-sur-Loire with a thought provoking and sometimes confronting series of display gardens.
Unique among garden festivals, Chaumont opens for the full European gardening season, from April to November. Attracting over 400,000 visitors a year, it is missing the commercial buzz we associate with garden shows such as Chelsea or our own MIFGS in Australia. Visitors are dispersed over not only time but copious space in the chateau grounds.
The displays are grounded in gardening reality, with plants capable of providing a sustained performance and generous plots of around 20 metres square, bounded by beech hedging. No viewing from behind barricades. These are gardens of immersion, with pathways, seats and benches to experience the full sensory impact and contemplate the often profound messages underlying the design.
An English translation guidebook proved invaluable in understanding the intent of some of the 24 specially selected garden designers, architects and artists who contributed designs for the 2016 Festival. The downside of the festival’s relaxed and contemplative atmosphere is an absence of anyone to answer questions on plant identification or more explanation, language barriers notwithstanding.
For instance, without a description from the designer, French artist Jean Philippe Poirée-Ville , the concept of this garden is not easy to grasp. “Le jardin flottant du songe” (The garden of broken dreams) portrays “a suspended dream (of cities in the sky) is now vanishing – driven away by the energy crisis and global warming, leaving in its wake a worn-out, wrinkled world that we are going to have to learn afresh how to cultivate.” Thought provoking indeed.
Pessimism wasn’t all prevailing though. In an amusing fantasy, home and garden become one as nature extends across our cities in response to dwindling energy and resources. In “La maison vivante” (the living house) French landscape designers, Emilie Garnier and Barthélémy Afrez, invite us to consider all city dwellers as gardeners. Outdoor living areas are no surprise, but the palm filled bedroom is indeed a place to dream of.
Nature also wins out in “Le jardin des émergences” (gardens breaking through) a collaborative design between Swiss landscape gardener, Pierre Lavord and American, David Simonson. This stark composition of shale and slate, punctuated by yuccas and drought tolerant perennials flowering in an orange and gold palette to represent flames and fire is a metaphor of the life force harboured within plants. Plants are rebelling, breaking through the ill- treated earth’s crust: a message of hope for the 21st century landscape.
This was the only garden giving even a scant nod to dry times as a challenge of our changing climate. Deluge was considered a far greater threat than drought to these northern hemisphere designers, with several representations of rising sea levels, floods and floating gardens.
In the poignant “Je reste” (I am staying) the French design team from DPLG Landscapers portrays a man whose home is engulfed by floodwater. He pieces back a life for himself among the detritus of kitchen utensils, tinned food, broken furniture and a single, widowed shoe, and creates a raft as his floating garden.
Edible gardens naturally play a strong role in the displays. From herbs and giant rhubarb of the Russian steppes to the Italian inspired “La forêt alimentaire” (the grocery forest) where permaculture meets biodiversity, an abundance of herbs and greens were on offer. But where was the fruit? Not an espaliered apple to be seen in these urban garden designs, nor even a potted specimen of the luscious apricots so plentiful in France during early summer.
Plantings throughout the display gardens leant strongly towards native meadow flowers (many such like buttercups, marguerite daisies and scabiosa we grow as garden exotics in Australia) and ornamental grasses. Sustainability and minimal maintenance through the gardening year no doubt influenced this choice, coupled with a reflection of wider trend towards a more ecologically based gardening style known as the New Perennial movement or “Dutch Wave” after the iconic designer, Piet Oudolf.
There were, however, two obvious departures back to traditional flower gardening. One, designed not by a landscaper or gardener but a parfumeur, Jean-Claude Ellena, was a sensory feast of colour and fragrance with scented roses, lily of the valley and various lavenders enhanced by regular diffusions of floral essences. Thoughtfully placed deckchairs offered opportunity to absorb the experience within panoramic views of the River Loire.
The other unashamedly describes itself as “Le jardin des plantes oubliées (The garden of forgotten plants), designed by the staff of the Chateau gardens. A profusion of old fashioned roses, foxgloves and cosmos is “reminiscent of the gardens of our childhoods” and indeed the style of the Chateau gardens today. This was the display garden that provoked the most smiles from visitors. Was that through nostalgia or simple admiration?
To me, this raised the question: Will there be room in the gardens of tomorrow for the simple, creative pleasure of nurturing plants for their aesthetic value alone? With our honed awareness of climate challenge, sustainable agriculture and the worthy pursuit of locally grown, clean, green food, is there still a place to smell the roses?