With Chelsea Flower Show in full swing this week, garden design and plants are every bit as subject to fashion trends as clothing, art, furniture, names or architecture. Fashion is ephemeral by nature, often reinventing a past trend and introducing a modern twist, but not usually creating a look that is meant to last. It’s exciting to look at new trends in clothes or fabrics and imagine how you can translate colours, textures and forms into a garden setting. However I think there is a streak of arrogance in some practitioners of creative disciplines which blinds them to the validity of other ways of thinking. It is easy to sneer at ‘unfashionable’ style. I recall university, where lecturers in the Faculty of Fine Art (initial caps deliberate) looked down with contempt on anyone interested in or and talented at figurative drawing and painting. Abstraction was the only way forward and heaven help you if you relied on good draughtsmanship for your brownie points or simply wished to nurture your talent.
When I first started out in garden design I was as guilty as anyone of dismissing certain plants (the innocent forsythia) and garden styles (cosy, cottage) because they did not conform to current thinking. But the desire to push the boundaries should not be so important that you, as designer impose radical ideas on clients whose budget, expectations and dreams may be more mundane. They, not you, are going to live with your design after all.
This is not to stamp on innovative and exciting thinking but the mark of a really sensitive designer is to re-invent the client’s garden subtly, unless they are themselves exhibitionists, in which case anything goes! Don’t get me wrong – you can still introduce innovative ideas, materials and plants. Take them a little beyond their comfort zone but do ensure the finished garden is in keeping with the owners’ lifestyle and self-image.
Don’t be afraid to draw on the past, regardless of fashion. Buck the trend and trust your instincts. Whatever your style you will find a niche for yourself with clients who feel comfortable with your way of interpreting design. A well-known designer recently got fed up with carefully devised, colour-schemed planting and said ‘feck it, I want a box of Smarties’. Who is to say that is wrong?
Plants go in and out of fashion all the time. Our beautiful roses were considered unfashionable by progressive designers a decade or so ago but are back in favour again. Year after year major horticultural shows have a ‘plant of the moment’ that suddenly everyone wants to buy, especially if it’s a showy or exotic looking perennial.
Recently more naturalistic plantings have gained favour but they still must be carefully contrived in order not to get messily out of control. Annual bedding plants continue to be discouraged, not just because excessive hybridisation has resulted in rather garish colours but because of the sheer work involved in planting anew every year. There are many, many plants that have suffered from being out of fashion then have a resurgence in popularity.
So at college open your mind to the exciting, magical, rich ideas and wisdom that your tutors will offer you. But when you go out into the world armed with your valuable diploma, follow your heart rather than the vagaries of fashion and build on your individual response to the challenge of design.