This is the first of two speculative projects for gardens for a future Chelsea Flower Show. The first is an adaptation of my own front garden, designed to fit on one of the smallest plots at the Show. It would be transported in two sections, almost fully planted, on a flatbed lorry, first to the Show and then on to a permanent home. I will be approaching a well known children’s charity in Wales in the hope that together we might be able to raise the required sponsorship.
Gardens have often been ‘bearers of meaning’ and one of the most evocative is the Désert de Retz in France (left). It was inspired by the English Landscape Garden before Capability Brown banished statuary and architectural features. Much has been lost, but enough survives to convey its spirit: a tent made of sheet metal, a pyramidal ice house that alludes to ancient Egypt, and most famously a ruined but inhabitable Doric column. The proposal that follows - a glimpse is shown below - is designed in a similar spirit. Every element alludes to an aspect of its subject, California, and it is composed as a montage in which elements are layered to overlap and collide and thereby create events reminiscent of the often seemingly happenstance delights of nature.
The plot is based on one of the larger show garden sites at Chelsea and the detailed brief (a vital element of any Chelsea proposal) is to celebrate the landscape and culture of California (with a view to attracting sponsorship from one of the ‘big tech’ firms, naturally!). The garden reflects ‘universal’ features of the landscape and culture of the State, and distant but still vivid memories of three glorious weeks I spent there after completing my studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
The design begins with the pattern of the globally-warmed floor of Death Valley. The enlarged cracks are rendered as steel-lined rills, fabricated like the interclocking plates of the ‘Steel Cliff’ in my own garden.
The network of islands is overlaid by a pattern derived from a microchip circuit board, whose features are used to determine the placement of almost all the secondary elements of the garden: spots of solder become fountains; circular terminations, planters; changes of surface are echoed as planting or paving; etc.
The location I have chosen is a corner plot, framed on two sides. Down the long side runs a steel-cliff ‘mountain range’ with waterfalls (memories of Yosemite Park in the Sierra)
The lower two levels of the mountain range return as retaining walls to contain elevated strips of vegetation - vines and the golden grass of the coastal hills in summer.
The ‘islands’ are rich with contrasting kinds of planting. Native wild flowers and grasses form a fragmented meadow across the whole garden.
California’s native flora is exceptional, and it is also the source of some 70% of the cut flowers sold in the USA. To emphasise their ‘artificiality’ the cultivated flowers would be grown in brush-finished stainless steel drums.
The other elements of the planting scheme include an ‘orchard’ of flowering peach trees - California produces 700,000 tons annually.
Succulents and cacti are planted in the small ‘pockets’ created by the steelframing of the rills. These reflect one of my most vivid memories, a visit to Point Lobos on the Monterey Peninsula, a location made famous by the great photographer Edward Weston. In his late pictures the plants glow like stars among the rocks and cypress-tree roots that cling to the cliffs.
Public fountains, like these in San Pedro (part of Los Angeles), are a familiar sight in California. In the garden, small fountains rising directly from the paving are scattered throughout.
California’s natural riches include gold - the source, of course, of its early prosperity - and commercially valuable minerals. Images of minerals, printed on tiles, will be used to mark particular places within the garden. Here, for example, turquoise forms the setting for four California-designed Eames chairs and a table with a channel of winecooling water modelled on the famous stone table at the Villa Lante in Rome.
No ‘California Dream’ would be complete without reference to the ultimate dream-maker, Hollywood, from where I borrow a ‘Walk of Stars’ to the pioneers of the Digital Revolution.
The digital technologies that have transformed the world in the 21st century allow inobtrusive ways of enriching our experiences of the world. For the garden, a special app would be coded to enable visitors to discover information about its many features, from plants and minerals to the fossils and ‘Stars’ inlaid in the paving.
The narrative elements described above are readily identified in the plan. At a more practical level, circulation is via a series of glass bridges across the rills, layered with shallow strips of stainless steel to provide grip. Benches, tables and seats offer places to linger. Without wishing to anticipate the garden’s reception, HM The Queen does seem to be taking a keen interest...