One of the criteria for exhibiting a garden at an event is to develop a brief; a description of the garden, its story. Each designer strives to find the right words to tell this story which is more than merely noting the selection of the materials and plants. The story is about putting into words the inspiration behind the design and everything that’s included in the garden.
Designers strive to make their garden read as mellifluously in print as in plant. What evokes emotion in great gardens is the passion put into the construction and the narrative that supports it.
Goethe commented on poetry saying that it is like a stained glass window which appears dull and lifeless and without shape on the outside, but upon entry its full splendour is revealed. Similarly, I believe that when one reads the narrative of a show garden, the full splendour of the garden can only then be revealed. With the brief in hand, the garden guest can enter into the garden and more fully appreciate each choice of plant and stone. If the designer does not understand why he does what he does, I don’t think that the final result will be as beautiful, or leave as lasting an impression upon the guest.
I have done well in garden shows when I have sought to connect my designs to things in my life that are precious and that matter to me. When I design a garden that honours my faith or family I have received high honours and I have been able to persevere during adversity, which is a given in show gardening. When one knows why they do what they do the result will be more passionate.
The story behind my garden
When I was asked at the Gardening World Cup what the inspiration was for my garden ‘Come
Together’ I responded, ‘a happy marriage.’ Truly, my love of my wife has inspired me to strive to do great things. The entire concept of my garden began in striving to represent this happy union in design.
The footprint of my garden is two massive stone rings, one bordering a sunken garden and the other a pond. The two rings, while very different, are ‘married’ (united) at the centre of the garden. An iron arch, equal in a proportion to the stone rings, passes over this center ‘common ground’ and emphasizes its significance. This arch, representing love, like a link in a chain, symbolically holds the two sides together.
I know my wife appreciates this recognition that somehow our marriage is represented in a garden. My children (Deirdre 10, Aidan 8, Katherine 6 and Ronan 3) also know the story behind the garden and have enjoyed watching me design and develop the garden.
As personal as my garden was, I was required to work with a Japanese garden building crew to construct the garden. I have worked in Asia, Europe and the States and have simply not come across a crew so committed to the details of the garden. At one point, I instructed the crew through my translator that the stonework below the waterline in the pond did not have to be as detailed and finished as that above the water, noting that water would help hide any imperfections and quick work was necessary. They listened politely and then went about doing masterful stonework under the waterline. My crew from Tomonaga Company would not compromise. There was a seamlessness to my garden that was a result of the pride my crew had in doing what they do.
This is what judge Andy Sturgeon noted about my garden:
“John’s garden had a magical elegance to it. When we were judging we were quite happy in his garden and it was a while before we left. His garden called to be enjoyed. The design and planting were a big part of the peaceful atmosphere that was evoked. The stonework and water feature were amazing and quite complex. Everything in the garden was right and worked for the overall effect.”
While, like most designers I will state that I am not bothered by the subjective opinion of the judges, I truly am. Certainly, there were things about my garden that the judges felt could have been improved, but any designer knows that gardens, like people, are a work in progress. Even a gold-medal garden leaves room for improvement, but we designers are just mad enough to keep trying for a perfection which we know we won’t ever quite achieve.