The gardener's eye

The Gardener's Eye

Monday, May 28, 2012

What's Modern Now: Axes, Focal Points and Plants at Chelsea

Thomas Hoblyn's Garden Inspired by Italian Renaissance Garden has a strong Axial Design

Tom Swift's Had a Series of Cedar Structures with an Axis and Focal Point

Sarah Price's Garden evoked the beauty of wild areas of the British countryside and employed a long axis without a Focal Point.

Cleve West's Best of Show winning design has a strong central axis and celebrated the heritage of British gardening

View of the Focal Point of Cleve West's Garden

This Long Axis View in Andy Sturgeon's Garden without a Focal Point, looked , to me, a lot like the Price Long Axis

Arne Maynard's Garden had a Modern Focal Point (photo credit RHS)

The informal feeling planting in Cleve West's Garden

Hoblyn's low perennial planting

Sturgeon's plantings in front of the pool with distracting copper Bubble "energy wave" sculpture 

Lush planting in Maynard's Garden

Price's planting in the Telegraph Garden

Diarmuid Gavin's 'Magical Garden' was a giagantic 7 level pyramid without axes but one enormous ego-satisfying focal point that could be seen from any point on the grounds at the flower show

Another garden without an axis: Jihae Hwang's garden commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Korean conflict

Chris Beardshaw's garden inspired by the Furzey Gardens did not utilize an axis in its design

I am a sucker for strong axes and focal points in garden design. I think that is why I like English gardens so much. They almost always have a very clearly articulated design which I find appealing and probably reassuring. As we walked through Hidcote, Barnsley House, Sissinghurst and the other gardens on our tour, I asked the participants to looks for axes and focal points and encouraged them to sit in every chair or bench available to discover design elements.

I decided, as we entered the 2012 Chelsea Flower Show, to compare the designs (especially if they employed axes and focal points) and the plantings of the show gardens and determine if anything ground breaking was introduced this year. 

Nearly all the gold winning designs had a single axis with a focal point. Many also had cross axes perpendicular to the main axis. Most of the gardens had hedges and some sort of topiary. Interestingly, the herbaceous plantings were very similar as well. They tended to have a low naturalistic meadow feel with a mauve/pink, purple and/or purple-brown palette of planting. Few bright colors were used. This type of planting was reminiscent of many of the gardens I remember from last year's Chelsea Show.

As a whole, I thought the designs were well-executed and the plants were in excellent condition. However, I felt like many of the gardens felt very similar and the designers seemed to be playing it safe this year. Except for Diarmuid Gavin's 'Magical Garden', which I found rather odd, nothing seemed to be breaking new ground.


  1. Thanks for that overview, Michael. I've seen Chelsea in bits and pieces, and this summary is helpful. You're so very fortunate to be there. There are some beautiful and extremely well executed gardens this year but, I agree with your, and it seems most others, that there is a sameness about the plantings, pretty as they are. And there just isn't anything that stands out. Even Cleve West's garden disappoints.

  2. I was surprised how predictable Cleve West's garden was. I thought last year's garden was much more interesting. I would have liked to see the topiary in a more abstract and contemporary shapes to add contrast to the traditional design. That would have worked well with the contemporary focal point. At any rate, it is always a lot of fun. I'm certain you would have found inspiration for your Brooklyn garden.

  3. Dear Michael
    Thanks for your very fine pictures, and your clever comments on Chelsea. I aggree! It´s very useful with focalpoints and straight lines and some of the cornerstones in gardening. But I think the gardens at Chelsea need creativity and fantacy from the artists. It seems like they are scared to do things wrong and therefore are doing things safe. But a little booring perhaps? My friend Claus Dalby gave me af short briefing from the festival and he too was not impressed! Allthough; I´d like to be there anyway and see the gardens. It must be interesting to overview woorks one never had the opportunity og power to make on your own. It does not cost the same to be a critical audience.

    A nice day to all

    Kindly regards

    1. Kjeld,
      Thanks for commenting. I agree, they were playing it a bit safe, maybe it's the economy? I don't mean to be overly critical, just discerning. For me an important part of the educational process is articulating a thoughtful critique and I hold a garden at Chelsea to the highest standard. That said, it is always a thrill to see the latest work by the big names in garden design.

  4. Wonderful post, Michael! A nice recap for those of us who weren't lucky enough to be there. As an axial kind of guy, Im happy to see all the straight lines. But I agree with you, there has to be something a little more abstract, contemporary, or even blousy to play off them, if a garden wants to stand out creatively in this day and age. Although I have to say, in the wrong hands, this way too often gets translated into cute and kitschy.

    1. Thanks, Joe. I do feel lucky to have gone to Chelsea a few times. As I mentioned to Kjeld, I suspect the designers might have been more conservative due to the economy but maybe we need contemporary creativity now, more than ever.

  5. Dear Michael -
    Thanks so much for the report from Chelsea! Someday I would love to attend this important garden event. I've been reading all about it online. Though I prefer traditional gardens, I love the modernity and simplicity in Arne Maynard's's very adaptable to a smaller, city garden. And, I totally agree: Diarmuid Gavin's design is peculiar! Must be an acquired taste.

  6. Dear Loi,
    You would love Chelsea, I'm sure. Arne Maynard's design was really beautiful. Many of these gardens are very adaptable for a city garden. Are you familiar with the work of Luciano Giubbilei? He did I garden, I really liked last year, that was under-appreciated in my view. His gardens are modern, simple and elegant.

    I am struggling with simplifying the lower garden at my house with abstract, but simple, sculptural topiary but the plantsman in me won't have it!! Thanks for commenting.

  7. Yes, I really like the work of Luciano Giubbilei. He has a great website. See, Michael, what I need is 5 different homes with 5 different garden types. But, I'm happy with managing one garden right now....everything is overgrown. My Verbena bonariensis did not die back, and some are taller than I am. Your lower garden is very charming....don't change it.

    1. I'm not surprised you admire the gardens of Luciano Giubbilei. You have a lot more energy than I, Loi. I can barely handle my third of an acre plot. Your verbena bonariensis must be stunning.

    2. Michael
      Thank you for the review from Chelsea.
      I have a garden in Petersham MA and I've been working with Gordon Hayward on the design. He suggested I see a garden you designed in peterborough as well as your own garden for planting ideas.

    3. I take that as a high compliment coming from Gordon. Which garden was he referring to, the Boccelli Garden? There are many pictures of my garden and all the Parks here on the blog. Let me know if you would like to visit. sometime.

  8. Not only are your blogs interesting, but your photographs are always fantastic too - thank you. I will add you as a link on my website. I have been researching the history of English gardens for years and have just produced an ebook called 'A biography of English gardens and their flowers' which you may enjoy. You can download it for free from, using the code ZD47P. I hope you enjoy it and find something in it that you don't already know!
    Regards, Janet Merza

  9. I'm glad you like the blog, Janet. Your ebook sounds very interesting. There is a very rich history in English gardening and lots to learn. Thanks for the code to view it.

  10. I really appreciate the chance to explore Chelsea through your eyes- thank you! Great pictures too.

    1. Thanks Helen. Hopefully you will see it for yourself one day soon.



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