Walking past the trade stands of any of the large flower shows this year it’s clear to see that taste, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder and that money doesn’t necessarily buy it. How is it that crazy paving and rock gardens were once so fashionable and yet, now, are design no-nos? Why are gnomes banned from Chelsea and who thought a plastic meerkat skiing would make a great garden ornament? I am fascinated by what appeals to one person can repulse another but I am in no way setting myself up as an arbiter of taste.
Several years ago, I mentioned to a fellow student on a horticulture course I was doing, that my garden was looking like an homage to Barbara Cartland, as I had planted quite a lot of plants with pink flowers. Her reaction, as she visibly recoiled, surprised and amused me in equal measure. Apparently, the colour pink would never be seen in her garden; she didn’t ‘do’ yellow either. I later got to see her garden which was beautiful, tasteful and with no pink or yellow to be seen but I’m sure it could have been equally as lovely with some sunflowers or phlox mingling with the other plants.
Gnomes are often derided, seen as the pinnacle of bad taste within a garden. First introduced to Britain in the 1860s from Germany by Sir Charles Isham. He was so enamoured with them he built a rockery in his garden at Lamport Hall in Northamptonshire and filled it with gnomes. I can feel the colour draining from the faces of many a garden designer at the thought of rockeries and gnomes. Since 1990, gnomes have been banned from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, although in 2009, multi-award winning herb grower Jekka McVicar did sneak in her ‘lucky’ gnome, Borage.
I quite like a gnome, his cheeky, cherry little face peering from behind some foliage. I’m less keen on them en masse and even less of a fan when their paint has flaked off and they’ve been repainted using whatever leftover paints were lurking around in the back of the garage. I came home from school once to find repainted gnomes that had developed shocking dress sense, looked a little flushed and one of them appeared to have 2 black eyes. Mum, what were you thinking?
In fact, there is much from the decades of my childhood, the seventies and eighties, that wouldn’t stand the taste test now. Rockeries, conifer gardens, shrubberies and the centrifugal garden with the lawn in the centre and everything else flung out into narrow borders around the edge; it all seems so incredibly dated. Then the nineties and the era of the TV makeover garden brought with it instant gardens, coloured wood stain and the phrase ‘water feature’. One of my own bugbears is the identikit garden assembled entirely from a DIY store or garden centre. There is a street nearby, where there are 3 gardens that all look the same, with their spiky cordylines, large blue ceramic egg-shaped things and metallic planters. For me, personality and individuality are so important in a garden.
Often, it is the scale or number of items that you use in your garden that can tip something from the quirky to the tasteless. I love vintage and recycled bits and pieces. I have 2 zinc baths planted up with herbs and an enamel baking dish full of succulents but I’m well aware that I should limit these items, otherwise ‘rustic chic’ could quite easily become ‘scruffy scrapyard’. For me its plants that are the stars in my garden and everything else should enhance them not detract from them.
One of the biggest puzzles for me is the desire to adorn gardens with a variety of plastic animals. The oversize and podgy blue tit, is possibly the most disturbing creature on display at my local garden centre. There must be a demand for such products though, since a veritable menagerie is on offer.
According to the Horticulture Trades Association, the garden retail market was worth £2.6 billion in 2010. Gardening has become like the fashion industry with the media telling us what plants are in, how we should be using our gardens and companies selling us the latest, must-have products. Plants used in show gardens will spring up in gardens across the country. Garden designers have the power to change our ideas about planting and the whole feel and style of our gardens. In the last decade or so, the Dutch designer, Piet Oudolf, was at the vanguard of introducing us to plants such as echinacea and heleniums and showing us how to use grasses in herbaceous borders, all of which are now considered the height of taste. This more naturalistic planting and meadows and wildflowers are the gardening zeitgeist.
More traditional plants such as rhododendrons and azaleas have fallen out of favour, so much so, that when garden designer, Chris Beardshaw, used them in his Chelsea show garden this year, he was worried the garden would prove less popular because of his retro style plants. They certainly didn’t stop him winning gold and, much as I love the fluffy, natural style of planting that has proved so popular at Chelsea in recent years, I personally found his garden a refreshing change. So, does that mean that there will be a shift in what is considered tasteful, planting wise? Will we now want to start growing some of the plants popular 30 or 40 years ago? I’m not so sure but I’d love to see a Chelsea designer try to make conifers cool once again.
Personal taste also has the ability to change with time. I’ve noticed in recent years that I’m seeing plants that I have disliked ever since I can remember in a new light. Irises, for instance, really never did it for me at all but last year I bought the first ones for the garden with plans for more purchases. Sometimes it’s about widening your plant knowledge. I don’t like big, blousy pelargoniums but I’ve discovered the more delicately flowered scented leaf varieties, and the exquisite species, both of which I love.
So, ultimately, we all have our own likes and dislikes, what we consider tasteful, that’s what makes life interesting, after all. If every garden you ever visited looked like a Tom Stuart Smith creation you’d soon get bored and would crave something else and this means accepting all manner of personal tastes . . . well, maybe not the plastic skiing meerkat.