A wander through the RHS Chelsea show gardens with Kamelia Bin Zaal, the UAE’s foremost landscape designer, is an opportunity to discuss emerging trends as they pertain to the UAE’s landscape and climate. It’s an excellent way to work out how ideas at Chelsea, Britain’s leading horticulture event, which drew to a close last week, can be adapted for local tastes and temperatures.
Chelsea’s show gardens are like swans; their beauty and elegance belie the frenetic work and activity that takes place behind the scenes. All the designers I come across are both elated and exhausted following two-and-a-half weeks of pre-show on-site preparation and construction – a culmination of thousands of man hours that often stretches back a year or more.
Bin Zaal, who last year became the first Emirati to present a garden at Chelsea and was awarded silver-gilt for her efforts, has praise for Andrew Sturgeon’s garden for The Telegraph, which was awarded gold and named best show garden this year.
“Its structure is simplistic and just very beautiful. There are facets that are reflective of my own style, where the architectural elements carry on through. The planting is very soft, but there is structure as well. He has used lines and diagonals with simple stone and materials. For a Middle Eastern environment, that works, although the planting plan would vary.”
Bin Zaal has found that at her own practice in Dubai, she is receiving growing interest from architects whose projects are very minimalist and who are seeking garden designs with straight lines and elements of hard landscaping to reflect this.
In terms of colour trends, a plant palette of purple and lilac appears to be gaining popularity. Bin Zaal notes that there’s also “a lot of orange” in the flowers at Chelsea this year, with the planting style becoming a lot more fluid and naturalistic, with less obvious structure. “Everyone is moving back to basics in terms of landscape,” she says. Part of the attraction of such schemes is that once established, they can be managed with less intervention and maintenance.
Some of Chelsea’s leading gardens made water a feature, highlighting its value and scarcity, which was a key element in many of the gardens’ overall messages. The Husqvarna Garden by Charlie Albone is one such design. “He has been very conservative with his use of water; the effect and sound are all there, yet it’s very minimal and the water is recycled around the scheme,” says Bin Zaal.
The garden references Melbourne in Australia, and its exotic planting scheme includes specimens of Acadia and Protea. The designer wanted to create a place to “relax and reflect, providing support to the requirement to retreat from the speed of modern living” and introduced a water rill, which runs around the garden, to set the tone and add gentle movement to the scheme.
L’Occitane Garden by James Basson, meanwhile, is inspired by the arid landscape of Provence, yet could just as easily reference parts of the Levant – the areas share many of the same species. “I do know clients in the UAE with homes in Provence, so this is also one they would possibly appreciate. James is very good; he never conforms,” says Bin Zaal. “I admire Basson’s team so much. Their planting skills are incredible. You feel like it’s been there forever. That is a real show garden for me. You have to remember it’s a piece of art – you are not doing a garden.”
James Basson, L’Occitane Garden (gold)
“My landscapes are all about working with nature. I like plants that grow in difficult conditions – I think there is a real beauty to them. When you see a person who has lived in the desert all their life, and their face is wrinkled and their eyes are bright, there is some kind of magic about it. The same applies to plants,” Basson says.
Basson’s garden is informal and naturalistic, although an incredible amount of work and skill went into creating its completely unstructured look, down to the weed details between paving stones.
“I was very comfortable with what I was doing, but I knew it was a huge risk,” he says. “Potentially, the judges could have gone: ‘Well, James, you’ve done a lovely garden, but it’s definitely a bronze because the trees are bad, you’ve got all the weeds and we are about expressing perfect horticulture.'”
There are 200 different plant species in the garden, and about 20 to 30, including almond, lavender, rosemary, thyme and sage, are utilised for their fragrances.
A theatre fabric designer on the team spent four days staining stones, highlighting certain elements and darkening others – all to make it look old and lived in.
Seed for many of the plants was collected directly from the landscape, as specimens such as dandelions wouldn’t ordinarily be cultivated by commercial nurseries. The “weeds” have been painstakingly threaded between paving and walls, and appear to have been in situ for years.
Basson observes that planting styles at Chelsea are evolving from strong architectural blocks to something more about formula, where designers “cast this mat across the garden, and there is a real pattern to it. In the garden of Hugo Bugg, there is a pattern to the landscape, which takes into account the trees and what will grow in the sun, and then there is this formula, which criss-crosses the landscape. It also appears in Cleve West’s garden for M&G, and Andy Sturgeon’s garden for The Telegraph, where a mathematical formula of plants drapes across the garden.”
This is reflective of a greater evolution currently transforming landscape design, he says. “I believe the future of planting design is computers,” he explains. “Planting design is too complex for the human brain. You have the demands of the landscape, the client’s wishes and the massive series of possibilities of which plants to flower in sequence, with colours in harmony; the mathematical probability of getting it right is impossible. But with computers, you can go exponentially so much further, so I’m excited about how computers can help us design.
“I would love to work in Abu Dhabi and do a garden working with plants for a dry landscape,” he adds.
Jo Thompson, Chelsea Barracks Garden (gold)
The Chelsea Barracks Garden is sponsored by real-estate developer Qatari Diar. “Chelsea Barracks visited the show last year, and thought it was really, really wonderful. It is such an intrinsic part of the area [formerly a London base for the British Army; now a major real-estate development] that they thought it was a wonderful thing to be part of,” Thompson explains. “In the brief, it stated that we were to reference the heritage of the development. We went to view the site of Chelsea Barracks, and found genuinely open spaces, which gave me carte blanche to do a communal garden.”
Thompson believes that it’s especially important for city dwellers to have access to green space, which can either facilitate meeting or allow for moments of singular reflection – and both of these ideas are reflected in sculptures in her garden. One is a pair of bronze figures; the other a solitary figure.
“As I was looking at the architect’s plans, I realised that one of London’s lost rivers runs directly under that site, which goes from Hampstead, comes down to Hyde Park and appears under Sloane Square tube station, and then runs underneath the site of the barracks. There are a lot of fantastic water features on the site – so I felt that the garden needed to include these elements and created a ’river’ that slices thought it.”
Thompson’s roses are a reference to the listed garrison chapel at the barracks site, which has a beautiful rose-patterned glass window. “Rose gardens can be very formal and stiff, and I wanted to show how you could use them in a much looser way.” She has also used a palette of bronze finishes and grey stone in her garden, which reflects materials that architects at the barracks used. This also echoes the browns and greys of local buildings, which include the Royal Hospital at Chelsea, designed by Sir Christopher Wren.
Hugo Bugg, Royal Bank of Canada Garden (silver gilt)
Bugg is the young British garden designer currently working on Jordan’s 400-acre Royal Botanic Garden project. His experience of Jordan informed the design of his Chelsea garden, which “celebrates water, not as a commodity, but as an entity sacred to human kind”.
The planting is inspired by the Jordanian landscape, a feature of which is the Aleppo pine tree (Pinus halepensis). About 35 per cent of the plants used in the Royal Bank of Canada Garden are native to that area, so Bugg has sought to create natural combinations.
The designer has adopted geometric and mathematical forms, with black basalt sculptural features (a stone representative of the eastern part of Jordan). Viewed from above, the garden reveals a complex interplay of structure, although at ground level, the effect is more naturalistic. “The geometry of the garden comes from the Middle East and the study of water, and looking at sacred associations with water,” Bugg explains.
He has also pulled in other elements relating to his Jordanian experience, with the garden’s informal rope barrier, woven from goat hair by indigenous Bedouin tribes.
The biggest challenge for the project was “getting the plants right”, says Bugg. Many were grown from seed and cultivated in Britain. “I really love all of it and how it’s come together, particularly the stonework and the water features, and how the planting offsets it all.”
Source: art & life