A Conceptual Show Garden for the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show

In 2007 the Royal Horticultural Society introduced a new garden category – Conceptual Gardens – to encourage young designers to come up with bold and exciting concepts to explore the possibilities and meanings of garden spaces. A small bursary was given by the RHS and the gardens had to fit in a space no more than 30m2. I applied the following year whilst in my final year of college and my design was accepted. However the bursary would not have been sufficient to build my design so I entered, and won, another design competition to secure further funding.

The Brief

Conceptual gardens exist in a grey area between art and design. They express ideas or concepts, and are therefore not intended to be functional, and indeed may not have any function at all. They are gardens about ideas that have their own meaning, significance or narrative. Most of these gardens are created as art installations and therefore exist only on a temporary basis.

The Brief was to push the boundaries of garden design, by coming up with fresh, new and unusual ideas and the theme of the 2008 show was sustainability. My intention with Forest squared was to investigate mankind’s relationship with forests and woodlands – how they resonate with us and affect us emotionally and spiritually. To do so I used the optical illusion created by parallel mirrors to create an apparently infinite forest using just 30 trees.

The Design

I took the main vertical elements of a natural forest – tree canopy, shrub understorey, herbaceous plants and ground cover, and then abstracted them and transposed them onto a 1m square grid, (hence the name,  Forest²) and allowing the other elements to flow around this rigid framework. I used only one cultivar of tree and used only common box (Buxus sempervirens) to represent the understorey. A selection of ferns and woodland perennials represented the flora of the forest floor. The horizontal elements that one encounters when passing through a forest – clearings, a stream, and the forest itself, were also represented in the garden in a simplified and abstracted form.

My main interest with the garden was to investigate whether the emotional response to the work would echo the response to a real forest – even though this was very obviously abstracted and removed from a landscape context. Forests are often represented in literature – from Greek and Roman myths, through folk tales, to literature from Shakespeare to children’s stories – as places of encounter; this was represented in the garden by two white boulder seats to suggest a meeting place, which also served to balance the design and add visual interest to an otherwise plant-heavy garden.

The tension in the garden between the rigidly laid out trees and shrubs and the more naturalistic planting of perennials reflects the ambivalence of our relationship with forests, as expressed by nature writers, poets and religious texts: from man’s early sense of fear and foreboding in the Wild Wood, forests have now become places of solace and solitude, of tranquillity and renewal – places of retreat, ironically, from the urban ‘jungle’.

The garden used only plants for its ‘architecture’, the stems of the birch and the clipped box cubes helping to define the space in a subtle way whilst avoiding the us of hard landscaping materials. Visitors to the show could view the garden through portholes cut through the mirrored walls at varying heights to allow wheelchair users, children and adults to experience the garden. Seen from these 6 points, the forest appeared almost infinite, with the white stems of Betula utilis var. Jacquemontii disappearing into the distance.

Forest² won a gold medal and the public response was overwhelmingly one of delight, wonder and surprise, with many people approaching me to tell me this was their favourite garden of the show. To read about the garden in the media, click here.