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Well – not everyone could win a gold medal, I suppose.

The standard this year at the Gardening World Cup was very high, as you’d expect from international designers of this calibre: so the competitive element was particularly controversial, and there was much heated muttering in corners about the judges’ reasons for awarding anything less than gold.

But the decision, as they say, is final, so in recognition of the fact that there were some damn good gardens among the lesser medals, I couldn’t leave without showing you them, too.

David Davidson + Leon Kluge: Hortus Consensus (S Africa)


An uncompromisingly African garden with its ochre colouring, you’d hardly believe these plants were sourced in Japan. The garden is divided by a sweeping wall, planted on top with spiky, forbidding Aloe vera (the closest Japanese plant David could find to South African Cape aloe, A. ferox) symbolising the transition from the apartheid era to the age of peace and reconciliation

Behind the wall, all is wild, with a meadow of Panicum virgatum punctuated with lipstick pink Lycoris radiata (I think: the Japanese tend not to use Latin names, so this is a ‘best guess’ from me). These grow wild along the sides of the paddyfields here – the Japanese equivalent of dandelions – and their exotic looks earned them a place in several of the show gardens  

Set into the walls were these charming ‘wildlife boxes’: I’ve seen them filled with grass and bamboo before, but never teapots. One of David’s Japanese contractors apparently went and raided his mum’s kitchen cupboards for this lot

In front of the wall, all was ordered, with beautiful wavy lines of planting giving the garden a lovely movement. David and Leon design the Kirstenbosch exhibit at Chelsea each year, and have won umpteen gold medals. It’s their 20th year next year, and David may make it his last: his subtle, plantsman’s designs will be sorely missed.

Gabino Carballo: Dragomed Garden (Spain)
If there was ever a garden that gave away its designer’s nationality, this is it. This was a garden which needed bright sunshine to make it sing. Luckily, the light in Nagasaki is particularly pure and set the scarlet of the painted bamboo off against the deep purple central courtyard beautifully.

This was a playful garden, though the message behind it was serious: the red bamboo is the skeleton of a dragon ‘bleeding on a reflecting pool’: a reference, too, to the ‘rauxa’, a Catalan term for uncontrolled passion and rage. The contrast with the blue peace of the central patio is absolute.

Planting was sparing and set off well against the pale gravel background: as well as these aeoniums there were aloes, shimmering silver Leucadendron argenteum and olives

Jihae Hwang: Mother’s Sewing Basket (Korea)

Probably the most controversial decision of the lot, Jihae’s garden was the pick of many of the other designers for top honours but ended up getting bronze. It was an exquisitely detailed depiction of the positive side of life in poverty: the tranquillity and peace in having little, and therefore valuing family and community more

Colour was used sparingly, but exceptionally beautifully in tiles (here at the base of a giant silver needle sculpture which dominated the garden) and in little touches like tiny ceramic flowers set into the steps

A rusted metal wall is set with Korean domestic implements: a cooking pan and a gardening tool. In the white rendered wall opposite, Jihae set a little cluster of rusted bolts and springs: the symbols of humility pervaded this garden 

Inside there was a simple wooden bench with tiny pairs of shoes underneath in a neat row, pots and a basket of fabric resting on top. The tale is of domesticity and simple pursuits, and the importance of family

Karen Stefonick: Passage Under the Sun (USA)

This was gardening as modern art. The abstract dominates: a burning sun over two concrete slabs (four lorries’ worth, apparently) trickling with life-giving water that flows down into a pool surrounding the seating areas and cutting them off

The stepping stones between the two areas ‘connect past and present, continents and countries’: though separated by water, this is a garden of unity, simplicity and clean, uncluttered space

The planting is sparing, too: I couldn’t help but notice in these gardens that wherever the designer came from, there was a noticeable Japanese influence on the designs. Plants were used in single, emphatically isolated specimens or groups, often juxtaposed against a rock – a very Japanese technique. Perhaps that’s to do with having Japanese contractors build the gardens; perhaps it’s just that you can’t help breathing in a little of the culture while you’re here.