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The M&G Garden, James Basson


I can’t help feeling a bit smug about this year’s winner of Best in Show. I have been saying for quite some time that I thought James Basson was destined for great things: I first met him in Japan back in 2012, when he was doing the Gardening World Cup and created a fine, thoughtful and delicately judged garden based on the Wilfred Owen poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. Even back then I knew he was doing something rather different.

I have loved everything he’s done ever since. Last year’s garden for L’Occitane recreated a Provence landscape with breathtaking attention to detail and was, for my money, head and shoulders above the rest (the RHS judges, sadly, didn’t agree with me).

Which is why it is a little painful for me to confess that this year’s garden is not, for me, a favourite. I hope he won’t mind me saying that I found the strongly geometric hard landscaping, meant to evoke a Maltese quarry, overwhelming and over-dominant. I think it’s something to do with the crisply-cut, cuboid, modernist shapes. There was a lot of rock in his L’Occitane garden, after all, but there it complemented the planting. This swamps it.

And that’s a shame, as the plants themselves are quite remarkable. Typically of James’s attention to detail, each one is thoughtfully chosen and grouped to recreate particular microclimates: many are Maltese natives, rarely seen on these shores.

These are austere wildflowers, with none of the over-the-top prettiness of Chelsea. It’s a harsh, uncompromising landscape which perfectly evokes the dry, edge-of-existence environment that is as fragile as it gets. It is brave, for Chelsea (especially in the sponsor’s garden), and makes no concessions to crowd-pleasing. It is, in fact, what James Basson does best.

So look past the overly-geometric, jarringly modernist stonework which I wish had more rough edges, more chaos, more wildness; and concentrate instead on the gaunt, stark dignity of the plants between. For that is where the real truth of this garden lies, and that is why James is such a very special and very different kind of designer whose moment in the spotlight has, at last, arrived.