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Garden Centre

When Charles Hawes visited the 9th International Garden Festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire he found an amazing assortment of contemporary garden designs to stimulate the mind and the senses

The International Garden Festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire has a reputation as being a platform for contemporary garden design. In an attractive site in the grounds of the Château, more than 30 new gardens are created each year by designers from all over the world. There is usually a theme, but this year the organizers have left it open: ‘Libre’. The Chaumont Festival opens daily until 22nd October, so, unlike British shows, crowds are rare and the gardens themselves have to stand the test of time.
In most of the Chaumont gardens, plants are not centre stage, and there are some gardens with practically no plants at all. ‘La Scene du poisson’ with its stainless steel fish standing in a pool is strongly reminiscent of the film Mon Oncle by Jacques Tati. The pool stands in an abstract parterre of different coloured gravels dotted with box balls and other incongruities.
‘Bones and Pumpkins’ is a formally laid out space comprising a rectangle filled with large animal bones divided from a bed of pumpkins and nasturtiums by white paving. Created by West 8, who were involved in the landscaping of Schipol airport, the garden both shocks and pleases simultaneously.

Over half the gardens use water in some form. ‘Ivre de la Jungle’ is a water garden designed with children in mind, with a snake and an elephant that sprays the visitors and a bench that will drench the unsuspecting. ‘Automates’ is a delightful collection of water driven scenes of French provincial life. In "The Observatory’ by British designers Philip Brown and Martin Lonsdale, the entrance floor is suspended over a pool from which rise clouds of steam.
Chaumont is unashamedly a garden festival for the mind as well as the senses. Most of the gardens are visually striking but they are all intended to have meaning and to stimulate thought. ‘Le potager imperial chinois’ is built around the symbolism in the Book of Mutations. ‘L’archipel’ is intended to portray the state of crisis in contemporary Japan and hope for the future. In ‘Mente la Menta’, a circular pool at its centre represents the void of the unknown future and the surrounding structures of steel suggest the complexities of the contemporary world.

This may be slightly indigestible to those who might see such heavy-handed metaphor as pretentious. On the other hand, perhaps we could do with some new ideas in our gardening world.
The 9th Festival International des Jardins, ‘Libre’ is open daily, 10th June to 22nd October, 9.30am to dusk. At Conservatoire international des parcs et jardins, Ferme du château, 41150 Chaumont-sur-Loire. Telephone: (33 2) 54 20 99 22. Entrance fee: FF48 - adult, FF20 - children aged 8-12, (free entry for children under 12).

NB Charles Hawes’s garden, Veddw House in Monmouthshire, is open to the public every Sunday afternoon until 2nd October.

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