June 2015 — It’s early June at Chaumont-sur-Loire’s annual garden festival, and one of the 26 gardens created around this year’s theme, ‘A Collector’s Garden’, is already getting more attention than others.
From afar, Nuances, a garden created by two Belgian landscape-architects, looks like a large hyper-realist photograph in a modern museum: bright flowers and lush green leaves set in a pure white frame on a pure white wall. A few cardoon leaves flow out towards the viewer, like an 18thcentury Dutch painting within a painting. The blues of the lupins, campanulas and delphiniums are so intense they look like an over-saturated print.
That day, everybody wants their picture taken in front of this live still-life. A few weeks later, as the holiday season begins, Nuances has become the face of Chaumont in all the magazines and TV programmes covering the festival.
For anyone who hasn’t been to the Chaumont festival, the easiest comparison is with the RHS’s annual Chelsea Flower Show. Chaumont is an unmissable event in the French garden design calendar.
Instead of going on for five days, however, it goes on for six months from early May to late October. And most of the plants, rather than being shipped in bulk just before their peak a few weeks before the show, usually arrive as seedlings and naturally develop on site through the spring and summer. It’s part of the festival’s ethos.
Garden design lab
The Chaumont festival, which has been going since 1992, is described by its creators as “a laboratory of contemporary garden design and landscaping”.
One of its early participants and supporters was botanist Patrick Blanc, who invented the so-called ‘green walls’. His ‘vertical gardens’, where plants, shrubs and flowers grow in pockets hooked on a permanent structure affixed on walls, are now blossoming in cities around the world.
That spirit is still in evidence. Many of those accepted to enter the annual show are not gardeners. There is a requirement that each project should be led by a landscape-gardener but artists, architects, and designers are encouraged to take part. This meshing of crafts and outlooks is a strong feature of Chaumont, along with a certain playfulness.
Take this year’s Carnivore Parc garden, a humorous take on Jurassic Park, with its display of carnivorous plants. In one corner, timber crates plastered with ominous drawings of angry Venus flytraps are waiting to be opened. In the middle and in cages on one side, some of the plants are already growing, behind bars, to keep the public safe.
Like a lot of the gardens at Chaumont, Carnivore Parc has a serious message too. In this case, the need to protect biodiversity, especially in wet environments such as marshland, where these plants grow.
Similarly, Linnaeus’ Ark is a metaphor about the threat of global warming and how it affects plants. Suspensions Climatiques, a construction of plywood shelves of various heights and shapes, presents a collection of plants in jars, bottles and pots left to grow wild without human assistance. And The Seeds Garden, with its garden sieve installations and sculptures of oversized acorns and sycamore seeds the size of a child, is a reflection on the origin of life and the role of gardeners in protecting it.
But the best thing about Chaumont is that you can actually walk around the gardens, touch the plants, feel part of the project.
You may feel that the explanatory notes to some of the gardens sometimes are a little too earnest, but Chaumont remains a hymn to creativity and inventiveness. Next year’s theme is ‘Gardens for the Next Century’ will mark the festival’s 25th year. With a theme like this, it should be no less inspiring than the 24 that have come before.
Visit this year’s garden festival here. The chateau’s extensive grounds are also home to a number of exhibitions and installations. Some are permanent, such as the extraordinary Vallon des Brumes, a shaded glade with damp-loving plants and mist-making machines. Others are seasonal, including Christian Lapie’s ‘Constellation du Fleuve’, a group of tall dark figures roughly carved out of tree trunks.