RHS Hampton Court Flower Show’s Twilight Zone

Cross-sections of a boulder fitted together to make a path

A 8ft meteor has fallen to earth, coming to rest in a garden. The impact has blackened the fencing, scorched vegetation and reduced trees and shrubs to charred branches.

The path is miraculously unscathed: not quite so old as the meteor, it has been made from a Caledonian boulder formed millions of years ago. Smaller boulders lie around, giving the floor added dimension and creating a lovely backdrop for the silhouettes of low growing plants and twisted embers of wood.

Charred, twisted branches amongst foliage and flowers

The dark planting scheme glows red hot in places: the chocolate-red cosmos and orange-red helenium firing up the green and pewter foliage, the burnt wood and the futuristic lilacs. This is the Elements Mystique Garden from RHS Hampton Court Flower Show 2018, but the setting would not be out of place in an episode of The Twilight Zone. 

At first glance, I didn’t pick up the designer’s beauty in chaos theme or the meteor concept. What immediately struck me was the heavenly stone path, which I only later learned had been made from one large boulder, cut into thick slithers. That’s my idea of luxury hardscaping!

Pebbles, black mondo grass and succulents filled the cracks between each organic shaped slab. The succulents gave me pause – I loved the effect, but surely sempervirens will mush underfoot, rather than release aroma and bounce back as a thyme or a chamomile lawn would? Does that matter? After all, this is a fantasy garden; a concept garden.

People who requires the ‘i’s to be dotted and the ‘t’s to be crossed when it comes to an idea are on shaky ground here. If the garden was the BBC’s Bodyguard series, fans would be falling over each other in the comments underneath online reviews or on Twitter to point out plot holes and to spot hidden references in plant names such as ‘Black Lace’, ’Black Negligee’ and ‘The Pearl’.

Lingering to read about the concept behind the garden, I pressed my sweetheart to tell me what he made of it. He observed that the corten orb was out of scale for the plot (he switches into busy, practical mode the moment he sets foot in a flower show); it was not solid like a real meteor and there was no impact crater.

He’s right, of course. I could add plot holes of my own, but if I’m pretending something is a meteor that isn’t a meteor, the lack of a crater is just something else to suspend disbelief over.

Orange-red daisy-style flowers mixed in with cool lilac flower spikes

And if I’m accepting that some plants have survived such an impact at close quarters, they might just as well be Cosmos atrosanguineus, Verbena bonariensis, Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’ or sempervirens as something a bit harder to kill or flatten, like English ivy.

I go to flower shows to enjoy seeing different plant combinations and techniques. Unlike the judges, I’m not looking for perfection.

I want to be delighted by something and to be made to think about what I see. I want to marvel, exclaim, explore and admire. I value the gardens that stay with me after the flood of impressions and ideas has receded, something I’ll smile about and reference back to later.

Geometric orb-shaped gazebo overlooks a garden

Thought provoking details included the cedar screening, blackened by the Japanese technique of shou sugi ban, a way to preserve wood by charring it with fire, creating a scaly, carbonised layer. Charred wood is difficult to rekindle, less hospitable to pests, more rot and water resistant, and, ironically, resists sun damage. Unlike paint, it can last for many decades, weathering to a softer colour.

View of the seating inside a metal orb gazebo

The corten steel orb sculpture had a bench inside, so doubled as a gazebo. I didn’t get chance to sit inside and look out, so can only imagine how those geometric lines would have framed the view.

In a year when B&Q’s mass plantings of a retro style begonia won the critical acclaim, I’m bucking the trend. Count me (not for the first time) on the side of something more individual. Artisan cut stone. A sculpted gazebo. Textural foliage in shades of green, pewter, copper and black.

Dark foliage, green leaves and colourful grasses

As I left, still puzzling about the scorching and the flowers, in a flash, I twigged something. The metal orb wasn’t a meteor, but a spaceship disguised as a meteor. It didn’t crash to Earth, it landed.

Official planting list for the Elements Mystique Garden:

Actaea simplex ‘Atropurpurea’
Actaea simplex ‘Black Negligee’
Anemanthele lessoniana
Achillea ‘The Pearl’
Cosmos atrosanguineus
Cyrtomium fortunei
Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’
Deschampsia cespitosa
Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldtau’
Eupatorium purpureum
Eurybia divaricata
Hakonechloa macra
Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’
Hylotelephium ‘Jose Aubergine’
Liriope muscari
Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ 
Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Blue Spire’
Prunus serrula
Rodgersia pinata
Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’
Verbena bonariensis

Credits and links

Elements Mystique Garden, designed by Lawrence Roberts, built and sponsored by Elements Garden Design, was awarded a Silver Gilt medal at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show 2018. It was inspired by the corten steel orb by sculptor William Roobrouck.

27 Replies to “RHS Hampton Court Flower Show’s Twilight Zone”

  1. I love the photos of the garden. The way the garden is lit — or perhaps the angle of you shot — makes it look, to me, like a painting. Until I read your text, I thought this was a painting of a garden.

  2. Love love the garden. And I love your conclusion that it’s a space vehicle. Works for me!

  3. I like your idea that a garden of plants and flowers need not be perfect to make a lasting impression on you. In your photo with an outstanding perspective I see grass growing between the stone slabs of the walkway. It appears to me almost like planned imperfection. Enjoyable post, Susan!

    1. A good point – perfectly imperfect is more my thing. Show me a real garden that is ever (or could ever remain) perfect in the conventional sense; one without a faded flower that could be nipped off or an insect nibble!

  4. Of course you are right: a spaceship that landed, not a meteor that crashed! It makes perfect sense! This is a wonderful post; I am in awe once again of the way your writing grows from the images — it’s almost as though the plants themselves are writing. That’s it! — you are part plant! That really explains a lot.

    1. A bit of both, though he does instantly think of practical things. For example, someone butchered a small tree while he was away that is on his property but slightly overhung another drive – both annoying and embarrassing for him as it was badly done. I suggested he got someone to carve a bird or animal in it like the live oaks you see on the Mississippi coast, but he pointed out that it isn’t dead, so would sprout back out. I hadn’t thought of that.

  5. The gardener had a concept and implemented it nicely. As with any form of art or arts (including tv and movies), depending on the genre, I’m not seeking accuracy or believability necessarily. I want to escape for a while and be entertained. This looks lovely as a sculptural garden. Now, where’s the alien that sprang out of the meteor??? 🙂

    1. It was a big flower show – they could have been anywhere! They’d have concluded earth was very colourful. I’m with you – and a sculptural garden is a great way to put it.

  6. I regret I never made it to the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show when we lived in the UK – but I love looking at photos like yours. The pathway is an absolute delight!

      1. I love any kind of stone having grown up in the Derbyshire Peak District. I bought an enormous boulder for my previous garden but obviously I couldn’t bring it with me.

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