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Fire & Ice

2022 Chelsea Flower Show, London


Mentioning the word “fire” to any Californian will garner a response that paints a vastly different panorama of our native landscape than occurrences just ten years ago. Every Californian has been impacted as millions of acres transformed into ash, embers carrying away American dreams as they watch their homes burn or smell the acrid air across the entire state. As recent as the last five years, I have heard people modify their idea of “fire season” from an annual summer/autumn occurrence to knowing flames can ignite any time of year. PTSD is as real as keeping a packed suitcase at the ready for a quick escape. The new norm.

So, how do I segue from devastating fires to a fantasy in flowers? In this case, a raw nerve was struck when I turned a corner to find Jennifer Hirsch’s garden design Re:generation at the 2022 Chelsea Flower Show. Both modern sculpture and garden, the Royal Horticulture Society describes the design as follows:

The space and shape of the garden-as-sculpture are defined by a series of Corten steel arches in various states of char, dividing three segments of planting that tell the regeneration story from charcoaled, diminished forest floor to a verdant, diverse explosion of plant life. The rhythm of the arches, a key feature, defines the passing of time for the viewer.

I stared for a long time. People I know, not just a few, lost their homes in California and elsewhere. Lives were upended and even lost. The devastation became real year after year with still no signs of halting. It occurred to me that fire, as devastating as it can be in Mediterranean climates, became object d’art here; something with qualities found beautiful at best or, by contrast, a lost science fair exhibit. In this context, beauty for one may trump reality for others. If we could whitewash charcoal, this would be the place to do it.

Yet, we incessantly believe time heals all wounds, and Hirsch’s garden pointedly reminds us to work with time despite our impatience and devastating experiences. Just as Mother Nature has designed Her garden to regenerate after fire, people rebuild (if they have the means). Sure, rebuilding in fire prone areas is not the best idea, but the idea of “home” is a powerful thing, wherever we may find it. The day was rainy and wet in London, lush even…how would this garden be received if it were on display in California? Could it hold the power to heal, reminding people that life goes on?

The Plantman's Ice Garden

It probably isn’t a coincidence that the next garden was quite frankly the polar opposite (pun intended to lighten the mood). The Plantman’s Ice Garden, designed by John Warland, features a shocking ice cube set in a lush woodland. The cube is open at its center, essentially housing a flowering plant to be revealed as the ice melts, a symbol for what life might be revealed as permafrost thaws. Writes the Royal Horticulture Society:

The monolithic ice cube is a reminder of the climate perils facing our planet, while offering hope that the botanical bounty found within might ensure humankind’s onward survival.

Contrasting a fertile woodland with opaque walls of ice is a chilly slap in the face really. Do we sit and wait for the ice to melt so we can enjoy the discovery left behind, or are we the ones left behind as the earth continues to warm? Once again, Mother Nature will find here way with or without us. Both Hirsch and Warland are offering up reminders that we can be active participants in this process that is indeed playing out in real time. Not at all what I was expecting from a “flower” show.

Garden: Re:generation

Designer: Jennifer Hirsch

Builder: Howard Day

Sponsor: The Body Shop

Garden: The Plantman's Ice Garden

Designer: John Warland

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