Wong condemns dated design approach

'UK horticulture lies bathing in the golden light of nostalgia, even down to the clothing garden presenters wear,' says Wong.

Wong: panned dominant model
Wong: panned dominant model

The "heritage pathology" approach to garden design and horticulture has been attacked by ethnobotanist, television presenter and author James Wong, who said UK horticulture is like a "museum diorama" stuck around 1900.

Speaking at the Society of Garden Designers spring conference "Exotic" in London, he said despite leading the world in many other aspects of design, the British are stuck in the past and view gardens as "outside soft furnishings". He also took a swipe at other television presenters for their archaic-looking clothes.

"UK horticulture lies bathing in the golden light of nostalgia, even down to the clothing that gardening presenters wear. Where do they buy this stuff? It's like the 19th century," said Wong. "The ideal time is about 1900 - it's the zeitgeist. It's such a dominant model that it's so difficult for us to even conceive of horticulture outside of that."

In contrast, Wong said garden designer Gertrude Jekyll, now venerated, was considered "a crazy old lady" by Victorians. But if we "showed her how much we have preserved her garden in aspic, I think she would be polite but also horrified".

Wong said the "polar opposite to this" is Singapore, where he grew up. It was transformed from a malarial slum to a 21st century garden city thanks to the direction of former leader Lee Kuan Yew, who decided that if he made the country "clean and green" - modelled on Letchworth Garden City - rich white investors would come.

Lee established four tenets - education, health, enterprise and horticulture, deliberately aiming at creating a "white man's Disneyland" that was nicer than "other hell-hole" countries nearby.

Now Singapore has the highest density of millionaires of any country in the world, green roofs, green walls and municipal window boxes, while sky parks are mandatory on new buildings, roads are lined with trees and bridges have hanging baskets on both sides.

Singapore's airport has a director of horticulture who "treats palm trees as the British treat bedding plants", said Wong, and has several gardens inside it despite the building being air-conditioned to 18 degsC.

Wong added that behind this modern city are principles "cut and pasted from the Victorians", who were also quite happy to demolish and rebuild if there was money to be made.

Singapore's Parkroyal Hotel can charge twice as much as others that have similar rooms because it has been in every design magazine. Wong said he advocates neither approach but did call for a plurality of design.

Sarah Eberle, Dan Hinkley and Made Wijaya also spoke at the conference.

Exotic styles - Broader range highlighted

James Wong who has presented two RHS Chelsea Flower Show gardens in exotic styles, said British people see many different types of western gardening but there is only one type of "exotic", and that is largely based on British colonial sub-tropical style, itself just a small section of exotic garden design.

He said lumping all styles into one is "like me talking about herbaceous borders and topiary in the same sentence".

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