top of page


Quote of the day:

‘Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see.’ - Sonia Sotomayor

Simon’s offering:

’Not everyone is a fan of choral music. It’s something of an acquired taste.’

An extraordinary day today and yesterday. Apart from one other day about three months ago, except for a very slight dull ache infrequently, I have had virtually no pain at all. It’s astonishing. I’m slightly on edge as to whether it’s a temporary thing or the real deal.

I’m being very cautious about everything I do, for fear of breaking the spell.

It’s distinctly abnormal as constant and continual debilitating pain has become a way of life for the last 18 months. I’ve consumed more painkillers of varying types during that time than I care to think about.

Some were even dispensed in glass vials and meant to be administered intravenously. Bizarrely, my GP thought breaking the top off and swallowing the foul liquid was the best way of taking them. The only thing stronger than that she said she could have given me at that time was morphine.

I’m not even sure if they worked but I’m very happy to have kicked those and almost all of the others into touch. My mind has been fogged and clouded for so long, it was as if living a pain-free existence was an unattainable dream.

But here it is, a reality. If it’s only for a day or two, that‘s ok. I’ll take it. I wasn’t expecting this so soon and it’s a complete joy, especially as I am still only three weeks post-surgery from a major spine op. If this is how things are going to continue, I give thanks to the spine fusion gods for their continued commitment to the project.

It feels like the culmination of a huge undertaking and one of those times that changes your life forever. They are few and far between but when they happen, it’s easy to transport yourself back to the feeling of heightened emotion, stress or joy.

One such moment in my life was staging our first small show garden at Hampton Court Flower Show. I found the original plans just now - so incredibly basic and lacking in detail, so much more work than the simple drawing suggests, so many hopes and dreams, with a huge sense of sticking one’s head above the parapet. But back in 2008, it was a dream I was determined to follow.

The Spirits’ Garden was my interpretation of some weird, funny and wonderful experiences I had while ghost hunting. But a garden design based on this; could it be done? Friends and I had an absolute ball of a time on so many occasions and things happened regularly that were impossible to explain. Had I not witnessed things with my own eyes, I would not have believed them. Perhaps the most fun you can have without alcohol?

For our efforts on that very first show build, we were awarded a bronze medal. Simon was devastated. I was relieved to at least get something.

The day after judging, is the time you get a visit from the judges where they will give you feedback on the design, build and assessment of the all important self-set document ‘The Brief’.

The Brief is usually written by the designer themselves and sets out in fine detail what you are trying to achieve, exactly how it will look, what it will provide for the fictional customer, in fact everything to do with the look and purpose of the garden. This is the standard the designer sets themself and will be judged against, for good, bad or indifferent.

Getting feedback or constructive criticism is not compulsory but the offer is there if you wish. I certainly did wish and I knew that Simon was desperate to hear what they had to say.

Two of the head judges who were present the previous judging day duly arrived. Simon of course was straight in there, ‘Yes we would. Very definitely,’ he butted in before I could even acknowledge them.

Handing over the reins at the front of the garden to our trusty volunteers manning the garden for a few minutes, the four of us retreated to the rear of the garden.

Introducing himself as the head judge, the grey haired man who was in charge during the judging process asked us if we would like to know why we had only received a bronze medal. ‘Absolutely. We certainly do,’ chipped in Simon, butting in almost before Head Judge had finished his sentence.

‘Well, there were several things that we marked you down on. We felt the planting in the beds was too close to the hedge. In a real garden the plants would not have done as well had they been planted like that.‘

Fair point and constructive, I thought.

‘Another thing was the mirrors. We didn’t like the way they were rippled and distorted. They reminded some of the judges of a fairground attraction.’

My hackles rose. I could take the criticism of the distance between the plants and the hedge on the chin, despite the fact that part of me wanted to argue that the plot was only a paltry twenty five square metres.

However, I could not let the ‘fairground attraction’ comment go. I saw Simon’s eyebrows raise and he gave me the ‘Oh, oh! Stand back, she’s off’ look.

’A fairground attraction? Did you not read the inspiration behind the garden? The brief? That was the whole point. Paranormal activity is, by its very nature, distorted and ambiguous. It’s never going to be straightforward or perfect to look at with an exact reflection, with that archetypal diamond encrusted tooth twinkling back at you from the looking glass. There would be ghosts banging on the door and showing themselves at every opportunity were it so, don’t you think? Paranormal activity has a strong element of 'is it?’ or ‘isn’t it?’ so that was the whole point of the rippled mirrors. Why would I even think of installing something that was perfectly smooth and reflective, when the subject matter speaks for itself?’ I grumbled in belligerent retaliation.

Accustomed to bolshy designers apparently, a steely silence came back from the judges in answer to my very direct confrontation.

As if I had said nothing, he continued.

’The other thing we were troubled by were the clematis climbing up the walls. Well, to be perfectly honest, they really weren’t as big as we would have liked. A little bit ethereal was the general consensus. A bit wafty.’

A direct hit with that one again.

And she’s off for round two…

More red rag shown to the Taurean bull. ’Ethereal? Umm, sorry, did you miss something? It’s The Spirits’ Garden. Does the title not give it away? It’s not the immoveable rammed earth wall garden, the enormous mound of concrete garden, or the gigantic tower block garden. Waftiness is the name of the game and what it’s all about.’

‘We also felt that the thyme circle was a bit sunken and should have been perfectly flat and that the orange wall was, erm, well, very orange.’

It was the opening I had been looking for. ‘Ah, that would be the orange wall the judge in the raincoat kicked, you mean? The very orange one that may now, as we are speaking, have a dent in it?’

This did not go down well at all. I had their attention and they continued.

‘Which man? He kicked your wall? I’m sorry, I didn’t see that, but I will have words. I would not have been happy had I seen him do it if that was the case,’ he placated.

Only then did reality start to dawn that actually, no matter how impartial judges purported and tried to be, there was always inevitably going to be a strong element of subjectiveness, no matter what. It was a Marmite garden in their eyes. Really there was no point at all in even reacting. I had to learn from the feedback they gave me but I was not expected to buck `The System’. No amount of counter argument or explanation would do any good and it would certainly not change the result. Hearing and inwardly digesting what they were saying appeared to be the only course of action.

On the positive side, they thought the construction throughout was excellent. Top marks to Simon and the team.

Another judge came round later going to great pains telling me how much he loved the curved and slanting hedge. ‘Everyone needs a trademark,’ he continued. ‘I suggest you make that yours and use it in your future designs. I wish I had thought of it first.’

Oh well, you win some, you lose some, but try as they had done so in pouring oil on troubled waters, Simon was in an unforgiving mood about the bronze medal.

He was still simmering gently about the result but genuinely, I thought some of their criticism was constructive. It certainly gave us a taste of what the RHS are looking for and the standards they set.

‘One thing we must emphasise is how much we appreciate your effort and we would love to see you back here again,’ concluded Head Judge, trying to end the feedback meeting on a positive note.

‘Well, thank you for that but there’s no way I’m putting myself and my team through that torture again. Never,’ came my instant reply.

That was my final word to them on the subject. I was completely ‘done’ as far as ‘it’ as was concerned. This was the full stop at the end of the Hampton Court Experience sentence.

And I meant it too.

But within three weeks, there had been a complete about turn. A break from the stresses and strains, and a moment of inspiration and I was raring to go. Feedback comments were addressed and another garden lay completed upon the drawing board for the following year’s show.

Risk? Undoubtedly.

Challenge? Unquestionably.

Can I do it? Yes, of course.

Will I? You bet.

Taking the lessons learned from The Spirits’ Garden, let’s go for gold with the next one, The Healing Garden.

And it was exactly the same way then, as I feel today post-surgery. Everything I’m doing at present is to ensure a successful outcome. There’s no way I am going to intentionally stuff this up. Bring it on!


Hi, thanks for stopping by!

I’m Jill, a RHS gold medal winning English professional gardener, garden designer and landscaper living in South West France since 2012. This is a personal account of my gardening life, some of the jolly and occasionally not so jolly japes that ensued while working, that probably caused my subsequent back problems.

Let the posts
come to you.

Thanks for submitting!

  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
bottom of page