The very nice lady from New Zealand is rattling off Latin names at machine-gun pace and describing the fundamental connection between a plant (the name of which I can’t spell correctly), the life force of the water feature and the significance of the charred exterior of the pine walls.
Every so often, she pauses, turns to me and asks, “You do see what I mean, don’t you?” And I mumble a variant of, “Yes, of course. It’s remarkable. The relationship …” and let the phrase shrivel up and die as quickly as one of the plants I occasionally sow in the patch of scrubby ground at home that I have the temerity to describe as “my garden”.
Leaving my replies ambiguous seems to be fine with Xanthe White, however, because she has so much enthusiasm for a milieu in which she clearly excels; she has just been awarded the gold medal and lifted the Best Design Award at the 2012 Gardening World Cup.
A steady stream of fellow contestants, awe-struck Japanese wannabes and husbands, apparently dragged along by green-fingered wives to the show gardens on the first day they are open to the public, stop by to congratulate 36-year-old White. They ask pertinent questions, nod sagely when she starts with the Latin names of plants and discuss lines of flow, transitions and the difficulty of sourcing native New Zealand shrubs in southern Japan.
It would be fair to say that, as a Tokyo-based news journalist who generally covers politics, disasters and Japan’s latest row over the Senka… er … Diaoyu Islands, I’m out of my depth here. But while I may not be able to tell the difference between a philodendron and a sprig of parsley, I can appreciate something that incorporates colour, beauty and attractive design elements.
And plenty of people who visit this event fall into that category.
The Gardening World Cup, held annually at the slightly surreal Huis Ten Bosch theme park – a vast replica of a Dutch town, complete with windmills and canals – celebrated its third anniversary last month.
Awards were made on September 28 and the gardens were open to the public from September 29 to October 8.
Each year, some of the biggest names in garden design are invited to spend two weeks working with local horticultural construction teams to build show gardens under the theme of “peace”, which is in keeping with its location, close to Nagasaki. In 1945, the city, on the west coast of Kyushu island, became the second, and hopefully last, to be attacked with a nuclear bomb.
Each contestant is given a budget of about HK$600,000 and a plot of land measuring about 100 square metres. Usually, competitors must deal with at least one typhoon, mosquitoes and constant lost-intranslation moments with the builders. It is remarkable that any of the gardens are completed on time or that they resemble the designers’ original plans in any way, shape or form.
AS THEY SMILE FOR the crowd and the television cameras (the winners are announced on local TV news), the competitors are all very diplomatic about the obstacles they have had to contend with.
“It has been an honour and a privilege to have been invited. And it has been an amazing experience – one that I shall remember forever,” says Richard Miers, a designer from Britain. “The kindness that we have been shown has been fantastic.”
He glosses over the fact that he was not informed until he arrived in Japan that not one of the 100 Japanese woodland species he had requested would be available, or that when he went to the nursery to collect the trees – which were rather critical to his concept, a “shade garden” – he discovered they had been grown too close together and therefore lacked leaves on two sides.
Horticultural frustration has been a recurring theme. Two walls of Kazuyuki Ishihara’s quintessentially Japanese garden collapsed one night while Jo Thompson’s paper sculptures suffered condensation in the alcoves. She was aghast to discover, very late in the day, that the arch design does not exist in Japanese architecture and that instead of dressed stone, the walls would be built with hand-rendered plaster made to look like individual slabs of stone.
Others found the process far smoother, however. Malaysia’s Lim In Chong, the winner of the Best in Show accolade, says he had a “superb” contractor – although they argued all the time – and that his team accomplished in nine days what should have taken close to six months.
Given the time constraints, the finished piece is remarkable, if I’m permitted to use that phrase again.
Lim says he found the inspiration for his garden, titled Eye to Eye, while competing at last year’s event.
“It came to me in a flash,” he says. “The two eyes that are part of the design show that we can see eye to eye with other people and also that we need to see the world through other people’s eyes. If we can do that, then there should be a lot more peace in the world.”
British designer James Basson, who is representing France, where he lives, says he felt “great relief “ at his gold medal and the Peace and Flowers Award for his design, Dulce et Decorum est, which drew from a line in a poem by Roman poet Horace. The verse, which extols dying for one’s country, was used, arguably more famously, by British poet Wilfred Owen in the first world war.
“Dulce et Decorum est” – which literally means, “How sweet and fitting” – is marked on three concrete slabs that have been “pierced by a missile”, a concept taken from an apartment in Gaza.
“It’s an image of three rooms that have been blasted through and is symbolic of the idea that in this damaged space, nature can return and make something beautiful – beautiful enough for people to come back to,” Basson says.
South African team David Davidson and Leon Kluge brought an African flavour to their piece, Hortus Consensus – The Watershed Garden, but also faced some challenges in the two-week construction period.
“Gardens and plants are a language for communicating and something that everyone can identify with,” says Davidson, who has amassed a remarkable 15 gold medals in 19 appearances at the Chelsea Flower Show in London, probably the most famous competition of its kind in the world. “Our garden represents the balance between the natural order and man-made order and we looked at the concept of peace as the birth of democracy, in our experience, in South Africa.
“The biggest challenge for us is that while we choose to represent our country at this event, it is very difficult to source indigenous African plants here in Japan,” Davidson says. “We want to represent some of South Africa’s floral wealth and our cultural diversity, but it can be very difficult.”
Bob Sweet, head of judging for Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society, which organises the Chelsea Flower Show, and convener of the judges in Japan, says the event has made huge strides in a short space of time.
“I’m absolutely delighted at the improvement in the standards this year,” he says. “They have moved on massively in two years. It’s fair to say that standards have leapt in that time.
“As with any event, it takes time for these things to settle, but between 2010 and 2012 they have definitely reached the stage and are at the top end of the gardens we have at the gold medal standard,” says Sweet, who helped judge the first Gardening World Cup, two years ago.
“These gardens would certainly compete for gold medals at Chelsea or anywhere else.”
As a novice to the world of competitive gardening, there are a few things that strike this outsider. One is the way in which some of the male designers, particularly the dapper and handsome Miers, attract the attention of many female visitors. Happy to be photographed with visitors to his garden, the oh-so-English Miers sends them into rapture by putting his arm around them for a shot. If there is such a thing as gardening groupies, here they are.
Even more surprising is the way in which, when the trugs and trowels are put down at the end of another back-breaking day, many of these gardeners morph into hard-drinking party animals who keep going until 4am. And there are some interesting rumours within the fraternity as to why the winner of the Best in Show award and the head judge from last year’s event were not invited this time around.
Clearly, there is so much more to competitive gardening than primping the petunias.
QUEEN OF PARKS: GOING DUTCH
The windmill sails turn lazily against the early autumn sky, as a narrow boat peeps a warning to the two swans that are impeding its quiet progress along the canal. In a cobbled square, surrounded on all sides by narrow red-brick houses, a busker is turning the handle of a barrel organ.
And then the illusion is shattered by a high-pitched Japanese voice that is letting visitors at the Dutch-themed Huis Ten Bosch theme park near the city of Nagasaki know that the fireworks display will start at 7pm sharp.
The Japanese do love their theme parks. The mammoth Disneyland and Disneysea parks are just outside Tokyo, Osaka is home to Universal Studios, Mie prefecture has the Shima Spain Village, and British Hills in Fukushima offers visitors a taste of life in Britain. But Huis Ten Bosch is arguably the most impressive.
Spread over 152 hectares alongside Omura Bay, it is a replica in painstaking detail of a 17th-century Dutch town that was built with the permission of the Dutch royal family.
The park's name translates as "House in the Forest" and is named after one of the three official residences of Queen Beatrix, the queen regent of the Netherlands, and her family.
The park opened in March 1992 on land reclaimed from the sea and its location is significant: it was in nearby Hirado city where the Dutch opened a trading post in 1609, when the islands of Japan were otherwise closed to foreigners.
At its peak, in 1996, Huis Ten Bosch attracted 4.25 million visitors keen to "travel to a foreign country" without needing to leave Japan. But the economic slump over the following few years bit deep and the Japanese increasingly chose to skip summer holidays - even domestic ones - and days out. In 2003, the park declared bankruptcy, with debts of 220 billion yen (HK$2.1 billion). It appeared the park would close entirely and be left as a huge, Dutch white elephant, but a finance company stepped in to steady the ship. In 2010, H.I.S, Japan's largest travel agency, took over management of the park.
Visitor numbers are beginning to recover, with smartly attired school groups marching over the cobbles to visit churches, art galleries, gardens and palaces that are probably too pristine to be in a working town, Dutch or otherwise. The new management is investing heavily in attracting more visitors and hosting the Gardening World Cup is part of that larger strategy.
It is unlikely, however, that the management will introduce some of the other authentic elements found in Amsterdam and elsewhere in the Netherlands, such as the world-famous red-light district or the coffee shops that serve more than caffeine highs.