The Ministry of Silly Gardens

Does anybody remember the old Monty Python sketch about the Ministry of Silly Walks? This diverting bit of absurdity came to mind when Judy and I visited the International Garden Festival at Chateau Chaumont back in September. The Festival contained a number of gardens which, like the Ministry, took themselves very seriously but were in fact rather silly.

ministry of silly walks

Every year the International Garden Festival gets prominent or aspiring designers to install gardens which, according to the brochure, are “the gardens of tomorrow.” In 2013 there were 24 gardens, which are maintained from spring through fall. We only got to see about half, because we had also spent a lot of time visiting the Chateau and it was a very hot day.

Each of the gardens had plaques explaining their significance. Unfortunately they were in French only. Judy speaks some French but the translating was a bit arduous. I wish now that I had taken notes, but oh well.

festival des jardins

Certainly the silliest garden, and the most annoying, was about Death. Or Death and Life, or the Great Circle of Life, also depicted in Walt Disney’s The Lion King. This garden had a pomegranate tree, symbolizing Life (see legend of Persephone), and a big dead branch lying on the ground, symbolizing Death. Only thing is, someone had not been taking good care of the tree, because it was pretty much half dead. Or maybe that was intentional, I don’t know.

In case anybody missed the symbolism, there was a wall featuring a quote about life and death by the Russian abstract painter Kazimir Malevich, who is himself dead. Personally I don’t really approve of driving home the theme or message of a garden with a big sign. I mean, would Da Vinci have put a banner on the Mona Lisa reading: “Hey, is this lady’s smile mysterious or what?”

festival des jardins

Another silly garden featured what looks like an abandoned suburban backyard with a pool and patio. Perhaps it’s title was “Subprime Home Mortgage”, by Bank of America. This is not a garden of tomorrow, as you can already go to quite a few places where it is the garden of today.

festival des jardins
Garden about hearing or sound or something.
festival des jardins
Me under the Cone of Silence not hearing anything. By the way, that is Judy’s purse I am carrying because it was heavy and I am a nice person. Not that there is anything wrong with a man carrying a flowered purse.

Then there was a garden that was about sound, I think. It had mini lamp posts from which hung a sort of botanical version of the Cone of Silence from the old TV comedy Get Smart. (I’m just full of pop culture references today, generally about 30 years out of date.) You were supposed to stand under them so you could hear … something. I tried  but didn’t really hear anything. Kids found it entertaining, though.

Festival des jardin mesh

Another garden was about wind. It had pieces of aluminum mesh hanging from clotheslines. Reminded me that I had not fixed the screen door before leaving on this trip.

2013-09-08 09.17.15

Ah, if this is a garden of tomorrow, I really need to find a new hobby.

festival des jardins

So not everything was silly, or at least not in a bad way. I really loved this garden with disco balls appearing to float on a pond. Not what I would put in my own garden, but undeniably cool.

festival des jardins

And I liked this children’s garden, which you entered by stepping through a wardrobe. No lion or witch, unfortunately.

shoe planter

I forget where we saw these shoes turned into planters, but I have real difficulty throwing away my old shoes and you better believe that next spring they are all gonna be stuffed with potting mix and have plants growing out of them.

festival des jardins rice patty

This garden created around a rice patty was intriguing, I thought.

Landscaping between the display gardens.
Landscaping between the display gardens.

2013-09-08 09.25.31

Also, I may have liked the landscaping between the display gardens better than the display gardens themselves. Judy remarked that I repeated this observation more than necessary.

Anybody know what kind of butterfly this is? Not one I have seen in North America.
Anybody know what kind of butterfly this is? Not one I have seen in North America.

Sedum and bumblebee

Especially as there were plenty of bees and butterflies. Anybody know what kind of butterfly that is?

What’s the silliest garden you’ve ever seen? Or do you think I’m just being juvenile and narrow minded?

47 Comments on “The Ministry of Silly Gardens

  1. Ah! So you did visit Chaumont too. I felt just like you and I visited the last day they were open in 2012. They are installations more than gardens and I hated almost all of them. Pretentious is the work that kept springing into my mind and yes, I kept saying to my friend that I liked the planting between these gardens much more than the gardens themselves. The planting is for late summer autumn so was fabulous in October when I saw it. I did like the balloons that flew over just as we were leaving……Oh and the butterfly is a Peacock very common in Europe.

    • It’s funny because the place was wildly popular – we were there on a Sunday and it was packed with grandparents, parents, and kids.

  2. Gosh, this did make me smile. I totally agreed with every word you said here, and liked what you liked. Some ideas are just plain stupid….they’re not gardens! We have lots of those peacock butterflies, they are absolutely gorgeous.xxx

  3. Ah, the ministry of silly walks–I remember it well! This was an entertaining post. These concept gardens are a bit baffling but I must say sometimes having a Cone of Silence would be welcome in my garden. Doesn’t look very comfortable though. (Hope you got your screen repaired.)

  4. For fear of showing my age, yes, I do remember it. The gardens remind me a bit of those we get at Hampton Court Flower Show, for every one you like there’s another that is utterly ridiculous.

  5. I don’t think you are being at all juvenile and narrow-minded. These gardens remind me a lot of some of the indoor display gardens from early winter garden shows that I’ve been to, especially the ones that are supposedly based around a theme. Some of the designers offer a very literal interpretation, which almost never works.

    I like the disco balls too, and I did enjoy your post. The wind garden reminded me of clotheslines with plastic grocery bags stuck on them.

  6. You’re not being juvenile and narrow-minded, just hilarious! I laughed out loud at your “Subprime Home Mortgage” remarks. And it’s fine with me if you use old pop culture references: You’re talking about my past, too.

    This is one of my favorite posts (okay, for all the wrong reasons, but still…) Thanks for this series on your travels. I’m really enjoying it!

    • Really glad you enjoyed it. As to pop culture, I guess the only references I know are decades old. Glad I’m not the only one who appreciates them.

  7. The very same thing exists in eastern Canada at the Reford gardens. The Reford garden itself is one of the most beautiful in North America but on the same property they have an international garden festival where the exhibits have tenuous links with gardening. As someone said above, they are installations. One German entry I remember was made up of huge piles of books that had been left outside for over a year. As you mention above, they had to explain what each exhibit represented as otherwise you would never have figured it out.

    • Honestly in many cases I still can’t figure it out. The people who made these gardens mostly seem to have very little interest in plants.

  8. Since I am roughly the same vintage as you, I thoroughly enjoyed all your pop culture references (not to mention the sight of you carrying Judy’s flowered purse because you are a nice person). I see that the self-important and ridiculous world of contemporary art has come to gardening. What a pity. It’s getting harder and harder to escape this pretentious nonsense. But it made for a very entertaining blog post!

    • I really need to work more Monty Python into this blog. Maybe I should include youtube posts of some of their more hilarious skits.

  9. You had me laughing all through this post! Firstly I love Monty Python – especially that sketch. And secondly I agree regarding such garden displays… the glossy magazines often show that kind of thing too, and I just have to groan. I do like the look of the children’s garden beyond the wardrobe though – loved that story as a child. And I bet that pond with the disco globes would look great lit up at night! By the way, that is a lovely shot of the peacock butterfly – one of the most common in my garden!

    • The Ministry of Silly Walks is one of my top three MP skits, along with the Dead Parrot and the Society for Putting Things On Top of Other Things.

  10. Well, silly or not, very entertaining and enjoyable! I kinda like the weirdness of this place and if they have the people to maintain it and support it, I think it’s fun to have over the top garden ideas represented somewhere…after all, dialing it back a bit is how people sometimes come up with new, yet practical ideas for their own garden. Anyway, I love your comment about the SubPrime Mortgage garden and that is for sure that you can see tons of those “today” and not only in tomorrow. Also think you look good in florals! 🙂 Thanks for the fun.

  11. This was very funny, my husband nearly always ends up carrying my bag (purse) when we are garden visiting, he is nice too! Its a Peacock butterfly on the sedum, by the way.

  12. Thanks for an entertaining post. I agree with your assesment of these “gardens,” but I think the floating disco balls would have to go on my silly list too. I never cared for disco or the mirrored balls-maybe it was the bright lights. The overgrown one with a picnic table bench is too much. Do they expect people to want to go home and re-create these, I wonder?

    • I actually don’t think they expect people to recreate these gardens. These are sort of gardens as outdoor art museum. As for disco, I just liked the mirrored globes on the water. I can assure you discos in general were never my thing.

  13. ROFL, and here I was, all set to make some smart remark about the guy with the flowered purse… and then you pulled the rug right out from under me, heh heh. I truly laughed so hard I had tears running down my cheeks. Thanks for that Jason! Oh! and for the most part, they can have their gardens of tomorrow. Nice idea, but fell way short…

  14. Funny guy, Jason. The gardens are, I agree, quite strange and wacky. I am not sure I would have appreciated them and would have preferred the landscaping between the gardens too.

  15. Ha! I laughed out loud multiple times while reading this–especially at the Monty Python reference and you under the cone of silence with Judy’s purse. Not a big fan of any of these, except maybe the landscaping between the display gardens, as you say. Oh, and the first garden … without the obvious quote. Thanks for the grins.

  16. It is amazing how much you have to sift through to find what appeals to you personally, though I agree that there are times we can all agree that what was presented as great design just turned out to be silly.

  17. This was a very humorous post :-). No, you are not silly-minded; those gardens are indeed silly. I am sorry that I didn’t find anything in them to make them garden of future!!!

  18. These are certainly creative gardens and I am still smiling at some of them as well as your reference to Monty Python’s sketch. My friend has a cool zen garden with wicker chairs and a fountain. But the Buddha is super-round with this incredible look on his face and it always makes me chuckle. I think she did it on purpose.

  19. Great post! As silly as many of those gardens were, you made me want to visit them myself. The “Sub-prime Home Mortgage” was so perfect I thought it was the actual title and had to read that part again. And I adore the photo of you in the cone of silence. Very Magritte.

  20. Jason, I’m finally getting a chance to catch up after too long away. This post is hilarious. Thank you for the good belly laugh.

  21. Your descriptions are hilarious and dead on! Definitely agree that most of these art installations border on the ridiculous. I enjoy the fantasy element of that children’s garden, though….

  22. Pingback: Reford Gardens Part II – gardeninacity

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