Chaumont! Probably the best garden show in the world?

Chaumont: Gardening! –From Erotic to Rude.
As I write this blog I am reminded of a rather embarrassing episode that happened to me a couple of years back, when I visited the USA to do a radio interview on European garden trends.

It was for “W.H.B.S.Y. -coming to you from down-town Sacramento” (or something like that– all these radio stations sound the same to me!)

I had flown into San Francisco, on the late flight the previous evening.  Then driven 3 hours north east to Auburn, downed the better part of a bottle of California Red before collapsing in to bed, only to be woken at some ungodly hour the next morning, to drive back down the freeway to Sacramento, to do the “Garden Guru’s” 9am Saturday morning radio show.

Not surprisingly I was a little jet lagged, if not a little hung over. Definitely not a good combination when doing live public radio!

I was also extremely nervous, unlike UK radio, when you are lucky to get a 10 minute slot, this show was on for a whole hour with me being the only guest. The way I was feeling, I wasn’t sure I could manage 60 seconds let alone 60 minutes.

The studio was not what I had expected either and was little bigger than a passport photo booth. Rob Littlepage, who was standing in for the Don Yacuzami (the regular Garden Guru) squeezed his way back into the room and donned his headphones.

I sat down next to him but couldn’t get the door closed as my chair leg was blocking the entrance. After some discussion the door was left open and the producer Rick (or Ricky as he preferred to be called) bustled off into the next kiosk where he sat down behind a large glass screen and a bank for dials and buttons.

As I watched the seconds ticking away on the studio clock the intro. music faded in, sounding suspiciously like the theme-tune to the Archers:-and we were off.

Things started well, Rob did the introductions and thanked our sponsors. I manages to talk coherently for the first 20 minutes being periodically interrupted by callers phoning in to ask questions or publicise local events, the most notable being a ‘Toe-mat-toe tasting’, at the local nursery. “32 varieties!!! ……… I don’t know they had 32 varieties.”

I had just started to relax and let my concentration wane when Rob asked me about the contempory Garden show at Chaumont in France. All of a sudden I had a complete panic attack.

I should explain at this point that the French garden show has a theme each year and this year, typical of the French was ‘eroticism’. Knowing how prudish middle America can be, I new that this was not the subject for a Saturday morning breakfast show.

Unfortunately my mouth had other Ideas. Like a frozen rabbit caught in car headlights, I heard myself discussing one particular garden dominated by a pair of large 15ft high pink breasts.
My mind was screaming stop, but my mouth just kept on going. Rob had lost the plot at this point and was having a fit of the giggles.

The producer was wildly flailing his hand across his throat in a sawing motion and I was only saved by the timely interruption of an advert for ‘Sun Dance computers’.
On listening to a tape of the show afterwards, I had even managed to describe the viewing tower behind the garden for those people who wanted a birds-eye view of the giant mammaries.

Oh well, that’s probably the end of my radio career.
clip_image004Nesting Marigolds
As for Chaumont sur Loire I would thoroughly recommend a visit even if you don’t like gardening. I take the student from the Oxford College of Garden Design there every year.  The Chateau is situated at the top of a cliff overlooking the river Loire and the show is situated in the park behind the castle in about ten acres. You enter, down a spiral staircase build into the hollow of a tree.
Cross a bridge over a 50ft gorge to some steps on the other side and finally, up into the show ground. The exhibits are identical in shape and size and each surrounded by a beech hedge.
clip_image006Giant Corset
The exhibition attracts submissions from around the world with
every designer interpreting the brief in a different way.

From a nest of pink Marigold cloves to erupting luv bubbles (yes I didn’t understand this one either!) to a giant corset that you both walk through and round to a garden designed to imitate lingerie
clip_image008Erupting Luv Bubbles
The setting is beautiful, the gardens imaginative and the restrant is to die for. It has to be one of the best (if not the wackyest) garden shows in the world.
For further information on Chaumont-sur-Loire
Tel: +33 (0) 254 209922
 clip_image010Negligee screening


Specifications for Garden Designer Pt 3

The relationship between drawn and written information

On the smallest of schemes, annotated details may be all that is necessary and putting specification and drawing together may also assist the contractor.

However, on larger projects there is a danger that the specification will become dispersed onto several drawings, with repetition and contradictions creeping in. To avoid this, it is recommended that all the specification is found in one place. The drawn details can then linked to the appropriate specification description by systematic cross referencing, using the specifications own clause numbers.

This then leaves the question of the more general information such as the quality of topsoil or the strength of mortar? It is rarely adequate to leave such details to the expertise and discretion of the chosen contractor. In order to provide a professional service to your client, it often requires at least a few pages of specification separate from the drawings attached to the planting schedules, or the letter of invitation to tender.

An imperfect solution

I have touched on some of the obstacles which confront the designer and the contractor when faced with agreeing and achieving the desired standards on site;
  • the need for reasonable financial certainty without being too restrictive,
  • the huge amount of technical and contractual knowledge required;
  • the designers’ time needed to tie up the more important loose ends,
  • the absence of a simple appropriate standard form of contract.
Few projects are standard. Most are unique ‘prototypes’ designed and detailed from scratch.
Using an identical specification on every project, is therefore not only inappropriate, but may also be dangerous.

The concept of a ‘model’ specification is rather different from a standard solution because, the ‘model’ specification is designed to be edited by the designer to remove all extraneous information and to insert any additional information the particular project requires. The result is a tailor made document which should help the contractor.

Producing a project specification takes time and eats into the fee but the time is reduced with practice. No specification can be totally comprehensive. The designer’s decision on what to put in and what to leave out is a matter of judgement. That judgement will be made based on several factors such as the complexity of the project, the known competence of the contractor and whether the designer will be visiting site during the construction phase. Specification writing tries to be exact but in practice is an imprecise art.

A ‘model’ specification

The essentials of a ‘model’ specification are three-fold:
First it provides a familiar ‘structure’ within which every subject has its logical place.
Finding the appropriate instructions becomes quicker and easier because of this.
Secondly it can provide a check list of subjects which may need the designer’s attention. The designer can decide either to delete the subject as inappropriate or to include it with or without amendment.
Finally, by offering the designer a model clause the designer has guidance on written style and technical content.
I am sure that many designers have heard of the NBS Landscape Specification or the more modest publication “Specification Writing for Garden Design”(2) These model specifications can provide help and much needed technical guidance for the hard pressed Garden Designer. Writing a specification from scratch is a very daunting task; using a model specification makes that task considerably easier.

Even the best project specification and drawings in the world will not produce high quality work from a poor contractor. Things are less likely to go wrong with a good contractor. So every designer’s priority should be to assemble a list of good local contractors.
Then, provide them with all that essential specification information in writing by one means or another so that a proper price is tendered. Things are less likely to go wrong if the contractor has tendered a realistic price and is in possession of all the relevant information from the start. If things do go wrong, you and your client are better protected if the required quality is defined clearly and concisely.

Specifications for Garden Designer Pt 2

Most designers find specification writing a necessary evil.

Is it even necessary?

In a limited number of cases a formal specification document is probably not needed provided the essential information is given to the contractor in some other written form.

The two types of information

The written information traditionally included in a specification is divided into two main categories –the contractual obligations commonly known as the Preliminaries and General Conditions (the quality of workmanship and materials). Essential content of the Preliminaries which are vital to most projects are the start and finish dates, insurance and health and safety requirements. There are, of course other things which may need to be agreed such as the protection of existing trees, the arrangement of stage payments for work completed or the limitation of working hours, but these matters are often partly covered in a standard form of contract such as those issued by the JCLI, JCT.

The problem is that none of these standard forms of contract is entirely appropriate for small garden projects and even when they are used, they are usually completed after negotiations have taken place and a price agreed. Vital information such as the examples given above is needed before the contractor can tender a firm price. The designer is therefore left with the need to confirm such matters in writing at the beginning of the tendering process.

The options for defining quality

Before attempting to answer the above, let us first consider the question of quality. Unlike contractual and administrative matters, quality is very much more difficult to define. One way is to specify a brand name, but this may financially restrict the contractor unnecessarily.

Another method is to refer to Standards, published by the British Standards Institute or to other standards such as the National Plant Specification. Incorporating another standard by reference is often the most comprehensive and fool-proof method. However this requires a degree of knowledge about the content of those standards, both by the designer and the contractor and this is not always available.

Thirdly, the designer may write a description of quality themselves. To do so, requires practice and the development of a concise and an unambiguous style of writing and requires an depth of knowledge and skill that only the most accomplished parishioners should attempt.

In a limited number of instances, the most direct method of controlling quality is a reference to an agreed sample. This approach can be particularly appropriate for the appearance of hard landscape features like paving or walls.

The sample may be one which is constructed on site by the contractor prior to the start of the main work, or a previously constructed project preferably by the same craftsman. The advantage of a sample is that the client can be fully involved and can understand exactly what they are getting right from the start of the contract.

The use of samples

allows the contractor and his craftsmen to contribute to the creative process and gives them a positive involvement which not only draws on the contractors’ expertise but raises the craftsmen’s commitment and morale.

Monitoring the performance of the contractor is also simplified by making a direct comparison between what is built and the agreed sample.
So not every specification for quality depends solely on a long written description, but, given that there are several possible approaches to specifying quality, all of them in the end will require a degree of written clarification.

Do you always right a specification?

Do you use a 'Model Specification' or do you write your own clauses?

Please let me know I'm always interested in you feed back and comments

Specifications for Garden Designer Pt 1

The importance of a Specification

Contractual problems can arise on any project what ever its size. However, the larger and more complex a project the more scope there is for arguments with the Contractor because the amount of money at stake is potentially larger.

The Client who is faced with additional , unexpected and perhaps avoidable costs is not going to be pleased and may hold the Designer liable. The way to avoid argument is to produce clear "documents", i.e. drawings, schedules, specifications and instructions, so that your Client, all the Tenderers' and the appointed Contractor fully understand your design intentions.

What a Specification is

The Specification is a written description of requirements. On a small, simple project it may be possible to cover the necessary information by writing specification notes on the drawing. On most contracts a separate document is usually necessary.

For convenience the Specification is normally divided into two sections. The first section deals with administrative matters and is commonly called the Preliminaries. The second section defines the quality of workmanship, materials and plants required.

The Specification should be used to define quality and sequence of work etc. while the drawing is best for defining shape, size and location.

Few designers bother with specification writing and those that do, often don’t fully understand the full legal implications of this document.

In this litigious world, sooner or later one of us is going be sued and the line between bankruptcy and survival could well be a comprehensively written specification.

The Specification and its relationship to the Contract

You should always advise your Client to enter into a written Contract . Any Specification should be one of the "contract documents". The Contract is between your Client and the Landscape Contractor. You, as Designer, are not a party to the contract although your role as agent for your Client should be defined in the Contract.

Model Specifications

At the Oxford College of Garden Design we have written are own ‘Model Specification’ published by Packard Publishing which has been widely adopted as the industry standard.


Aimed at novice and professional garden designers, this work book explains a method of producing instructions for garden design work which can be tailored to an individual designer's current project.

It has been developed over many years and most importantly is thoroughly tried and tested. It has been kept deliberately brief and is flexible enough to allow designers to expand or condense it to suit their needs, and to allow use of their favourite products and plants.
Students and newly-qualified garden designers will find the model specification particularly useful both as a contract document and as a technical check-list; it can be used on the smallest projects where the specification clauses are annotated directly on drawings or plans or as an independent document.

The overall format assumes a designer is acting as an independent consultant and not as an employee or partner of a contractor offering a package design and build service.

My Concerns!

What worries me is that specification in the UK is often taught by tutors with a limited understanding of the legal implications or worse still, by former contractors that often have a very biased attitude to specifications and see them at little more than a nuisance.

Making a specification short and simple yet comprehensive enough to avoid ambiguity is extremely difficult. Those that advocate writing your own specification can not possibly expect students to have enough skill and understanding of the subject to prepare documents that are legally water tight? Yet this is exactly what is happening today in many courses across the UK.

Your comments and feedback are always welcome