Jill, Duchess of Hamilton, sees the first shoots of a revival of Christian gardening at this year's Chelsea Flower Show
Germaine Greer was in a hurry on the first day of the Chelsea Flower Show. She had to get to the British Library to check footnotes for her forthcoming biography of Mrs Shakespeare, When I remarked that sustainability was one of the themes for this year's gardens, the conventeducated Germaine exclaimed: "But there is hardly a plant here on display that could be pollinated naturally!"
The arch-feminist and author of The Female Eunuch was alluding to the predominance of showy double flowers, which have been bred with large or profuse petals, often resulting in an inability to reproduce. Few writers put such efforts into the environment as Germaine. At enormous personal expense she is currently restoring a large rainforest in her native Australia.
Despite her scepticism about the sustainability theme, environmental issues were certainly more to the fore this year than ever before at Chelsea. Scenic Blue won a silver medal for its environmentally friendly and ethical design. It used recycled water, solar power, ethically sourced, recycled material and, of course, featured a discreet compost area.
However, there was a general lack of native plants at the show. This was partly redressed by the garden designed by George Carter, a Catholic, for the Romantic Garden Nursery in Norfolk.
"Over 50 per cent of the quantity of the plant material is native — hornbeam, juniper, yew and box," he said as Germaine looked dismissively at the clipped forms of his topiary.
The garden, a Cabinet de Verdure, the Green Room, which won a gold medal for the seventh year in succession, has a religious theme. "I designed it in the shape of a cruciform — a traditional Greek cross," said Mr Carter.
He stressed that it was possible to combine formality and tradition with conservation.
"It is important to bring local native plants, especially trees and shrubs, into everyday gardening. They are suited to their local environment and need less water," he explained.
He added: "And you don't always need grass. Grass is hopeless in London and needs too much water." Just because his garden was geometrically organised did not mean it was not wildlife-friendly. He stressed how dense planting with evergreen foliage provided habitat for wildlife.
Only 36ft by 20ft in size, Mr Carter's outdoor Green Room is suitable for small urban spaces. It is dramatic and bold.
"Its style is Baroque, so it has a certain Catholicism about it," he explained. "People often forget the connection between Baroque and the Catholic Church. The Church in Rome encouraged the Baroque in the 17th century. It is essentially a Catholic art form — a propagandist movement and one of the prime tools of the Counter Reformation. It was a style applied to architecture, painting, sculpture and especially garden design, where the grand scale of gardens made it particu larly dramatic in its effect." Mr Carter was defensive about Baroque being seen as being too elaborate. "When it is well balanced it is very satisfying," he argued. "Its simple dynamism is closely related to modem ideas about uses and unity of space. Look at the curving forms and the contrast and graduation of shape and sizes."
Although small, the Green Room, like all Baroque gardens, has paths leading to a centrally positioned focus, water features, fountains and surrounding beds planted with topiary. The grey lead fountains were cast by Brian Turner, one of the few individual specialist lead workers in the country, who lives near Carter in Norfolk. Tall, thin cypress trees in each corner repeat the spectacular grey obelisk shapes.
This year at the Chelsea Flower Show there was a "multi-faith" garden, entitled "Growing Together in Faith", designed by horticultural and design students at London's Capel Manor College. A religious theme it certainly had, but it did not display an overt environmental one. The garden was opened with prayers by Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Hindu leaders and it focused on the way that the rose pervades Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
Plants, not design, were the main feature of the display. There was no reference to Pope John Paul H proclaiming St Francis as the Patron Saint of Ecology in 1979. Perhaps next year, the 800th anniversary of the beginnings of the Franciscan Order, there will be a Catholic garden at the Chelsea Flower Show. As yet the Catholic Church has not offered many practical responses to the passionate plea of the late Pope John Paul II, who called in 2001 for Catholics to give greater attention to protecting the environment.
Next year would also be appropriate for another reason: the Royal Horticultural Society will initiate a groundbreaking environmental audit on exhibitors. A questionnaire will ask exhibitors about the sources of their plants, their country of origin, whether they were grown in hothouses or in the open, and what chemicals — and in what quantities — were used in growing them.