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The growth of form

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Ninth International Garden Festival, Chaumont-sur-Loire. Daily until 22 October. (On the Paris-Tours local rail line, a mile from Onzain station)

Chaumont garden festival, an annual competition to make 30 gardens for a summer season, is in its ninth year.With each of them on a 250m 2trapezium-plan plot, surrounded by a beech hedge, the aim is to create landscape art to a theme rather than relate to the surrounding landscape.

Past themes, such as 'Ricochets', have pushed designers in interesting directions. But this year, just as a millennial exception, there is no overall theme - anything goes - which makes designs even more diverse. Several participants have invented their own narrative, such as Vincent Mayot and Thierry Nenot. Their Between Earth and Sky captures clouds with mirrors and the wind with bamboo windmills, accompanied by the scents of herbs and patches of waving linseed.

In some cases it is just the power of the planting that makes the difference.Primeval Perspective by Tina-Louise Febrey and James Fraser sets a zigzag path among native New Zealand species, notably the primitive pseudopanax ferox - lanceshaped with trailing, hard, toothed leaves.

Water, always a strong element, can be most striking in figure-ground reversal. Rather than a pool set in a garden, the plot is flooded and the garden and its walkways are set over it. Laurent Romanet's Floating Salon uses a steel grid literally on the water surface amid the planting. To engage you further with the water, there are steel cuboids as seats floating in gaps in the grid, which sink down as you sit on them.

Some designers choose strong architectural elements to shape their spaces- often the least successful of the gardens. Some do work well, such as Traces, Libertes d'Aurores, by Agnes Lanthier, Francoise Persouyre and Martine Lemonnier, where a curved glazed screen separates decking from planting and blue crushed glass forms a bed beside the plants. Plant of the year must be verbena bonariensis, seen here as in many other gardens. Its very tall spindly green stems and small purple flowers allow it to be used anywhere in a bed without obscuring plants behind.

Over the years, the landscape design school at Chaumont has developed interesting permanent planting between the plots and across the site - notably as a wood walk with steel sculptures by Jean Lautrey and a valley of Mediterranean plants that fills with mist at irregular intervals. It is difficult to savour everything in a single day.

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