At about 10.30am yesterday morning a small crowd surrounded Monty Don and RHS Director General Sue Biggs as they prepared to announce the prize for ‘Best Large Show Garden’. Their position, next to the island site at the bottom of Main Avenue, left little doubt as to the winner – the Chatsworth Garden designed by Dan Pearson for Laurent-Perrier. It was the bookies’ favourite to take the accolade and, judging by the rapturous applause, the public’s as well.
Managing Director of Laurent-Perrier in the UK, David Hesketh, is the man with the enviable task of selecting a designer for the Champagne house’s Chelsea garden each year. He is clearly persuasive, as Dan Pearson has not designed a Chelsea garden for eleven years. David’s brief to his designer is a simple one, purely to reflect the value’s that Laurent Perrier adhere to when crafting their distinguished cuvées: lightness, freshness and delicacy.
There can be no argument that David’s brief was achieved. During last night’s BBC coverage Monty Don described The Chatsworth Garden as one of the most significant ever created at the Chelsea Flower Show. I would have to agree. Not only is it one of the largest (no show garden has ever occupied the full island site before) but also one of the most ambitious. Taking his inspiration from two of Joseph Paxton’s lesser known features within Chatsworth’s 105 acre garden – the magnificent rockery and the ornamental trout stream – Dan Pearson has masterminded a garden of unrivalled detail, impeccable naturalism and enormous charm.
Dan’s design is unusual for Chelsea in that it can be glimpsed from all sides. This in itself is a challenge as views from every angle have to be considered, whereas in other gardens the main viewpoint is from the front and one side. A tiny stream begins high on an austere rocky outcrop, out of view from visitors. It then flows gently down and through meadows of flowers where it is crossed by giant stone slabs, ending its course in a small pond: “Getting the levels right was crucial” explained David “every stone and pebble in the water course has been carefully secured in place to achieve the right effect”. The mammoth stones used for the garden do not just simulate Paxton’s monumental rockery of 1842, they are the actual rocks that Paxton rejected during his original project. They were found discarded, scattered around the Chatsworth estate, many weighing several tonnes.
Although they are species commonly found in England, the trees that Crocus sourced for Dan Pearson have come from all over Europe. “British nurseries don’t tend to hold mature specimen trees for landscape projects” Crocus founder and CEO Mark Fane told me, “so we had to look to Europe”. The characterful pollarded willow that stands at edge of the garden came from Holland, whilst other trees were found in Germany and France. I was interested to learn that the location of one of the willow trees had to be changed during the build after the team discovered a Victorian sewer running under the site. It was doubtful that the old pipes could have withstood the direct weight of the tree, so it had to be moved elsewhere at the last minute.
The comment that was repeated by everyone I overheard was how incredible it was that this garden had been created in a matter of days and yet appeared as if it had been there forever. David Hesketh explained to me that the entire garden had been created at the nursery three months earlier and allowed to knit together over the weeks leading up to the show. Unlike some other show gardens, all the plants were transferred growing in the ground to Chelsea, and not left in pots. A swathe of wild flower meadow was grown specifically for the garden and cut into large square sheets of turf before being transported on trollies to the site.
The planting creates as rich and colourful a tapestry as one could ever hope to see. Completely unswayed by trends and ‘it’ plants, Dan Pearson has used a palette of natives, carefully augmented by ornamentals, just as you would find in the wilder recesses of a garden like Chatsworth. I loved the floating canopies of Rhododendron luteum; the fringes of candelabra primulas which appeared to have seeded themselves alongside the stream; the random spikes of camassia and marsh orchids poking through the turf; and the white clouds of Luzula nivea, Lychnis flos-cuculi ‘White Robin’ and Cenolophium denudatum foaming at the base of the trees. There were wonderful touches such as clumps of Narcissus poeticus hiding beneath the bushes and purple stemmed irises along the water’s edge. Many visitors would not have noticed these details, but the judges certainly did.
I was lucky enough to be invited to walk through the centre of the garden, across a heavy plank boardwalk, over rough stepping stones and then onto a lightly worn grass path. From inside, the garden felt even more permanent, as if I was standing on a little island of Chatsworth that had floated down from Derbyshire to South West London. Any team capable of creating a show garden this convincing deserves a gold medal.
Unlike many other show gardens there is a future for the Chatsworth Garden. When the show closes most of the trees, plants and stones will be transported back to Chatsworth where they will be used in the regeneration of the trout stream area. This was one of the main reasons Dan Pearson took on the project. He says: “I felt when I was here the last time it was wrong to make a garden for just five days and I felt uncomfortable about the waste and that the gardens were not being recycled. I wanted to work on something that lasts decades rather than days, so that is why I said I was important that the garden had another life.” The Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, who live at Chatsworth, were clearly delighted with the whole project and spent the day handing out leaflets and talking to the public.
Dan Pearson vowed yesterday never to work on another Chelsea Garden. In the short term his Garden Bridge project will keep him out of mischief, yet firmly in the limelight. With that under his belt, surely another Chelsea garden will seem like a walk in the park?
A complete plant list was not provided, and would have run to many pages. Here are some of the highlights:
- Asarum europaeum AGM
- Asplenium scolopendrium AGM
- Briza media
- Brunnera macrophylla ‘Betty Bowring’
- Cenolophium denudatum
- Cornus canadensis
- Deschampsia cespitosa
- Digitalis purpurea f. albiflora
- Dryopteris erythrosora AGM
- Enkianthus campanulatus AGM
- Euphorbia palustris AGM
- Hemerocallis lilioasphodelus
- Iris ‘Berlin Tiger’ AGM
- Lonicera pericylmenum ‘Graham Thomas’ AGM
- Lunaria rediviva AGM
- Luzula nivea
- Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’
- Matteuccia struthiopteris AGM
- Melica altissima ‘Alba’
- Osmunda regalis
- Polygonatum x hybridum AGM
- Rhododendron luteum
- Smyrnium perfoliatum