I don’t think I’ve come across a garden so unanimously loved as Dan Pearson’s Chelsea 2015 offering. Everywhere I look, everyone I speak to, all seem to be awestruck.
Usually there is a balance. If nothing else, you hear negative comments from those who are jealous. But this garden really does seem to have captured the imagination and heart of the world. Monty Don described the garden as ‘one of the most significant ever created at the Chelsea Flower Show’. Yes, Monty has worked closely with Dan; yes, we are all carried away with the current excitement; but this garden really does seem to be different.
Laurent-Perrier’s brief to Dan was to reflect the ‘lightness, freshness and delicacy’ of its champagne. Dan’s own objective for his gardens is to ‘encourage other people to connect with nature and to encourage contemplation and self reflection’.
Meeting the brief is a key part of the RHS marking scheme and it’s hard to see how Dan could have achieved this more fully. My friend, Alex, fell in love with the garden and described standing there in ‘absolute amazement’ at how it looked as it if it had always been there. She loved the detail in the deliberate bare patches of mud, she felt transported to Chatsworth and she dreamt of sitting on the rocks, contemplating life and enjoying nature all around her.
This garden generates emotional responses like few others. Even in those who don’t spend every weekend trawling around the things. That’s what makes it so exciting. It feels like it might be the start of something big and new.
So what is it that makes it so good?
Firstly, it is the skill that has been demonstrated. It has been described as ‘an island, floated down from Chatsworth’: unbelievably authentic. The sheer wow factor of this impresses.
The layout of the garden also has impact. Not only is it incredibly large by Chelsea standards, but it can be viewed from all sides. It doesn’t look like a staged theatre set, it draws you in from all around and makes you feel a part of it. And it’s almost like ten gardens in one: each aspect giving a very different viewpoint and perspective, of new angles and secret corners.
And technically, this garden is balanced in a way that is very rarely seen. The dramatic rock work perfectly complementing the naturalistic, gentle, woodland plantings and the intimate, charming stream. Contrast and harmony.
I recently wrote an article entitled ‘Nature Knows Best’, but I think I need to take back my words. Dan Pearson has taken nature and whilst keeping all of its charms, made it even better. The structure of the rocks looks uncannily natural and the mix of plants completely at ease with each other, but he has accentuated the beauty, adding additional highlights and pops of colour, without losing the magic or authenticity. This is someone who is incredibly in tune with nature’s ways.
Dan says that he has always been interested in finding ‘the meeting point between what’s wild and natural on one hand, and the ornamental, cultivated garden on the other’. Every garden sits somewhere on the pendulum between manicured control and natural wilderness but it seems the balance Dan has found here is one that touches us more than ever. One that really does connect us with nature. One that makes us stop, take a deep breath in and forget everything else around us.
But can we really have a Chatsworth garden at home?
The garden feels so good because we can imagine it nestled perfectly into an outer corner of the 105 acre Chatsworth estate. It brings a sense of place, some history and the natural environment to us all at once. So we need to take these themes and adapt them for our own environments. The dominance of the rock would not look right in the average urban back garden, but looking around for natural inspiration, we can inject drama in many different forms. Dan’s planting, perfectly offset by appropriate features, would be stunning even in the smallest of courtyards.
My checklist for a good garden is that it is bold, it ‘fits’ and it has character. Dan Pearson’s garden reinforces this list. It has bold rock work and very solid, cohesive planting; it is a stronger fit for the Derbyshire countryside than any other garden we have ever seen; and its character is played out in the emotional connection we feel with the garden: its uniqueness, its soul, its magic. This garden is nothing short of genius. Who would believe that significant design changes had to be made in the final week, to satisfy concerns about structurally weak sewage pipes running directly under this site?
This garden also fills me with optimism. There is the delight that the RHS recognised the skill and innovation in this garden over any other design. There is the hope that this incredible space will touch many not previously sold on the joys of gardens and energise them to embrace gardening in a way that unleashes great comfort and pleasure. I feel elated that so many have commented on their delight that the garden will be retained, in Derbyshire, indefinitely, showing a move away from the throw away society that we seem to find ourselves in.
And more than anything, I love the fact that the general public are so united in showing their love of nature, of uncontrived, unflashy, ungimmicky, beautifully rustic landscapes and of the simple pleasures of an enhanced natural environment. These are words that sing to me, that give me hope for a positive future.
I’m now beyond excited about the Garden Bridge Project that Dan is working on in London. Something that will be accessible to millions. Can this be the start of a turning point from the showy and the material, to the natural and the wholesome, bringing with it a somewhat calmer, happier, more contented world?
Whilst Dan was working on the show garden, he was heard to say, ‘Yesterday, I was completely lost in what I was doing. It felt like being a child again: joy’.
Wouldn’t we all like a bit more of this?
Many thanks for the kind permission to use photographs taken by Ursula Williams from Ursula’s Cambridge Garden, Anne Wareham, from Thinkingardens, Dan from The Frustrated Gardener and my friend of more years than I would like to remember, Alex Martin. I’m very grateful to you all!