Dan Pearson’s Chelsea Best in Show: Laurent-Perrier Chatsworth Garden

Rhodendron luteum in Dan Pearson's Chatsworth garden

Rhododendron luteum in Dan Pearson’s Chatsworth garden. Photo: The Frustrated Gardener

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.

Trout stream in Dan Pearson's Chatsworth garden

Narrow stream in Dan Pearson’s Chelsea garden, modelled on the Chatsworth trout stream. Photo: Ursula Williams

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’.

Dan Pearson walking through his Chelsea garden

Dan Pearson walking through his Chatsworth garden. Photo: Alex Martin

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.

Dead tree trunk at Dan Pearson's Chelsea garden

Hollow tree trunk at Dan Pearson’s Chatsworth garden. Photo: Alex Martin

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.

Dan Pearson's Chatsworth primulas

Dan Pearson’s Chatsworth primulas. Photo: Ursula Williams

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.

Dan Pearson's Chelsea garden rock placement

Dan Pearson’s garden rock placement, showing amazingly natural horizontal striations (the day before judging). Photo: Anne Wareham

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?

Naturalistic rock work and planting at Dan Pearson's Chatsworth garden

Naturalistic rock work and planting at Dan Pearson’s Chatsworth garden. Photo: The Frustrated Gardener

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.

Smyrnium perfoliatum in Dan Pearson's Chatsworth garden

Smyrnium perfoliatum in Dan Pearson’s Chatsworth garden. Photo: Ursula Williams

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?

Heavy plank boardwalk at Dan Pearson's Chelsea garden

Heavy boardwalk: I wasn’t all together certain about this initially. Was it too solid, too manmade, too obvious? But then it does reinforce the fact that this is a garden and it balances the heavy rock work. When a garden is this good you subconsciously find reasons why every single detail works; not believing someone this talented could have possibly got it wrong! Photo: The Frustrated Gardener

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.

Dan Pearson's Chatsworth Chelsea garden

Unbelievably natural planting in Dan Pearson’s Chatsworth garden. Photo: Ursula Williams

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.

Stunning naturalistic planting by Dan Pearson

There is no question of the naturalistic planting being boring. So much diversity and yet it all hangs together perfectly. Photo: The Frustrated Gardener

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?

Dan Pearson's Chatsworth Chelsea garden's naturalistic planting

Pathways made to look like naturally formed desire lines, and plantings as if self seeded. Photo: Alex Martin

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?

Primulas in Dan Pearson's Chatworth garden

Joyous colours in Dan Pearson’s Chatsworth garden. Photo: The Frustrated Gardener

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!

14 thoughts on “Dan Pearson’s Chelsea Best in Show: Laurent-Perrier Chatsworth Garden

  1. catherine says:

    Not quite unanimous. I know I’m swimming against an overwhelming tide of Dan-love, but it doesn’t have the same effect on me. But one can never expect photos to be able to replicate the true feeling of being there.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Oh, Catherine, I’m going to have to work on you! Whilst it isn’t compulsory to like it, I do think, just as I am missing out on Begonia-love, you are missing out on naturalist-English-love. Admittedly, it’s harder to tug on the heart strings when you didn’t grow up amongst this stuff, but how about we create a trying/supporting Begonia/English deal?!

  2. Louise Dutton says:

    Love a naturalistic garden! I like what I see in the photos but wonder how I would feel if I was there experiencing the colour, textures, shapes, sounds and smells! This garden has elements that I love! Your enthusiasm for gardens inspires me Janna!

    • jannaschreier says:

      Thanks, Louise. I do get a bit excitable during Chelsea week! At least I know that I have definitely found my passion in life. I can see your front garden looking more and more naturalistic over time, too, blending with the bush over the road. Even Dan’s garden isn’t all English natives so it goes to show that we don’t have to be purist to achieve the look, just add the right flavours!

  3. Adriana Fraser says:

    This is the most naturalistic, naturalistic garden of today! I hope that makes sense? I must say I immediately thought “this has got to be bigger than the ‘normal’ garden show gardens”. This garden deserves allocated extra space – it rivals anything done by other (great) naturalistic designers of today. In fact I am so taken with these photos that I will actally have the gall to suggest it is possibly the best naturalistic garden ever. Your photos are great Janna – I would love this garden, it is perfect, it lifts the spirits, I can’t believe it isn’t a natural meadow, the only thing to give that away is the boardwalk – but even that I like, and on a last note: placing rocks is an art that is not successfully achieved by most – he has nailed this! Yes we could definitely do with more joyous, spirit lifting gardens such as this.

    • jannaschreier says:

      I know exactly what you mean! And it really does feel like about ten different show gardens’ worth, doesn’t it? So many different viewpoints. I wasn’t sure what you would make of it, actually, but love that you love it. I’m just so excited that so many non-gardening-obsessed people love it and it’s great that it’s not just an English thing. The real challenge comes now, in making an Australian version, or maybe we need Sydney, Melbourne, Perth….versions. Not easy, but got to be possible. I must get bushwalking for inspiration…

  4. Adriana Fraser says:

    One more thing and I’ll go (promise). In fact go to Tasmania in summer and look at the natural rock garden just below Cradle Mountain – inspiring to say the least. It was the most emotional reaction I have ever had to a natural environment.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Good thinking! I must dig out my photos of Cradle Mountain. I went in April, rather than summer, but I do remember how things grew on every surface imaginable. It was just alive. Something to do with the three hundred and something days of rain a year, I think, but the mosses were amazing. Thanks, will take another look….

  5. ursulascambridgegarden says:

    Lovely article Janna – you are spot on in your observations. I was lucky enough to meet the great Mr P at my Society of Garden Designers’ conference recently he was very understated and calm – just like his gardens – what a great gardener and plantsman. Thanks for using my photos and for the credit – so nice to have made contact – I’ll keep visiting your blog, and I hope you’ll read mine too. Kind regards Ursula

  6. Katherine Wilkinson says:

    I loved your beautiful and thoughtful piece Janna. You have perfectly articulated my own emotional response to this captivating garden!

    • jannaschreier says:

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment, Katherine. It’s lovely to hear from like-minded people. Isn’t it great when a garden really ‘gets’ you, emotionally? Incidentally, I’m also very excited because my maiden name is Wilkinson; it’s surprising how rarely I come across others: only slightly more frequently than Jannas or Schreiers!!

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