Flamboyant gardens

Flamboyant gardens

Flamboyant gardens
For a man who has just won the gardening equivalent of the Oscar for best picture, Dan Pearson appears remarkably sanguine verging on blasé.

“The prize was a glass bowl,” he murmurs. “I’m not sure who gets to keep it; I can always do with another good glass bowl for trifle…” He pauses and looks slightly dismayed: “Oh dear, does that sound facetious? I hope not, it isn’t meant to. At the moment it’s on our Chelsea stand, full of boiled sweets.”

In truth, Dan, 51, one of Britain’s most respected garden designers, is simply dazed by events. Dressed like a couture backwoodsman in beautifully tailored shades of olive and khaki and tan, he cuts a diffident, out-of-place yet fascinating figure in the urban thrum and buzz of London.

"I feel like I've spent days white water rafting on a tremendously long rapid, constantly balancing and rebalancing," he says, quietly. "And now I've been spat out at the end into a gently eddying whirlpool, wondering what happens next.”

Given his gold medal-winning Best in Show garden was sponsored by Laurent-Perrier champagne house, it would, quite frankly, be an affront if corks were not bobbing in the water and, indeed, if the water had not itself been exchanged for a waterfall of Grand Siècle prestige cuvée.

Inspired Garden

But Dan’s achievement for his recreation of a trout stream at Chatsworth, the Derbyshire home of the Duke of Devonshire, truly is incredible because of its daring approach and bold execution. Dan presented a vivid ancient untamed garden so radical as to break with all the conventions of Chelsea.

Laurent-Perrier Chatsworth Garden’s inspiration came from Crystal Palace
designer Joseph Paxton’s rockery, built for the 6th Duke of Devonshire in 1842 in a slightly overlooked corner of the estate. “It was a charming, intimate doodle rather than a large scale panorama,” says Dan.

“I wanted to capture that feeling of meandering water and stone and - delight.”His authentic planting - featuring trees, weeds, dead stems and gnarled imperfections set against a backdrop of 300 tons of rock, all brought from Chatsworth - raised eyebrows and misgivingseven before the show began.

A ‘risky strategy’

Dan has been hailed as a genius for painstakingly recreating a slice of English countryside in the centre of London. "We knew that ours was a risky strategy that broke the formula but afterwards we could see we had created something wonderful and enchanting; a landscape experience that's elemental and immersive.” It was this circularity that persuaded Dan to exhibit at Chelsea again after 11 years of absence.

He’s been writing books, appearing on television, penning columns on gardening and with ongoing projects across the world, he could afford to pick and choose his commissions.

The idea of working towards a standard garden that would last just a week was anathema to his naturalistic, “wild” philosophy, but he was tempted by this fresh challenge.“I wanted something completely free and uninhibited, something that felt pure and real,” he says. “There’s something very satisfying about knowing that just as a little bit of Chatsworth was brought to Chelsea, a little bit of Chelsea will go back to Chatsworth.”

Gardening his passion

Gardening has always been his passion. Brought up on the Hampshire-Sussex border, he studied at RHS Wisley then worked at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh before a three-year stint at Kew Gardens and periods of study in Spain and in the Himalayas. “When I started coming to Chelsea with my dad in the 70s I remember there were rows of rock gardens with waterfalls and azaleas,” he chuckles. “And now here I am decades later, making gardens with waterfalls and azaleas and that classic of suburban front gardens, laburnum, and feeling very happy about it.”

What next?

Meanwhile, his next controversial big project, The Garden Bridge, will take up much of his time, if it gets the go-ahead. Proposals for the bridge, a £175 construction that would span the Thames between Temple and the South Bank, are currently being contested.
The bridge, which would open in 2018, was designed by Thomas Heatherwick and has been vocally championed by the actress Joanna Lumley as a wondrous green oasis.

As horticultural advisor, Dan plans to use plants that combine the best of London’s native landscapes with the heritage of its parks and gardens to create five distinct landscape zones, ranging from     informal, wild planting to manicured        display.“As Joanna says, the bridge will be the slowest way to cross the river,” says Dan. “We want to reframe the city through a garden which will mark the seasons.”

The bridge which is due to receive £60 million of public money, would be closed for 12 days every year to raise funds through corporate events for its upkeep.  “The bridge will be a place where people can stay in touch with the seasons and take five or ten minutes out of their day to be in a space that makes them feel good. It's the parks and the greenery that make
London possible, bearable.”

“Gardens are escapism and that can mean all sorts of things, can't it?” he asks, rhetorically. “A garden should contain secrets, not reveal itself all at once, a garden should be magical and transport you somewhere else.”

The Telegraph
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