Creating nature … at the Chelsea Flower Show

(I visited the Chelsea Flower Show for the first time in 2015, as a member of Carolyn Mullet’s Chelsea Garden Tour, given by CarexTours. Carolyn is now offering a special price on this year’s tour, but the offer expires March 15th. You can check it out here. This year’s line up of gardens looks really exciting. I’ve been on two of Carolyn’s tours and I recommend them highly.)

It may have been with intentional irony that Dan Pearson chose the most problematic site at Chelsea for his 2015 Chatsworth garden–a roughly triangular plot surrounded on all sides by broad, paved walkways and completely open to its surroundings. The image above shows the garden as I first saw it, in the midst of a moving crowd. There was so much visual distraction, at first I couldn’t see it. That is …

… until I got up close.

Quite a debate was sparked by Dan’s Chatsworth garden at the time. Media coverage focused on the the actual transport of a piece of the Chatsworth estate’s landscape, including trees and huge boulders, from the north of England to London. (This hyped media story “had legs,” at least in the British media.)  Some said this wasn’t a garden at all, that it was simply a natural piece of landscape moved to a new and novel place. Others said it certainly was a garden, not just a page torn from nature. In fact, it was both, and it was most definitely a designed garden.

In recently re-reading Planting in a Post-Wild World by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West, I came across this passage, which set me thinking about Dan Pearson’s garden again:

“The irony of creating plantings that evince a sense of nature is that it requires a high degree of artifice. Literally transposing thirty square meters of a forest into an urban courtyard may not create the feeling of a forest at all … Exaggeration is at the heart of this process. Natural landscapes have impact because of their massive scale and the repetition of key patterns and processes over hundreds of acres. By comparison, our urban and suburban sites lack the size and context of their wild counterparts. In the wild, all of the details— sky, rock, soil, water, and plant— work together to create a rich sense of place. In contrast, buildings, roads, and cars often surround our designed landscapes. Our towns and cities are visually complex. In fact, our gardens are more likely to be surrounded by streetlights and power lines than waterfalls or boulder outcroppings. So in order to immerse a visitor in the feeling of a forest or grassland, we have to turn up the volume, creating designed plantings even more intense than their natural counterparts.” *

So in this “visually complex” site full of crowds and movement and distraction, I found perhaps one of the most peaceful gardens ever made. Once I focused my attention on the details of the garden, though the crowd didn’t fade away, I felt I was a participant in another world. Dan is noted for his sensitivity to sense of place, and here, in the turmoil of a busy day at Chelsea, his garden existed as a separate place, “creating designed plantings even more intense than their natural counterparts.”

Dan created pools of water, silent streams, miniature vignettes that, though they look entirely natural, combined plants from at least three continents. The plant selections were most definitely “exaggerated” in the sense that they intensified the experience of Chatsworth’s “nature.” Below, at left a Mahonia, a native of North America (‘Soft Caress” I believe) and at right a delicate Disporum, a native of China.

One might call this a garden of extreme artfulness, or exaggerated subtlety (irony abounds). Specially planted wildflower turf was grown on a thin substrate, brought to the site, and carefully adhered to the natural rocks. Below you can see the edge of the wildflower turf exposed slightly by the beating rain on the day I visited.

And here, American camassias with native British plants.

Creation of this artificial stream took great skill and knowledge.

This intriguing walkway, which goes nowhere, evokes many associations with the British past (some religious, some cultural).

I’ve read that some wept seeing this garden.

I was trying to take photos in the rain, with crowds buffeting against me; conditions could have been better.

If you want to see some fabulous images, just look at the main page of the Dan Pearson Studio website, where you will see a selection of full-screen images (without the crowds).

Of course the garden won “Best in Show.”


*Rainer, Thomas; West, Claudia (2016-02-04). Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes (p. 146). Timber Press. Kindle Edition.

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24 thoughts on “Creating nature … at the Chelsea Flower Show

  1. Loved this piece, James. Oh, how I wish I had the flexibility to go on this wonderful tour with Carolyn Mullet and Carex Tours.

  2. Sadly, I only saw this garden through my laptop in my Sydney home. But I think I might have been one of the ‘weepers’ had I stood in front of it! It had an enormous impression on me, even through photographs alone.
    I also love Thomas Rainer and Claudia West’s book, which describes, so beautifully, how the essence of nature can be captured and enhanced within a garden. Your phrase ‘exaggerated subtlety’ is perfect! I am looking forward to developing this style of gardening in my new English garden.

    1. I just happened to be reading PPPW when this passage took me immediately to thoughts of Dan Pearson’s garden at Chelsea. Once I saw the garden, I realized the media hype about this being a piece of the Chatsworth landscape was nonsense (the prominent Disporum was my first clue). It’s the essence of Chatsworth, but amplified, to create a garden that “reads” as nature even amid the clamour of Chelsea.

  3. My hat’s off to anyone who can get clear images of any Chelsea exhibition garden under those super-crowded and often rainy conditions — much less ones so evocative. These really capture the peaceful, effect of Pearson’s “natural” landscape, as well as the complexity of the planting. Well done!

    1. I have to admit I have quite a collection of out of focus photos of this garden. Trying to capture depth of field on a dark day, without a tripod, and with crowds jostling was a problem. I wanted to do a feature post on this garden, but I just wasn’t satisfied with many of the photos. Of course, it was also raining quite heavily when I visited another Pearson garden, The Old Rectory at Naunton, but I managed to get a good post out of those photos.

  4. Hi James
    Thanks for the post …. great pictures, great plants.
    – I see your point!
    In my view, there are several constraints, how we can express ourselves artistically in a garden with nature as the model.
    – When the different types of landscapes have been used up, there is no more to copy.
    I would argue, that this kind of gardens have a large plant-scientific interest, corresponding to one; casting seeds from a particular habitat and hatches the growths one do not like – over a six month period, – a much more simple way (but still scientific), to get a “naturalistic garden”.
    In my opinion, the Chelsea example from 2015, have a major technical and scientific value, far from any kind of art.
    I might be blind. Maybe it´s because I live my every-day-life in the countryside? I have a very short distance to different kinds of landscapes? The Urbanists seclusion from nature, can make him cry of grief and longing, when he experience it again, and it reminds him the loss of it, – the vanishing wild and untouched nature, entices him to emulate and imitate it.

    But as a work of art, it will soon be forgotten,

    (- when nature have eaten it again, and it stands back as different kind of plantcollection)

    kind spring-regards


    1. Hello, Kjeld. I am not sure I understand all that you say. My point was that when emulating “nature” in a garden, it is necessary to use imagination, simplification, and exaggeration of certain elements to create the “impression” of nature in an urban environment. Such a garden will continue to exist as a garden only if maintained. It can easily revert to chaos without constant attention. When you say, “as a work ot art, it will soon be forgotten,” I think you are making a plea for artifice as essential to a garden. I agree with that.

      1. Sorry James
        I´m really bad, when it comes to my English.

        I´ll try again:
        I think there is a lot of good stuff in nature, we can get inspired by, when making a garden. But imitating nature in a garden is a matter of getting enough plants (and the right ones) and not making art or garden. I think Dan Pearson´s show garden is that kind of garden that imitates nature, more than `pumping up the interest´…..if I know what that means?
        The essence, the distillation,the main thing, stylistically, – Dan´ garden is far away from that, in my opinion. The overwhelming use of species that imitate the wilderness is as vulgar to mee, as a garden entirely populated with trimmed teddybears of buxus sempervirens.
        I know that many people get very insulted and maybe angry, when I´m airing that opinion.
        Nature is a holy thing to many, and is the finest thing one can go for, when making a garden.
        I disagree.

        kind regards

        1. Kjeld,

          Thank you for trying to clarify your meaning. I think I understand you now. Your opinion is certainly not typical at all. In a sense, I can agree simply because when we talk of “imitating nature” we use the word “nature,” which has essentially lost any meaning. At least in the English language, it is used with so many different meanings, we may as well not have the one word “nature.” I believe I’ve heard Rick Darke, a notable American writer on culture, landscape and gardens (his new book with Piet Oudolf on the High Line is about to come out), say that he never uses the word nature in any of his talks. I can understand why.

          I’m not certain I agree with you, but I do to some extent.


          1. Thanks James for your answer.

            Magic in a garden? – natural or artificial?

            I know that nature has lost its meaning.
            Especially here in my corner of the World.
            My question is therefore; what is natural and what is artificial?
            In my opinion the natural garden and the artificial garden is the same.

            They are both artificials and they are both made by humans, who have left nature hundreds of years ago.

            Magic in a garden? – natural or artificial?
            Is it the absense of people? the weather, rain or clear sky, is it the growing plants? when the sun goes down? or is it in the early morning?
            Is it the manmade lines, the circular curves, the straight lines, the open place, the masses, the clipped forms etc.

            To many gardeners it seems that there is a special value in gardens, that looks like if they are left to their own growing, and when the garden looks like theres has been no people there at all.

            Have a nice day.


  5. The wood plank walk and the stream are really stunning. I’m still figuring out the grow-in time of these show gardens.

    Agreed on the Ranier / West quote about “bumping up the interest in a built garden over the same in nature” – many out my way miss that subtleties get lost.

    1. I’m pretty sure this one was planned months, if not years, in advance. And the growing is done by experts the likes of which we don’t see much in the US. It’s really interesting that context makes “bumping up the interest” so important. I think it’s the difference between hobby gardening and art.

  6. Kjeld, or perhaps when one can see that the gods (who do not exist) have been visiting and have just departed, leaving behind an almost imperceptible aura of their presence.


  7. Wow, lovely thoughts on Dan’s Chelsea show garden. The level of detailing required to get those stream edges and young sprouting plants to look so completely naturalistic is incredible.

    I like that idea of a garden that feels like the (mythical) gods have just departed. It’s that sense that a garden has just gone slightly overblown at the edges – developed a life of its own. Somewhere like Ninfa or the “lost gardens of Heligan”, where strategic editing is used in a rambunctious and generous landscape. That’s such a difficult – and fleeting – approach to actually realize in a professional setting, though.

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