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The "mad and addictive" world of Chelsea show gardens

23 May 11 01:52
Wes Fleming/Trailfinders garden 2010
By Frances Cronin
BBC News

Imagine spending £250,000 and working for a year under immense pressure, only for your creation to be pulled apart after just one week. That is what is in store for the garden designers at this week's Chelsea Flower Show. So why do they do it?

"It's been a nightmare," admits garden designer Diarmuid Gavin.

He is talking about his Chelsea show garden entry, The Irish Sky Garden, in which people are invited to fly 25 metres above the ground to view his work.

He also admits it has cost between £300,000 and £400,000.

Despite the "nightmare" however, he believes it is worth it.

"You're creating an experience and if you hit on something that people like it's just magic. It can be a lifetime's achievement in one garden."

There are 17 show gardens at this year's Chelsea. The average cost is estimated to be £250,000 but can be much more, according to landscape architect Bunny Guinness. "There have been quite a few million pound ones. Everyone is very cagey about it (the cost)."

She has won six gold medals at Chelsea but her show garden this year is her first in eight years.

Bunny, who has also been a judge at Chelsea, explains it is a hard slog from the start: "To go out and get the sponsor (to pay for the garden) is difficult - you have to court them and it's not easy."

"It is tense on site, it's quite tough, hard work, not plain sailing and you're putting yourself up to be criticised."

So why do it?

"It changes your whole profile. There's nothing else for getting your name known around the world," says Bunny.

"I've had clients come to me from the other side of the world because they've seen a picture of a garden I've done here."

She adds: "It's also fun. Putting together the garden in a short space of time is a real buzz."

Sarah Eberle has won eight gold medals, including Best in Show, and believes most aspiring top landscape designers want to show at Chelsea to test themselves.

"(They want) to see how they perform under pressure, it's a challenge."

Her garden for the Principality of Monaco, has taken over her life for the last two years.

"For me part of the charm is the success of the journey. It's the whole process, the design, the planning of it and then in 19 days it has to be put into practice and that is a wonderful feeling.

"In the landscaping industry planning a garden and constructing it and seeing it come to fruition takes an awfully long time.

"So it's a luxury for us just see it built and done to perfection in such a short space of time. It's a bit of a self indulgence."

In these hard financial times it may surprise some to find Leeds City Council at Chelsea. They are keen to point out their show gardens are entirely funded by local firm Hesco.

"It's a really positive thing for Leeds, I'm very proud of it," says Councillor Adam Ogilvy, Executive Member for Leisure at the Council.

"It raises the profile of the city. It's a way of profiling apprenticeships and training for our park staff and we also involve school kids and young people."

He adds: "We're trying to break down the perceptions that this is an elitist project."

A bit further afield Wes Fleming and his team from Fleming's Nurseries have been coming over from Australia since 2004.

Wes admits their first visit was a "whim", but he could not believe the response they got.

"It surprised the life out of me the amount of media we got in the UK and at home," he says.

"Every year the media we get in Australia for building one garden across here in England is more than our industry gets in 12 months."

He will not reveal how much they spend but Wes says it is worth it for the bigger picture:

"It's amazing the difference it has made to our industry."

"The government ignores us basically (in Australia). We should be involved in policy (on climate change) and town planning but we're not.

"Since we've been doing Chelsea our industry has been getting a greater profile and we're now able to get through the door of the main ministers, when historically we couldn't even get to see their advisors."

At the end of Chelsea some of the show gardens like Diarmuid Gavin's will get a permanent home. Others are broken up and the plants and parts re-used elsewhere.

But many of the designers and gardeners will be back at Chelsea again next year.

"You'd have to be absolutely mad to do Chelsea every year," warns Diarmuid Gavin.

But designer Sarah Eberle says that "buzz" from creating a show garden can be hard to give up. "Anything that produces adrenaline in that measure is addictive.

"It's inordinately stressful, but it's a bit like child birth and every time you think never again... but you do."

BBC TV coverage of The Chelsea Flower Show runs daily from Sunday 22 May through to Sunday 29 May 2011. You can also catch up on Red Button or iPlayer.

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