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  • By Andrew Christopher Dunnee

It's only Show business!

It's that time of year again when the excitement of the show garden season begins once again. Bloom, Chelsea, Hampton Court and Tatton are among my favorites. After our success last year at Bloom, I decided we would take time off from show gardens and concentrate on creating 'Real' gardens for some of our wonderful clients. The term, 'real' garden and show garden can be confusing as show gardens are put forward as being the pinnacle of garden design. So what is the difference? and why should you build a show garden if it is not 'real'?' We let me share my thoughts on the subject and hopefully it will help you to understand some of the complexity's of designing any garden.

"A show garden is designed to offer instant gratification to those who view it from behind a rope fence. A real garden is designed to be lived in , loved and to grow, improving with age as it does so."

The main difference between a Show garden and a 'real' garden is time. A show garden has to look good for 5 days. Not just any five days, five days in early summer between the hours of 9am and 6 pm and apart from a relatively few practical considerations the garden is fee to be what ever it wants to be. It is unimpeded by surrounding buildings, access issues, practical considerations such as the need for storage, bins and a washing line. The gardens I design on a day to day basis are meant to last a life time or at least 30 years. (that is 10,950 days give or take a leap-year). The garden has to look good and function well in Summer, winter, day- night, sun- rain and everything in between. The structure and the layout of the garden will be essential as in Winter there may not be a single flower in bloom yet the garden must remain pleasing. To design a show garden there is written down a list of rules to comply with to insure success, you are given a blank canvas with no obstacles to work around (such as manholes, ugly buildings, storage sheds, trampolines... and the list goes on.)

To design a real garden, the list of considerations is far greater. The garden still must be impressive with plenty of Wow factor similar to a show garden, (even though the client may be prepared to wait a little longer to get it) but the additional requirements of a real garden are extensive. 1 What does it look like in winter? 2 What does it look like at night? 3 How do we get privacy from the neighbors? 4 What will the view be like from the kitchen window? 5 Where does the washing line go? 6 How will you resolve the huge drainage issues? 7 Where will we store the coal bunker?

8 How will it be heated?

9 Is it low maintenance?

10 How will you deal with the fact the fact that the garden is on stony ground, with terrible soil, poor drainage, has a 3 meter slope, is surrounded by ugly storage buildings, noisy neighbors and a busy road, with a strong south westerly wind ripping through it for most of the year. A tricky design I know, but I have had worse. In a real garden design all these practical considerations must be addressed but they cannot be used as an excuse. The garden must still have the wow factor.

The final difference between a show garden and a real garden is probably the most important one...... The client or as is often the case, Clients. They will have their own set of requirements, wishes and expectations and tastes which have to be met, reigned in or exceeded. Budget will be their foremost concern but the image they have of what their garden should look like may well have come from a show garden so a dose of reality is often required. A show garden is designed to offer instant gratification to those who view it from behind a rope fence. A real garden is designed to be lived in , loved and to grow, improving with age as it does so.

So why should you put yourself out there? In doing so you potentially risk damaging your reputation and your business (should you get a bad result) not to mention put yourself and probably your family through a huge amount of stress and possible financial burden? Well if your answer is because you thought it would be fun to do or you like the idea of being called a garden designer or even that you saw the funding the sponsors were offering and though I can make a few quid out of this.. well then I would seriously reconsider before reality bites you in the ass!

"Yes in Ireland there is no better way of exposing yourself and what you can do to the masses than being the designer of a Medal winning garden at Bloom."

If you ask the good people at Board Bia they will tell you about the exposure, the 100k+ visitors the hundreds of media outlets the television, the medals... all wonderful stuff no doubt. Yes in Ireland there is no better way of exposing yourself and what you can do to the masses than being the designer of a Medal winning garden at Bloom. The media and visitors will come and you will have the full support of the of one of the best PR and marketing companie in Ireland at your figure tips namely Board Bia. However I think it is important not to get too carried away with the exposure element of show gardens. Over the years I have been lucky enough to have been featured in many magazines, newspapers, website blogs and all sorts of other mass exposure media and between the two Bloom shows I did over 200,000 people personally saw my work with many more seeing it on television. None of which did me any harm. But what is often lost in all the talk of numbers is that as garden designers, we are not aiming at the masses and we will never have tens of thousands of clients. We are a bespoke service aimed at a specific small group of lucky people who can afford our services. My last 11 projects have come from clients who have never been to Bloom. That is not to say that I didn't get work as a direct result of doing show gardens, I did but it forms a very small part of my clientèle.

So why do a show garden? A show garden is a unique opportunity to show your clients and potential clients what you can do that no-one else can. It is a means of identifying yourself among your peers. It is the reason why a client will choose you above anyone else. Not because you won a medal (although it helps) but because they liked your style, the individuality and personality that you showed in your design. They like what you did differently than everyone else. My aim in business was always to get to a position where a potential client contacts me, not because I am a garden designer but because they went looking for me specifically. They we weren't just looking for any garden designer, they were looking for me. Due to the lack of restrictions and practical considerations as mentioned above, designing a show garden is an opportunity to show off what you can do and how good you can be and how perfect the result could be if the client puts their faith, their home and their wallet in your hands. This is also the reason why,as a designer you must never turn yourself into a billboard designer for your sponsor. Instead you must go there firstly to look after yourself and your business by showing what you can do different to everyone else and then take care of your sponsors, the visitors and indeed the event organizers. A show garden is also the best opportunity to get perfect photographs of your work in a controlled environment which will come in handy for years to come. Getting similar images of real gardens takes years and will always involve compromise.

A show garden is another weapon in your arsenal to convince clients that you are worthy of their trust. Of the 11 projects I mentioned earlier, although none of the clients had been to Bloom personally, they had all done their homework and were aware of my achievements, this adds further credibility to your designs and may just be the final push they need to convince them to let you change their home, their garden and their lifestyle for years to come.

It is your opportunity to shine!

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