Wimbledon is now less than two months away, and behind the scenes Emma Smyth and her merry band of gardeners have been furiously weeding, watering, digging and planting.
As general manager of Natural Green, the creative design and landscaping firm which has a year round contract with Wimbledon, it is Smyth’s job to ensure the grounds are as immaculate on the last day of every Championships as they are on the first.
It takes a lot of hard graft to achieve those perfectly manicured hedges, trimmed topiary, well-groomed borders and glorious green, purple and white floral displays, which create the beautiful English garden backdrop that epitomises Wimbledon. And while the gardening and maintenance is a non-stop job, it is April when their green fingers start to work overtime.
“From mid-April onwards everything has started to grow,” explains Smyth. “There’s lots of weeding, hedge-cutting and grounds maintenance. Every autumn we put a bedding scheme together for autumn and winter. We like to clear those out and the beds are made ready for the summer tournament planting. May is when the plants start to come in and it snowballs up until The Championships open. It’s a bit frenzied.”
A team of eight gardeners lovingly tend to the grounds throughout the year but during the tournament extra cavalry – four part-timers – is drafted in to cope with the greater volume of plants and shrubs that arrive.
There are over 200 individual flowerbeds to maintain and 650 hanging baskets – usually planted with surfinia (a trailing petunia) in sky blue, white, blue vein and blue. Add to that the 1,500 flowering UK-grown hydrangea plants, 29,960 flowering petunia, surfinia, salvia, campanula, digitalis and geranium, and 360 planted containers with buxus balls, kentia palms, weeping ficus and orchids and you begin to get an idea of the workload.
Planning for the succeeding year’s championships begins just a month after the tournament ends and Smyth liaises with growers explaining which plants worked well and where improvements could be made. High-profile areas – such as the members’ balcony under the clubhouse and the colourful, floral Wimbledon logo on Henman Hill – are scrutinised. Most orders are set by Christmas and, during the cold winter months, the team turns its hand to the bread and butter gardening and maintenance of the All England Club, which is of course a private member’s club and used as such when The Championships are not in play.
The AELTC, too, sets out any landscaping desires it has. “The club will throw new stuff at us,” explains Smyth. “This year Court Three is new and there’s a planting scheme for that. No.1 Court also has a new debentures balcony.” However it works both ways. “We go to them and say this is what we would like to do and this is where we can make an improvement. This year we have a new hedge at the practice courts and have replaced the bed in front of the Aorangi pavilion.”
Planting schemes must reflect the club colours of purple/blue, white and green. Tradition is everything at Wimbledon and change can only be
gradually phased in. This will be Smyth’s third Championships, and while she will continue with tournament traditions, she also has an eye on future planting styles and trends.
“You have to be gradual when you introduce change and let people chew over it. Previously under the balcony the bed would have had a block of hydrangeas. Last year there were hydrangeas, salveas and shaped topiary under there. The whole areas was dressed, there was more design. We’re always looking to brighten an area and make it as pretty as possible.”
Wimbledon spectators are not the only ones to benefit from the pretty floral displays. Beautiful splashes of colour in the form of hanging baskets and window boxes line Church Road, Wimbledon Village and Southfields during the tournament – again the work of the gardening team. “It’s a gift from Wimbledon,” explains Smyth.
One might wonder what happens to the plants once the tournament ends. Some are sold to the public with the proceeds going to charity, while the planted containers, many of which are hired in, are returned. Meanwhile, hydrangeas are replaced in areas that need ‘va-va voom’.
With such a prestigious event, the pressure is on to keep the gardens and grounds looking flawless no matter what stage the tournament is at. “Whether it’s day one or day ten the visitors have to have the same experience and it has to look as good on day one as it does on the day of the finals,” says Smyth. “I do say to the lads it’s important we are here all the time.”
But the long hours are worth it and the end results could be described as ‘blooming’ marvellous. “I feel proud and it’s fantastic when we send photos of the grounds home and it looks amazing,” Smyth says, but quickly adds: “It does bring a tear to your eye when you see people standing on the plants.”