Wimbledon's flower men go petal to the metal

Updated: June 30, 2005, 2:15 PM ET
By Barry Lorge | Special to ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England – Walk past the venerable Centre Court and the new Court No. 1 at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, the majestic arenas where the late-round singles matches are concentrated. Keep strolling beyond the Aorangi Terrace, the picnic lawn and amphitheater better known as "Henman Hill," where the folks who do not have tickets for the main stages gather to watch on a giant-screen TV. There, on the northern fringes of the picturesque grounds splendidly designed to preserve the motif of "tennis in an English garden," you will find Denny & Son, Landscape Contractor.

The son is Roger Denny, who says cheerfully: "I'm the only person at Wimbledon that enjoys the rain."

That is because he is in charge of Wimbledon's fabulous gardens, walkways, lily pond, floral arrangements (including more than 47,000 plants brought in for the two weeks of The Championships) – all landscaping except for the grass.

"Everything grass is Eddie Seaward, the head groundsman," said Phil Ayres, a former geranium grower who has been Denny's chief assistant for 12 years. "We don't touch grass at all. All the rest is up to us: hedges, trees, shrubbery, flowers. We look after the lot. Eddie's got enough on his plate with the grass courts. That's his speciality."

Roger's late father, Don, started looking after the All England Club's verdant, picture-postcard acres in 1946. Don was due to retire in 1973, at age 65, but was asked to stay on. He worked at Wimbledon through 1996, the year before he died at 88. Roger gradually took over the business of overseeing one of the most visible landscaping contracts in the world.

Denny & Son has other clients, including the Bank of England, whose grounds are just up the road in Roehampton, where the Wimbledon qualifying rounds are played.

"But at this time of year, this is my sole life," said Roger, who is on-site daily about 5 a.m. "I mean, Wimbledon is seen all over the world, isn't it? You can well imagine our deadline: Everything has got to be absolutely perfect on the day the tennis starts, and it needs to last and be fresh every day of the fortnight. So everything has to be timed perfectly."

That includes the huge "living logo" of Wimbledon 2005 that overlooks Henman Hill. Naturally, purple and green predominate, for those are the All England Club's colors.

"There are 9,000 plants in there, including the small white flowers that make up the carpet bedding," Denny said. "That is the most photographed point at Wimbledon, save for the Centre Court."

Those 47,000 plants brought in for the tournament remain in pots, augmenting gardens or plugged into planter boxes that line walkways or festoon balconies and terraces. Almost every vantage point at Wimbledon is a visual delight, the whole panorama as breathtaking as a mural by Monet.

"How many plants are a permanent part of this lovely landscape?" I asked Denny.

"I can't even think of that," he replied, after pausing to ponder the imponderable. "There are 47 acres of land here that have to be looked after all year 'round. I have a staff of six that look after it. That goes up to 24 people during The Championships, including the eight florists who look after all the cut flowers."

And what are the top seeds this year?

"Hydrangeas are always the backbone," Denny said. "We used to have blue and pink, but now mostly blue, the Mophead variety, and the White Lacecap. We try to source with local companies, but with the sort of quantities we need, we sometimes have to go to the Continent. The hydrangeas we get from the Loire Valley in France. They are specially grown for Wimbledon – 3,450 of them. They come over in very large cold lorries." That is the British phrase for refrigerated trucks. Similar to wine cellars on wheels, these transport vintage hydrangeas from an area celebrated more for its vineyards.

Hydrangeas used to be the flower of choice for the elevated planter boxes on Centre Court, on the Members' Balcony, and in other lofty places.

Superlative writer John McPhee – in a 1970 magazine article that became a book with photographs by a cameraman of similar stature, Alfred Eisenstaedt – wrote, "Hydrangeas are the hallmark of Wimbledon. They are not only displayed on high but also appear in flower beds among the outer courts. In their pastel efflorescence, the hydrangeas appear to be geraniums that have escalated socially."

Now, geraniums have been at least temporaily de-escalated, replaced by Blue Salvia and petunias.

"There are very few geraniums around this year," Denny said. "We do like to mix things up a bit, making it a little different from one year to the next. Salvia also tends to be closer to the club's color – dark blue to purple. Geraniums are a bit too red and pinky."

Don't worry, though. Geraniums will come back, Ayres predicted.

"I used to supply Roger with geraniums," he said. "I sold my business, and Roger seemed to like a bit of company here in the office, so we've been together ever since."

"We always like new ideas, don't we?" Denny interjected. "But Phil is right: Geraniums will be back."

Petunias are plentiful, having climbed socially to take the place of hydrangeas in the window boxes. The preferred variety is Blue Surfinia, a hybrid petunia from cuttings.

"There are about 3,500 petunias planted around – mostly the trailing kind that hang down," Denny said. "Petunias came in about a decade ago. They became very popular. The problem with hydrangeas is they require lots of water. It's better to use a plant that can take the heat a little bit more. The petunias are locally grown in the southeast of England, around the coast. And the magnificent hanging baskets you see all around the grounds come from one nursery, maybe 10 miles from here."

What about the roses that perfume the air with such a sweet fragrance?

"Most of the roses are in containers, too, brought in for the tournament," Denny said. "The members like vanilla and cream colors. We have a new variety this year to go with all the old standards. We like the whites, and we also use a lot of green ferns and ivies, Box Topiary and other shrubbery. The trees, the hedges – everything is important here."

Plants that don't become perennials at the All England Club are sold at reduced rates the Tuesday after the tournament, with the proceeds going to charity.

Is it prestigious to have a plant that has graced Wimbledon in your garden?

"Oh yes, very much so," Denny said. "The flower sale is very popular."

Last year, it raised 6,300 pounds (about $11,370) for charities.

Not for sale are two rather large oak trees on the southwest side of Court No. 1.

"After this year's tournament, they'll be planted in one of the car parks. They've got too big," Denny said. "We'll bring in something else. The problem is, that's part of the view from the Broadcast Centre. Most of the studios look across that area. There was kind of a black hole with nothing in it. We were asked to come up with something."

As usual, they came up with something exceptional. If the immaculate grass courts give Wimbledon its character, a tangible link to the roots of the game, the gardens preserve its origin as a grand sporting festival in a garden party setting, presented for more than a century with exquisite taste and stunning attention to detail.

"We did have to move Fred Perry this year," said Denny, referring to the statue of the last Englishman to win the Wimbledon singles, 1934-36. The sculpture used to be at the corner of the Public Tea Lawn, near one of the staircases to the Centre Court. "The club asked us at the last moment to put a large tree there as a focal point, so we got a beautiful tulip tree and moved Fred just 'round the corner. At the new Gate 3, where the new Wimbledon museum is going, we put in Liquid Amber. That's not a drink, it's a parasol-type tree. We put in three of them."

Ayres showed me the Denny & Son nursery – "This is where we bring sick plants back to health, and keep replacements," he said. He also put together a list for me of some of the other primary plant varieties used at The Championships. These include yellow and white Kalanchoe, with tiny delicate blossoms; Agapanthus, also known as African lily; Cape Fuchsia Phygelius, whose hue provides its name; Nephrolepis Fern; Silver Leaf; Box Topiary in various shapes; Diascia, another tiny white flower popular in the Members' Garden; and for the "carpet bedding," Alternanthera for the color green and Sedum Purpureum for the color purple.

"They say Eddie Seaward is a genius with grass. Are you fellows geniuses with plants?" I asked Denny and Ayres. They blushed almost as purplish-red as their New Guinea Hybrid Impatiens.

"We try to help Mother Nature along," Ayres said modestly. "But she is the genius."

Barry Lorge, former Washington Post staff writer and sports editor/columnist of The San Diego Union, has covered tennis in more than 25 countries on five continents. He co-authored the section on tennis in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

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