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Deft touch of Australiana

ON THE Fleming's Nurseries website is a list of team members involved with this year's Australian entry in the Chelsea Flower Show, which starts in 10 days.

The second team member on the list is Monbulk nurseryman Wes Fleming. His role is ''Project Passion'', an apt description given his indefatigable approach to winning the best in show garden at the world's most prestigious horticultural pageant.

A perennial contender, this is Fleming's eighth attempt at taking out the top prize at the world's second-oldest flower show and each year he embraces the challenge as enthusiastically as the previous one. Since his first foray in 2004 with a design by Jim Fogarty that won a silver-gilt medal, Fleming has been driven by an all-consuming passion to beat the British at their own game.

The process of competing at Chelsea is exhausting and expensive. It takes several months from choosing a designer to selecting the plants (usually in France, Spain and Italy) then 17 days to build the garden and six days to pull it down.

Last year, Fleming, who has won three silver gilts and four golds, wavered when I rang him in London - after the judges had delivered their verdict of a silver-gilt for Ian Barker's design based on the voyage of the Endeavour with botanist Sir Joseph Banks - to see if he'd have another go this year. But only for a second. ''Definitely,'' he said, ''and I've got a designer in mind.''

That designer is Jason Hodges, a big winner at this year's Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show. Hodges left for London last Monday and on Thursday work started on building the garden, which this year is ''a bit of urban Aussie culture'' featuring a lush and verdant outdoor living area with mod cons such as a wood-fired pizza oven and barbecue, outdoor bath, plunge pool and deck.


The focal point will be five mature Washingtonia palms creating an avenue through the garden. Hodges says his gardens are for busy people, young couples with children who are always on the go, so they need plants in their gardens that will survive if neglected, which is why for his Chelsea garden he has chosen tough species, such as acanthus, aspidistras (aptly known as the Cast Iron plant), cordylines, cycas, dianella, lomandra, phormium, syzygium and strelitzia.

Competing against the British at Chelsea is daunting but Hodges says he's not overwhelmed about the task ahead. ''I'm excited but not nervous,'' he says. ''I know the English use spaces differently. They tend to look at them from inside whereas we entertain outside more than they do. This will be about building a garden and selling a dream to the British public.''

So does Hodges feel any pressure from Fleming, given his determination to bring back the coveted top gong from Chelsea? ''With the design, Wes told me to go for it,'' Hodges says. ''He just made a few suggestions, that's all. He's the big-picture man and is the glue that keeps everything together.

''He does wear his heart on his sleeve and his determination is fantastic. I'm 'Jack the Lad', so Wes and I complement each other. I'm happy to take a back seat while Wes likes the showbiz side of Chelsea, such as meeting the Queen [which he has done a number of times], so we don't compete for the limelight.''

Hodges says his father has told him if he is introduced to the Queen, who always visits the gardens on VIP day, to put his arms around her and give her a kiss on the cheek, but it's doubtful he will: ''That would make me famous and infamous at the same time.''

Hodges' low-maintenance design fits in with Fleming's idea of a garden. ''That's how they should be and also this design retains more of an Australian garden,'' Fleming says. ''Last year's entry was more of an English-style garden … They wanted to know where the Aussie theme was so we've gone back to that outdoor living space and a relaxed lifestyle.''

Fleming leaves for London next Thursday. It's a ''bugger'' to get there, given his nursery commitments, but once he gets to Chelsea he will fall in love again with the event, which has been described as the new rock'n'roll with wall-to-wall coverage in print and electronic media for weeks.

''Before the show opens I walk around and take it all in,'' he says. ''It's the camaraderie, not just with your team, but all the other crews who we've come to know over the years. And I love … all the floral displays. They're just amazing.''

Fleming has chosen award-winning landscape designer Phillip Johnson to design next year's show garden. No doubt large rocks and water will be a strong component given Johnson's reputation for dramatic and sustainable gardens.

And that, ''hand on my heart'', Fleming says, will be his last Chelsea venture. ''The gardens cost $400,000-plus to build and … the economic climate and financial stresses associated with that makes it difficult.

''I wish the government and industry would take it over. It's so worthwhile to the country and the nursery industry to be in an event like Chelsea but you can't expect an individual company to keep footing the bill.''

■Follow Jason Hodges' and Wes Fleming's progress at Chelsea on www.flemings.com.au.