Tea and grit
In 2015 Ross Uebergang hastily entered a Japanese garden show and to his surprise won second place at the prestigious Japanese World Flower and Garden Show. After the win he reflected on the stress, grit and triumph of creating a show garden on a tiny budget in a race against the clock.
I started drawing the ‘Tea Garden’ half a year ago now. I decided on the shapes really quickly and it was a great chance to explore a table design that I wanted to use for of my favourite clients. But it didn’t have a lot of polish. We had a party at my place and I stole a guest to write my design statement. We finished it with whisky coated ramblings and sent it off to the Japan Garden Show two minutes before the deadline.
Now fast forward 6 months and it is an award winning garden and I am drinking whisky with my new friend and designer Alejandro O'Neill from Uruguay. Now it is time to learn about Japanese design and ecology. We have been lucky enough to get taken around by some famous local designers and had private tours and explanations of their gardens. We are just starting to scratch the surface. We will head up into the mountains on a small island where we will see some trees that are approximately 3000 years old. I can’t wait.
I had arrived in Japan on 21 September after leaving Melbourne the day before on my birthday. Two days later I was having my first peek at the Japan World Flower and Garden Show site (until last year called the Japan Gardening World Cup) in Huis Ten Bosch, a Dutch replica village near Nagasaki and realising that with only one week to go before judging, we were up against it. The allocated team that had begun the garden build were not construction contractors but usually worked on tree pruning and garden maintenance, the cement sheeting required for the walls didn’t exist in Japan, and the central suspended steel ring in the design that the contractors had ordered was going to weigh 100kg, which weighed so much it would have pulled the whole structure down. And our budget was tiny.
Fortunately Sean Dowling of Bayon Gardens had arrived to help with the build, changing his clothes in the car after arriving straight from the airport. Twenty minutes after his quick review of the site and the construction so far it was all being pulled apart, we were off to buy the necessary power tools and equipment that our contractors didn’t seem to own, new concrete was ordered and the timber frames were underway with help from Mayhew of Paal Grant Designs who was also building a garden at the show. We also got a hand from some skilled stone masons for an afternoon and a couple of carpenters for a day and a half and, of course, Ayaka, the best translator in the world.
We would have been screwed without Sean who ended up being site foreman and kept everything moving when I was busy staring at things for too long. But we had only seven days in which to pull everything apart, start again, figure out some quick ‘work arounds’ with different materials and get the garden built and planted ready for judging. This included finding appropriate plants locally especially the necessary specimen tree which I didn’t locate until Day 6.
Over the next six days we were miles behind the other 40 odd teams from 30 different countries, some of which had already finished their gardens by the time I arrived. It was chaos….. we woke up early and went through our emails to keep up with things back in Australia where possible, caught a ride with the construction team to the site or walked about 35 minutes to get there and then worked all day in the heat and the rain. I was the only designer that was heavily involved in the construction and I’m glad that I had picked up some important lessons over the last year that kept me in good stead to keep calm and be effective when unable to communicate properly with our team. I didn’t even dare dream of being in the top ten because we were so far behind.
As hard as it was I really enjoyed it. I can only really remember getting really grumpy once when our tarp flew off the top of our site during something that felt like a low level typhoon, the rain was coming in sideways and people were holding up covers while others stained the timber floor…followed closely behind by someone with a hair dryer. By 7pm on the final night we had 15 people helping out from all over the place, including even designers and construction workers who were our competitors digging in plants, beer in hand. Alejandro O’Neill from Uruguay was unbelievably supportive the whole way through, and is now a great friend.
And we finished it with only hours to spare! The awards ceremony was like nothing I’d experienced before – red carpet, sparkling wine and Ukrainian opera singers. I was just stoked that we’d made it and that now I could sit down and relax and enjoy myself. The award presentation began and I suddenly heard what sounded like “Second prize, from Australia Mr Rose Ubergang“. Turning to Ayaka she confirmed “That is you“. I was confused. “Are you sure?“. “Yes YOU“, she said. I stood up and started screaming like a crazy person and everyone at the table joined in. I would have been screaming if I’d even got 8th prize, but SECOND!
The ceremony finished and we all decided to continue the celebrations in a Karaoke bar inside the Dutch Replica Village. We sang our hearts out before ending up sitting in our garden drinking sake in the early hours of the morning. It still hasn’t sunk in properly but I love that my garden became the place that the designers hung out. As usual, it’s the people who mean the most and this really made me feel good about the space. For the next 10 days I’ll go and learn some more about Japanese gardening and ecologies before heading home back to the real world.
And yes, I’d do it again! Although sponsorship and media definitely aren’t one of my strengths so I would probably start that process a whole lot earlier next time and make things easier for myself. I also know a lot more about the skills of the local Japanese and the materials available now, so I think I would include more large rock and less timber. That said I just went to out to a new friend’s workplace and was eyeing off his table saw and thicknesser as something I could use next year for some timber work. And I would probably just bite the bullet and stay a bit closer for a few nights during the construction period. I really didn’t want to stay in a western style hotel. Huis Ten Bosch (the Dutch Replica Village where the show is) has some ritzy stays, with modern amenities like internal canals (yep….)! But they are a bit out of my price range. Next time I might have to bring some lilos and sleep in the garden…
Reprinted from the Garden Drum, an online garden magazine (www.gardendrum.com)