Flowers loomed over Court 18 at Wimbledon. © Jane Stockdale for The New York Times
WIMBLEDON, England - Like many in tennis, Martyn Falconer wants to produce his best when Wimbledon rolls around. Falconer's results at this year's tournament, his 19th, have been "particularly good."
"You want a year like this," Falconer said in the past week. "This is one of the best ones, where everything seems to be peaking at the right time."
As the head gardener at the All England Club, Falconer cultivates vibrant colors around the grounds, beautifying the various paths and promenades. Such environmental attentiveness is critical to Wimbledon's aspiration to present "tennis in an English garden," a goal that reflects a national pride in horticulture that dates back centuries.
But while the on-court tones are famously limited - Wimbledon is still the only Grand Slam event that requires players to take its vibrant grass courts in all-white clothing - Falconer focuses on creating a colorful softness to the surrounding scene.
Wimbledon's most iconic flower displays are its hanging baskets of petunias, of which there are over 200 on the site, beautifying otherwise uninteresting architectural elements with what Falconer calls an "instant impact." The tones are mostly muted, with Falconer opting for "anything purply, bluey" that fits the color scheme of the club without being garish or ostentatious.
"You just hang a basket on a pillar, and it gives you something to look at straight away," Falconer said. "It takes your eye off a building. We're always trying to soften the landscape."
Other arrangements are more complex, with various flowers and leafy greens creating texture and painting the grounds with bright, lively tones. The hydrangeas planted at most intersections, for instance, shift color as they bloom and as the pH of the soil changes.
"Because some of these beds are so concentrated, if you went with something garish it would stick out like a sore thumb," he said. "You just pick your places if you want to use big colors."
There is a lot of area to cover on the 42-acre site, which requires a planting operation on a massive scale and outsourced growing. Some 15,000 to 18,000 petunias are grown for the tournament about 10 miles south, in Banstead; another 19,000 plants of other varieties are brought in from domestic growers and from overseas, primarily from the Netherlands. The club declined to disclose its flower budget.
Though most English gardens are designed to shine continuously, with various elements blooming and dying back throughout the year, Falconer's efforts at Wimbledon need to peak during the two weeks of the tournament. He consults with growers about when plants may be peaking in a year, which can vary given the 80 to 90 different types of plants around the site.
"Generally if the weather does what you expect it to do in a U.K. summer, they're flowering in time," he said. "But we've got such an array of plants that if something is flowering, something else might not be ready. And then, by the second week of the championships, that one is flowering and the other thing is finishing up."
Most of the hard work, in terms of planting, is done before the tournament opens to the public. A team of 15 gardeners fans out at the club each morning, starting around 6 a.m., for maintenance and upkeep, trimming dying parts to freshen up plants and occasionally countering the effects of the more than 42,000 people who come through the gates on the busiest days of the tournament.
The packs of people, Falconer said, are remarkably respectful of the plants, with the only ill-effects of the traffic being "a little bit of rubbish and a little bit of bum-squashing."
"There is a bit of trying to find somewhere to have a seat, so you get edges of planters where they've perched their backsides to take a rest and they get a little bit squashed," he said of the flowers.
There are also gardening responsibilities beyond the flower displays, including trees - which must not cast shade on the courts that would adversely affect the growth of the lawn courts - and ivy, which has covered the exterior of the Centre Court building since 1922.
Along with the history, there is innovation: This year, two "living walls," each five meters tall, were added to the outside of the renovated No. 1 Court. The walls feature 14,344 plants with a built-in, automated irrigation system, their design "reflecting the 'movement' of a wave pattern similar to a tennis ball being hit."
For the game's top players, the time to stop and notice the flowers is before the masses arrive.
"I actually like early hours of the day before the public and the crowd come in, when you can actually move around freely as a player," Novak Djokovic, the tournament's defending champion in men's singles, said. "That's where you notice how much effort and time people who are working in organization and management here, how much time and efforts they're investing into making this club probably the most famous tennis club in the world."
Though he "always liked the ivy more," the eight-time Wimbledon champion Roger Federer also said he could take time to appreciate the flowers before the tournament gets underway. "You start to sort of not see them anymore," he said, once the business of winning tennis matches is at hand.
"Especially that sort of first week, the practice week, when we wander around the grounds, we get a bigger chance to enjoy them," Federer said of Wimbledon's flowers. "We see the gardeners working on them."
Where players don't see flowers, usually, is within the tournament's show courts. While the insides of the French Open's Philippe-Chatrier Court and the United States Open's Arthur Ashe Stadium have small floral displays on their courts' margins, there are no blooms to be found within Centre Court or the other main stadiums at Wimbledon.
"Personally I don't think it needs it," Falconer said. "Let the grass courts do their talking in there, and we'll do our talking outside."