Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Back to Cambo

Scotland has always had a reputation for being more 'European' than England. Nowhere is this more true than at Cambo House, near St. Andrews where head gardener Elliott Forsyth has gone for Dutch and German-inspired naturalistic planting in a big way, wonderfully framed by the walls, old apple trees and surviving structures of a typical 19th century walled garden. The grasses and perennial mixes are at their best from August through to October, with repetition and rhythm key elements in creating some wonderfully harmonious plantings. Not everything thrives up here of course, and the northern latitude may create problems for a few species in the new prairie area which Elliott has recently laid out. Most of the perennials of the New Perennial movement however seem fine.
Another, more original element still, is the summer 'potager', which Elliott works out in great detail over the winter, It is a mix of perennials, half-hardies, grasses, annuals and veg; every year there is a different theme (colour, structure etc.) and the overall visual aesthetic (dotting, blocks, drifting etc.) changes too. Its gorgeous and a great inspiration. It is the nearest thing to the summer plantings you see in the German garden-shows, although a lot looser and wilder, where incredible plant combinations are put together by designers like Christine Orel and Christian Meyer, just for the 3-4 months of the event. Unlike the perennial plantings, these don't seem to have had much influence over here.

Cambo is featured in the September issue of Gardens Illustrated.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

A response to ‘little prairie amongst the houses’

At last, someone has taken some critical notice of what I have been up to Bristol for the last eight years. Every winter I create about 2 or 3 perennial plantings for Bristol city council. Most of them have been successful. In the following blog, they have had a review.


To summarise what the author thinks can be summed up his saying that:
What emerges overall is that, while these new herbaceous plantings can be a charming enough interlude on a journey, I find the simplicity of trees and shrubs more pleasing, less fussy and more relevant in scale and strength to the urban context

The author is good enough to recognise that anything done in conjunction with a local authority is going to be severely constrained – very little money, very little maintenance. But perhaps he doesn’t appear to recognise the history of this kind of planting. What my naturalistic perennials are a replacement for are two sub-Victorian horrors: The Bedding Display and The Municipal Rose Bed. Bristol City Council parks and open spaces managers have decided to try to go beyond these and do something different. Both involve a lot of bare ground for much of the year, indeed The Municipal Rose Bed seems to involve lots of bare ground for nearly all the year, as the roses almost inevitably seem to be on their last legs. The Bedding Display always looks ridiculous, because no-one has the money now to do it on such a scale as to make it look anything else than a postage-stamp on the side of a shipping container.

It is all very well to carp about the ‘little prairie amongst the houses’, but at least the ‘prairies’ can make a jolly good colourful splash for four to five months at a fraction of the annual cost of bedding out. And a jolly good colourful splash is actually what a lot of people want. But you can’t have them all year round. And you can’t have them on a traffic island in Malago Lane, 'cos nothing else there has ever survived, until I did my urban-grit-minimalist Rudbeckia fulgida, Crambe maritime, Nepeta x faassenii and Phlomis russeliana combination, which I must say I think is actually something of a triumph.

The author of the review seems to enjoy driving around some of the drearier stretches of south Bristol’s industrial estate and mall-land admiring the ‘simplicity’ of the kind of plantings of evergreens which those of us who are interested in real urban gardening have been desperate to get away from: slabs of laurel which look the same 365 days of the year, swathes of cotoneaster, pointlessly mown into wobbly rectangular slabs with CO2 and pollution belching kit, unimaginative strip-plantings of the ten dreary shrubs which is the limit of most landscape architects plant knowledge.

But at the end of the day, I feel that what we like in urban areas is so subjective. The author of the piece rather lets the cat out of the bag when he says why not have no plants at all? Oh no, he’s talking about public art! Aaaargh. Yes, there is good public art, but very little of it seems to get done in Britain, because the people who commission and make the stuff are so out of touch with what the vast majority of the population want – which is stuff they can relate to and which cheers their lives up, not the angst-ridden outpourings of privileged art school graduates. They want the jolly good splash of colour in the midst of the urban wilderness, which is what my perennial planting tries to give them, cheaply, sustainably, and in a wildlife-friendly way.

One final point - about why guerrilla gardening has so taken off – note that the guerrilla gardeners usually sow or plant flowers not landscape architect approved laurel bushes.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Living wall disaster

Here is the Sure Start Centre at Paradise Park in Islington, London (photo courtesy of http://vegitecture.blogspot.com - a very good website on green architecture), and how it was when I went two years ago.

Architects (not normally renowned for their understanding of plant life) seem to think that you can take the green roof concept, spin it through 90 degrees and stick it on a wall to make a ‘living wall’. And there are folks out there brave enough to give it a go – Patrick Blanc in Paris is the best known, and let’s be honest, he’s a genius (even if he is a bit of an ego-maniac, striding across the pictures in his book like he is a rock star), and there are those who perhaps ought to stick to planting window boxes. Making plants grow vertically is a challenge which can be done, but needs a lot of techno-kit and lots of money, and lots of maintenance, and if the system breaks down in a heat wave, lots of skips to put the dead plants in. But if you have the dosh and the nerve, why not give it a go?

The other way of making a green wall is the facadegreening technique (see my blog on the subject a few blogs ago). It’s a bit boring because it is so simple and natural – you simply take advantage of the fact that a lot of plants are good climbers and you give ‘em something to climb up. Unless they are planted in window boxes, a drought will only slow them down, not kill them. Its an approach which is far more natural, need far less maintenance, is far far more reliable and cheaper:

Living walls cost $807 per m2

Facadegreening costs $122 per m2

for materials and installation

according to the figures, suppliers have given me.

Now, I am not against living walls, they are great in the right place, like in boutique hotels, designer clothes stores and £20 for a mingy starter restaurants – places where most of us don’t hang out, unless someone else is paying. But I object to their nature-defying machismo, the obvious sense that here are people trying to run before they can walk. For the vast majority of landscape applications, give me some wisteria and some stainless steel rope and let nature do the rest.