Tuesday, March 4, 2008


    I have always found the idea of doing public space planting a more attractive one than designing private gardens. Thousands of people see your work every day, its part of the public realm, a part of the landscape, not hidden away. You have to accept some heavy constraints though: limited funds often mean that projects are small scale and maintenance is still a major issue. And you just have to accept that work does receive a fairly frequent mulch of plastic bags, beer cans and take-away wrappers.
    In Bristol I’ve been working with the city authorities for some years now, usually creating two new perennial-based plantings each winter. I’ve done a few small beds in parks, but they tend to get lost in the great expanse of grass and trees. Far more effective is planting at key sites on commuter routes: traffic islands, roundabouts, junctions. There are real advantages to working on these, as they tend to be pretty vandal proof, and slug proof too.
    Working on these sites involves co-ordinating with contractors. Usually an 8.00 am start, parking on a  pavement and sometimes running the gauntlet of traffic wearing a day-glo safety jacket. Once wearing one of these jackets you realise you have joined a working class brotherhood  who look after their own – great trucks screech to a halt to let you cross the road for example, and it also gives you just about enough authority to stop the traffic if you want to. Crossing roundabouts is something of an art form – much better if there is enough of a grass apron to drive onto. Driving off again though is pretty hairy I can tell you.
    The plants used are resilient perennials which can look after themselves as much as possible, and once established, compete with weeds. Geranium is one of the obvious genera to concentrate on; in the mild and moist Bristol climate, many are in active growth for almost all the year. They are such a useful group that I almost have to make a conscious effort not to overuse them.  Clump-forming and late-flowering composites: helianthus, rudbeckia, solidago, aster, are useful for later-season and strucutral interest.
    Ideally plants will be allowed to spread and self-seed. The aim is a closed canopy of vegetation. Whether this happens is very much to management which is out of my hands. I have run an afternoon training course however, and found the team (from Continental Landscapes) had a better ability to spot the difference between weeds and seedling perennials than I expected. If regenerating perennials are left, the ground will eventually be covered with the vegetation you want, leaving little space for invasive weeds. However on some sites, ‘over-maintenance’ prevents this happening. Ornamental grasses too can be mistaken for weed grasses – so any species used need to be very clearly intentional.
    One new approach I have tried is plug planting, of species which flower in the first year. This is not necessarily designed for permanence as some species used are short-lived, but instead gives more intense colour more quickly. Examples of species used are Achillea ‘Galaxy Hybrids’, Malva moschata, Lychnis chalcedonica, Rudbeckia hirta, Physostegia virginiana, Stipa tenuissima. Planting is at random at 30cm spacings.

For Bristolians, sites I’ve done some planting on so far are:
Snuff Mills,
Three Lamps Junction
Wells Rd. Oxford St. just up from the above.
Broadwalk Arcade, Knowle.
Redcatch Park
White Tree roundabout
Malago Lane, pedestrian island
Eastville Park, one bed near public conveniences at far western end.
St. James Barton
Novers Lane roundabout
Stapleton Rd./Rawnsley Park (something to look at while you wait for your crack dealer)


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