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.