Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Bristol street life

Between 2001 and 2009 I worked on a series of plantings for Bristol City Council, some perennial borders in parks, but mostly roundabouts, traffic islands and junctions. The sort of places which thousands of people drive or are driven past every day. Traditionally these were planted up with bedding or with shrubs and mown grass.
People moved on, budget cuts bit, etc, so I haven't done anything in the city for few years now, although in fact council staff had told me that I had saved them a lot of money, one even telling me “we've not done any maintenance, and it still looks all right”. It was never the idea to do 'no maintenance' but I designed some very robust plant mixes, which have in fact coped pretty well.

Last week I was in Bristol over night and went out and photographed some of my work. I was amazed at just how much had not just survived but done really well. I felt very vindicated. Bristol offers fertile soils with a long growing season so weed competition can be severe. In most cases this was not a problem, with 'my' plants able to out-compete most weeds.

Levels of maintenance by council contractors varies. Smaller plantings in small parks are more likely to have a higher standard of care. Roadside plantings tend to have less. In some instances community groups have taken over and looked after plantings or in one case completely taken over to make a community-run area (Snuff Mills).
Phlomis russeliana at Three Lamps junction. Totterdown. Planted 2003/2006
Three Lamps junction of the Bath and Wells roads
Very successful coverage by the plants chosen, but not a huge amount of colour. Partly perhaps because I just didn't photograph it at the right time, but also the stronger coloured Achillea definitely dies out whereas the paler survives. And there is a huge plant mix in here, so there's a long season of interest. What was good though was how complete the vegetation coverage over the soil is – denying space to weeds (and hiding the rubbish).
Oxford St. 2006

Oxford St – visible from the Wells Rd. just up from Three Lamps
This was intended as coppiced shrubs and perennials. No coppicing ever happened, and for some reason Geranium 'Claridge Druce' has taken over with a vengeance.Planting was done into a very thick layer of green waste, which over time has either degraded or been washed off, which did perhaps have a negative impact on some plants. This does show however just how well these pink geraniums do in the west of England climate. Long flowering season too. Few more of these and Bristol could be 'pink city'.
St.Johns Cres. 2007

St. John's Crescent, Bedminster
A pocket park. Pretty well looked after this one.
Malago Lane, 2006

Malago Lane, Bedminster
A triumph over adversity this. Nasty place to be a plant: salt, poor soil. A limited selection of toughies were planted, ALL species have survived. Rudbeckia fulgida greatly reduced but Euphorbia cyparissias does a fantastic job of filling spaces. Crambe cordifolia makes impact.

All very encouraging. The socialist in me loves doing this. Beautify the city. There are so many silly little patches of green all over Bristol, which all need mowing. They could all be planted up. It doesn't cost much. For a fraction of the money spent on the new gardens that our kleptocratic financier class seem to be busy making you could 'do' the whole city.

Have you read the unique soap opera for gardeners – Dig, Plant and Bitch. Recently described by a colleague as 'Jilly Cooper meets Geoff Hamilton' (translation for non-Brits: sharp-nailed chicklit crossed with gardening advice from favourite uncle).

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Colourful thoughts about German gardening and art history

Hermannshof (in Weinheim) in late September

Just had a piece in The Daily Telegraph about my long-standing love of the German gardening scene. Rather funny for a rather Euro-sceptic paper, they published it on the Queen's Jubilee Weekend - nicely subversive.

This year it doesn't look like I'll be going, as so many other things on, but usually I look forward to meeting colleagues, seeing plants and new places. What I like about garden-visiting in Germany is the kind of disjuncture of seeing the familiar used in unfamiliar ways, often on a larger scale, which is a reflection of the emphasis on public horticulture I talk about in the article. Its like having the same set of ingredients but a different recipe for cooking them.

Of course, it being the Telegraph, I had to put in a dig - so the German love of the gnome (Gartenzwerg) seemed the obvious one. Yes, there are a lot of them. And you can even buy a murdered gnome (knife in back). Kitsch is a German word you understand.

I got an email back from my friend the landscape architect Anita Fischer who organizes the lovely Freising Garden Days, same time as Chelsea so consequently invisible to us. Anyway, she slightly ticks me off for suggesting that German gardens are untouched by modern garden design. Not true she says, as she thinks garden design is taking off. To be honest I am a bit out of touch so I'm sure she's right.

What started me off on writing the piece was a new book, by the new Prof of Planting Design and Plant Use at Weihenstephan- Swantje Duthweiler. It's historical, looking in extraordinary detail at the first half of the 20th century's perennials, the nurseries which grew them, the connections with garden designers, the use of plants in public space etc. Fascinating stuff and such a lavishly illustrated book with lots of old postcards, plans, nursery catalogues etc. Rather embarrassing that no-one has done this kind of research for Britain.What i found most interesting was the connections between early 20 century 'alternative' movements and flower colour. Lebensreform (life reform) was an important part of German cultural life in the first decades of the 20th century, mostly to do with diet and exercise, we in Britain had a similar although weaker movement, and of course the Steiner movement came over here; anyone who knows kids who have been to Steiner school will know about the emphasis place on colour in their teaching (and those rather wishy-washy paintings they all seem to bring home). There was an emphasis on pure colour  as an almost spiritual value as part of a healthy lifestyle, which influenced many artists, this also drove variety selection in perennials. Blue was seen as being a particularly spiritual colour by many artists; German breeders certainly produced lots of wonderful blue blue delphiniums.

All this talk of spirituality and colours seems a bit weird to us hard-headed Brits, but that's just one of the things which rather sets apart from German culture. Never underestimate the German ability to philosophize - which probably explains why none of the books of the great Karl Foerster, who dominated German gardening in the 20th century has ever been translated.  Our UK nursery trade did a lot of toing and froing with Germany in the 1900-1930 period, but we tended to be interested only in the colour as an end in itself. It might make a fascinating study to look at the differences between German garden designers and Gertrude Jekyll's theories of colour.

Phlox were a particular passion in the 1920s - so many variations on the theme of pink.

What was most fascinating was the level of connection between leading figures in the art world and gardening - and the consequent status this gave gardening and the nursery trade. I remember visiting the garden of the artist Max Liebermann (1847-1935) some years ago on the Wannsee (lake) on the edge of Berlin. His love of gardening and the artistic use he made of his garden reminds me of Monet and Giverny. Liebermann was involved with the Secession (Art Nouveau) movement and in reading Swantje's book, I realized he was associated with influential art historian Alfred Lichtwark (1852-1914), who wrote about gardens and colour theory in planting design

Those who can relate only to the horrors of 20th century German history will inevitably ask "what about the Nazi period?". Karl Foerster (a pacifist) ended up fleeing to Sweden, and returned to live in the communist east. Swantje points out that there was no specifically Nazi garden aesthetic, beyond a stress on native species, but that had little impact on the all-important public park plantings. The really interesting thing about the Nazi period is the links with the organic movement. I recommend Radical Gardening by George McKay if you want to follow this up. We tend to think of organic growers as being rather cuddly nice people - you won't do after reading this!


If you fancy some lighter reading why not try Dig, Plant and Bitch, the world's first soap opera for gardeners
Find out more here
Will Bonzo the gardener survive his fall off the Charles Jencks inspired mound?