Sunday, October 19, 2014

Can't see the wilderness for the trees.

One of the things I love about the US, is the way that you can find places that give you a sense of what the continent was like without any human impact. Can't do this hardly anywhere in Western Europe.
There has been much talk lately of 'rewilding'. George Monbiot discussed it in a recentbook which brought the concept to many British readers, while North Americans may have first met the idea in Emma Marris's 'TheRambunctious Garden'. Basically, it is about letting nature rip, re-introducing the wildlife that used to be there, and minimising the human impact. We, in the developed world can afford to do this, as we have a lot of areas our ancestors tried tilling, but we can afford not to, thanks to the efficiency and economics of modern agriculture. Our populations have stabilised too, and of course we have outsourced a lot of agricultural production to the rest of the world.

So, it is interesting to be somewhere which already has been 'rewilded'. Jo and I have recently had spent six days in a cottage in the middle of the woods in the Adirondacks. This mountain range in the north of New York state was, at the beginning of the 20th century two-thirds cut over by incredibly wasteful and destructive timber extraction. Photographs in the excellent Adirondack Museum show whole hillsides covered in stumps and burnt logs. Since elite tourism began to become a major local industry in the late 19th century, pressure soon built up for conservation. Since then, the area has been a fascinating study in how conservation measures have gradually built up a patchwork of protection – around two thirds of the area is now protected public lands, mostly 'wilderness areas', with no commercial exploitation. Wildlife, including bears and moose, are coming back strongly. Most of the private land is covered in trees too.

Woodland in particular has re-established itself with a vengeance. Walking through the woods, it is possible to appreciate the whole succession process. Birches, often the first to grow are being replaced by the longer-lived mature forest species, their trunks littering the ground in some locations. In their place are red maples, hemlock, beech (American beech regenerates from the ground much more so than European) and sugar maple. There are lots of sugar maple seedlings, and this is the tree which is very much the dominant mature forest one in this part of the world.

The trees in the Adirondacks are wonderful and this regeneration is truly fantastic to see, but I almost found myself wondering whether the pendulum has swung too far. From the visitor perspective, the trees rather get in the way of the landscape. Hiking trails are almost entirely in the woods, and so after a while become rather monotonous, and driving along it is remarkably difficult to find places to see the distant mountains. And given that biomass is a near carbon-neutral way of providing heat and energy for power supply, surely some careful and judicious harvesting is in order? Or is the no doubt desperate desire of the US government to mitigate its horrendous record on CO2 production a factor here? as the growing woods must still be gobbling up the key greenhouse gas. Or is the idea of rational harvest of trees a cut too far for eco-purists.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Sheffield - our planting R&D department

A corner of James Hitchmough's garden.

Very interesting to spend the day in Sheffield recently, with a group from the Landscape Institute. I have a day with the North-East and the Yorkshire group annually now it seems, running a day workshop on planting design. This year we all met up in Sheffield, to see how some of the innovation famously coming out of the university's Department of Landscape gets applied in practice.

Another corner  - Eryngium proteiflorum in front, the Mexican species James says got him interested in horticulture as a kid.

An early morning visit to Prof. James Hitchmough's garden was a good start to the day, with an incredible botanic garden laid out below some gnarled apple trees. Only a year old, much has been grown from wild-collected seed, and it represents James's cutting edge approach to plant selection with potential to be used in British public spaces – a lot is South African, so it has an exuberantly exotic look. We are so extraordinarily lucky here, in being able to mix and match plants from so many different climate zones, and with minimal risk of anything becoming invasive.
Sue France talking to Landscape Institute members
Most of the day was spent in south Sheffield, in the Manor estate, a large area of low-rise public housing which used to have the reputation as one of the worst in Britain. A community interest company, Green Estate, has however helped turn things around, and acted as a way of applying some of the landscape department's innovation into practice. Nigel Dunnett (another prof. at the uni. here) has long used the area as a test ground for his spectacular annual seed mixes, which Green Estate now sell.
Headed by the amazingly dynamic Sue France, Green Estate is now working on its own seed mixes, which incorporate biennials and perennials and are designed for longer-than-one-year seeded plantings. Not quite sure how long, as the mixes do not seem to have many reliably long-lived clonal species (as you should know by now plant longevity is of many of the bees in my bonnet), but maybe they are just hiding. Anyway, inexpensive seed mixes which can be used to create plantings which thrive with minimal care for a few year are a great boon, especially for areas which are 'awaiting developments'.

A Green Estate mix - 'Treasure Chest'

The most interesting part of the day was spent in Manor Fields park, 25 hectares of land which once used to get 350 burnt out cars a year (now it gets none). It is an extraordinarily good example of how to maximise impact with minimal resources.
Annual planting near the Green Estate HQ

Annuals at the entrance to Manor Fields

Brian Hemingway and one other colleague maintain this, and additionally a couple of pocket parks. At first sight, much of Manor Fields is 'wasteland' – brambles, willowherb and scrub – a fantastic wildlife reserve, but not most peoples idea of a park. Look and explore further and you realise that there is a lot more to it. Here is the essence of how minimal management works:
  • Create a good first impression: the entrance to the park gets a lot spent on it: highly inventive railings and street furniture good enough to count as sculpture, bright annuals, quality perennial planting.
  • Sturdy fencing to keep out stolen cars and dirt bikers.
  • Neat, mown, edges makes wild areas look deliberate.
  • Mowing frequency is maintained, so that all mown areas look very well cared for. “If we have to reduce mowing for any reason, we let areas go wild rather than mow less frequently” says Brian, as infrequent mowing never looks good and creates an un-cared for look.
  • Zero tolerance of rubbish.

Innovative sculptural street furniture keeps out the hoods driving stolen cars, looks good and makes cutting-edge design truly universal and democratic.

One of the most interesting aspects to Manor Fields, are the perennials which have been naturalised here. Not many, but they certainly make an impact and illustrate the potential of the limited range of perennials robust enough to survive grass competition. Geraniums under the edge of tree or shrub canopy, where grass competition is reduced, are successful; including the late-flowering Geranium soboliferum, which I have never seen used this way before. Of course some of these here are the outcome of the university landscape department's influence. A goldenrod I have hardly ever seen as a garden plant, Solidago rigida, was clearly doing very well – almost the botanist's thrill of seeing it in the wild!

Geranium soboliferum

Solidago rigida

Geranium endressii underneath Hippophae rhamnoides