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


Sissinghurst castle garden said...

Noel, thanks for an interesting talk at the Palmstead study day. All the Sissinghurst team enjoyed it. Helen

Roger Brook - No Dig Gardener said...

It's great to see plants of the world growing in semi natural settings. Some startling combinations.

SiHairSalon said...

Thanks for this post. I had no idea there was so many going on around Sheffield. The Manor Fields park developments sound fantastic.