The old day job brings a brief escape from the surreal juxtaposing chaos of Facebook and Twitter. Off we go into the great outdoors for some down to earth chat with gardeners in the real world.
Not on the list, but Dawyck is always worth a visit
In my new day job, social media too often has me in thrall. I’m enough of an old hack to be reluctant to give more information about the pending article which may soon appear in old fashioned print. Or the publication that commissioned it. What if they don’t print it? Or, worse, what if it appears edited beyond recognition?
But can’t resist telling you it was a lovely surprise to be asked to write about some of the great Scottish gardens I first discovered more than 20 years ago. And a double treat that I got to work on six tantalisingly short profiles with a good friend and colleague. Woodland and walled gardens worth visiting. Of course the deadline didn’t actually give us time (or travel expenses) to get out and meet the head gardeners face to face but – despite harsh realities of this disastrously cold spring – it was amazingly cheering to speak with people who so clearly love their day job.
No, Little Sparta not on our list either
No denying the hard work. Maybe escape is never the best word to use in connection with gardens and gardening. I’m remembering Ian Hamilton Finlay’s much quoted line: “Some gardens are described as retreats, when they are really attacks.” Whatever he meant by that ( if you’ve visited Little Sparta there’s more than one possibility), I’m also remembering my own brief attempt to launch a project presenting the best of Scottish gardens as ‘more real than the real world”.
Timing is all. (I pity anyone trying to launch a new product during the wall-to-wall media coverage of the life, death and escalating legend of Mrs Thatcher.) In this Year of Natural Scotland, I often think my Tread Softly idea was just a year or two too early. With another friend, and beautifully crafted samples produced by a bright young design team, I set out to find funding for an eco-guide to Scottish gardens. Inviting the public to explore sensitively managed habitats more ‘natural’ than the surrounding countryside, we briefly attracted sympathetic interest from Visit Scotland, National Trust for Scotland, Forestry Commission and Scottish Natural Heritage.
Perhaps I simply blew it with Visit Scotland when I pointed out that there is no longer any such place as wilderness. No hill, glen, peat bog or coastline – no matter how bleakly beautiful – is untouched by human actions. I can still see the look of shock on the young executive’s face. It didn’t fit with the VS marketing strategy at the time, celebrating the glories of ‘wild’ landscapes: those barren hilltops eroded by sheep, rabbits, deer, pollution, hillwalkers and climate change.
Of course there are remote spots where nature still has the upper hand, give or take the tides of plastic washed up on achingly beautiful beaches, bouncing down tumbling burns, hanging from old oak trees. Take a walk in the fairy-tale shelter of the west coast woodlands, dripping with lichen and mosses, and you see what wonders still happen when nature is given a fighting chance.
But I still believe that the most sensitively tended gardens give the best example of how to work in harmony with the birds, bees, beast and butterflies trying to get a life around us. So we should more accurately celebrate The Year of Semi-Natural Scotland. Mind you, that wouldn’t win any funding either.
Treading softly round Little Sparta
April 10th, 2013
A couple of bees are busy burying themselves in the private parts of bright pink geraniums. I have it on good authority that ladybirds often lurk among the leaves and grasses too. Oblivious to streams of noisy traffic, nature is thriving on an island of wildness in Broughton.
It’s this “slice of wilderness in the city”, to quote John Frater who designed and planted the borders in Mansfield Place, that stops me on my way home from the corner shop. On a sunny evening flowering grasses catch the light. Something about the planting reminds me of similar free-flowing borders I admired in Berlin a couple of years ago. Not a stiff municipal bedding plant in sight.
And right enough, when I contact Plantforms, Edinburgh garden designer John Frater tells me he spent a week on what sounds like an idyllic gardening course: the Berlin Royal Garden Academy Summer School studying gardens and public spaces in the city. In English. A day with Christian Meyer – the landscape architect who has made his mark with naturalistic plantings across Berlin and many other parts of Germany – inspired John to contact the city council when he got home.
That led to the pilot scheme at Mansfield Place – “a test bed if you like” – which began last year. The aim is to show the benefits of replacing annual plants with a softer more natural scheme of perennials which last for years and, once established, need little maintenance.
It’s a small but perhaps essential step for City of Edinburgh Council and with luck it will go much further. In fact this new kind of planting is beginning to appear on urban roundabouts and city borders across the UK. Under the Sustainability Charter all local authorities must demonstrate efficient use of energy and natural resources and Parks and Gardens departments are no exception. To put it bluntly, producing millions of annual bedding plants costs too much in time, energy, water, waste – and wages.
Now Mansfield Place displays a fine mixture of perennial plants – geraniums, sedums, salvias, spring and summer bulbs – all weaving their way through beautiful waving grasses. The Scottish tufted hair grass Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Schottland’ is the star of the show. “Grasses are the backbone of the planting scheme all year round,” says John “They add height and a soft airyness that can be seen from a distance.” The mix of plants is good for biodiversity – birds, bees, beetles and butterflies – too. And the borders need only a monthly weeding.
Room for growth: John’s picture of the newly planted border last year.
So far so very good. Last year, complimentary comments to the council far outnumbered complaints. This year, as photographs show, plants are bigger and better (most of them survived the harsh winter). In fact the beds look so good I hope the council will gain confidence to let John plant up the whole of the Broughton roundabout instead of asking him to leave space for annuals (in case passers by miss those bright colours).
But that’s far from the end of the story. John, whose first degree was in ecology, has also persuaded the council to allow a more ambitious environmental trial at their nursery. As you can see on his own blog, he is now busy experimenting with seed trials on a spare plot of ground. He hopes to produce a sustainable flowering perennial cover for tricky urban areas like roadside verges and woodland edges. Again there is inspiration from Germany.
So this is a good news story with full marks to City of Edinburgh Parks and Gardens for letting it happen. I am looking forward to following the seed trials – and hope to book a place on one of John’s classes on garden design in autumn and early spring. (And maybe that Englische gartenschule in Berlin!)
July 11th, 2011