Tag Archives: Sheffield School of planting

Meadow, meadow. Three meadow styles.

It was like an Impressionist painting but in real life – a pictorial meadow at Trentham

It is compulsory that every garden in Britain have a meadow. Well, not quite law, perhaps, but certainly lore. We have watched the rise and rise of the meadow on our trips over the past decade. The trend is also evident in many European and North American gardens though it is not a style we have embraced in New Zealand yet. For years, I thought it would not work in our fertile and lush growing conditions. It has taken several visits looking at northern gardens to better understand meadow gardening.

In this country, we do not appear to have progressed past the point where we see ‘meadows’ as dense sowings of annual flowers loosely described as ‘wildflowers’. That is plants like the red corn poppies, cornflowers and cosmos, though they are certainly not wildflowers of New Zealand. But there are different approaches to establishing a meadow.

A perennial meadow, the work of  Professor Nigel Dunnett at Trentham Gardens near Stoke on Trent

If you want to see flowery meads at their prettiest, type in ‘Pictorial Meadows’ on Google or Facebook and prepare to be blown away by the beauty. This is the commercial arm of the work that has been done though the landscape department of the University of Sheffield, spearheaded by Professors Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough. It is a whole subsection of the naturalistic gardening movement that is so dominant in Britain and elsewhere today, to the extent that it is now referred to as the ‘Sheffield School’. It has layers of complexity and sophistication that take it way beyond the scattering of a few random seed mixes, predicated instead on sustainable eco systems with a whole swag or research going into their seed selection.

We were delighted by the perennial meadows which were the work of Dunnett at Trentham Gardens near Stoke on Trent, just as we were entranced by the Hitchmough Missouri Meadow at Wisley in its early days. This is wildflower gardening taken to new heights altogether. Their annual meadows are glorious but it is the long term meadows that are environmentally significant. The maturing plantings around Olympic Park in London are an example of those.

Molinia meadow at Bury Court with pink Trifolium incarnatum (Italian clover)

At the other end of the scale are tightly managed meadow gardens. The pre-eminent Dutch designer, Piet Oudolf does some these creations. Beautifully refined meadows of shimmering molinia grass with restrained use of flowering plants. Interestingly, the owner of one of these Oudolf meadows, John Coke of Bury Court, told me that it was the highest maintenance area of his garden, to keep it looking that good. There is a lesson in there somewhere but it looked charmingly simple.

A natural orchard meadow in a private garden in the Cotswolds, designed by leading UK landscaper, Dan Pearson

Maximum brownie points are earned by those folk who encourage natural meadows in their garden. In other words, they stop regular mowing of the grass or cultivating the area and let plants naturalise.  The Royal Horticultural Society does this in large areas now. We particularly noted it at RHS Rosemoor but also in private gardens, often in an orchard area. Over time, there will be an increase in plant diversity in these meadows that evolve with minimal management. It is also the style of meadow that New Zealanders will find most problematic. For we are more likely to judge it as weedy, with rank, overgrown grass.

The problem is that the wildflowers in a natural meadow – be they daisies, dandelions, buttercup or clover in the initial stages – are deemed weeds here whereas they are genuine wild flowers in their home environments. We tend to apply different standards to long grass and wild areas than we apply to gardened areas and ‘proper lawn’, where imported plants are absolutely fine.

Natural meadows have been encouraged in areas which appeared to have been previously mown grass at Rosemoor

What all these meadows have in common is a concern with bio-diversity and ecologically friendly gardening, providing habitat for all manner of living organisms, insects and animals, while looking attractive at the same time. All these meadows are alive with insect life – buzzing with bees and attracting many butterflies along with a wide range of other insects.  The RHS has taken a lead in educating people on the environmental benefits of meadows. Generally, plants as close to their natural form as possible are used (so species rather than overbred hybrids).

A meadow garden is simulating the wild but modifying it to a garden setting. It has some history in English gardening and was espoused by the late Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter. Fertility is kept low to reduce competition from overly vigorous grasses and it is usual to incorporate yellow rattle, a parasitic plant that weakens the roots of grasses. In autumn, the meadow is mown and left to lie for about ten days, allowing the seed to fall. The area is then raked to keep fertility low and left to come again in spring. There is minimal cultivation, no spraying and extremely low intervention.

Our meadow at home is progressing. In autumn, the long grass was cut with our sickle-bar mower and we had some debate about whether we could just leave the long grass in situ. But there was so much that it resembled hay and, in the end, we raked most of it up once it had dried. It may take effort at the time, but not mowing the area every few weeks certainly reduces the carbon footprint and allows greater diversity in that environment. And we love the look.

Postscript:

This is the article that led to my resignation from The New Zealand Gardener magazine – irreconcilable differences when it came to photo selection. The article will not, therefore, be published in the November issue. 

Trentham Gardens again

A garden destination for all tastes and expectations? Trentham in Stoke-on-Trent

Trentham Gardens shows that it can get pretty close to being all things to all people. Even on a cool, grey Monday afternoon, the place was humming. Mark and I have a running gag about the “sense of arrival” at gardens. One day I will explain the origin of our cynicism about this but we worked out long ago that the greatest “sense of arrival” is a full carpark. And on this Monday afternoon, I photographed our rental car so we could find it again later. As an aside, you can have any colour of car you like in Britain, as long as it is black or grey. And one grey rental car looks pretty much like 80% of the other cars.

Trentham had a long and illustrious history before falling on hard times. Very hard times. The splendid Capability Brown lake apparently became the smelly, festering sewer for the Trent River and all who lived and worked nearby – especially the potteries for which Stoke-on-Trent is famous – resulting in the family vacating the grand home. When nobody wanted to take the estate off his hands, the 4th Duke of Sutherland committed an act of great vandalism in 1912 and had most of the house demolished. Why? Many must have asked that question down the years.

Why? The remains of the original house

St Modwen Properties certainly must have asked that question when they took over the property in 1996 and declared a brave mission statement:

“Regenerate and restore the historic Estate and gardens turning it into a premier tourist and leisure destination of national significance.” 

The shopping village – Swiss chalet naff?

Those plans included extensive gardens, monkeys, a luxury hotel on the site of the original house (yet to materialise) and a whole lot more. Are they on track? They sure are. Moving from the well-filled carpark, you first encounter the retail village. True, it is what I might describe as ‘Swiss chalet naff’ in style but it appears to pull the punters and I bet the main street retailers hate it. We are not good shoppers so we passed through quickly.

The Italian terraces where the main plantings are by Tom Stuart-Smith

We were there to see the Tom Stuart-Smith and Piet Oudolf gardens and then we found there were extensive new plantings by Nigel Dunnett. Three modern stars of the gardening scene is pretty good. And add in the David Austin rose border to make it four stars. But if ever there was a destination that fitted the “but wait there is more” descriptor, it is Trentham. There are summer concerts (see my footnote *). We did not go to the Monkey Forest (with real monkeys). Nor did we find the maze or the show gardens or go on the model railway. We should have taken the boat ride because the walk around the lake was closed for some reason so we could not get access to all the new Dunnett plantings. But honestly, there is enough there in the gardens around the site of the old house to keep most of us happy.

Looking across the Stuart-Smith plantings to a surviving original gateway

Tom Stuart-Smith planting

Put briefly, Tom Stuart-Smith has been given free rein on the original Italianate terraces. The planting is typical of his signature style that we have seen – big, bold and handsome combinations. The phlomis, Stipa gigantea, eryngiums, geraniums, tall campanulas and thalictrum all  come to mind at this time of the year. We saw his beautiful terraces at Mount St John in Yorkshire a few years ago and the Trentham plantings are in a similar mode but on a much bigger scale. The earlier photos I had seen of the Trentham terraces had looked a bit bitsy but these have matured to generous plantings that envelop the visitor.

More signature Oudolf than “Floral Labyrinth” and we were a little too early in the season to see its full glory

The Piet Oudolf gardens are styled as the “Floral Labyrinth” – do I detect the earnest hand of the marketing wing of Trentham in that name? Stylistically, they were similar to his work we saw at Pensthorpe in Norfolk on our last visit. Mark describes it as Gertrude Jekyll on steroids – carefully composed clumps of large perennials which will hold themselves up and not require ongoing dead heading, knitted together in a harmonious flow. When I say large, I mean a fair swag of them are shoulder or head height but no taller and a clump may be more than two metres across. We were just a little early for the full glory of peak flower but the veronicastrum and geraniums were lovely and there was plenty of other interest.

Piet Oudolf’s “Rivers of Grass” at Trentham

The Rivers of Grass were charming in a much lower key way. I deduced these were also the work of Piet Oudolf because there is a similarity to the meadow at Bury Court so I was pleased to be proven correct on that. Then I realised that Scampston in Yorkshire also has its Oudolf drifts of grass, though I was unconvinced by that one in a more rigid layout. All seem to use molinia which has a shimmering quality, seen at its best at Trentham on the day we were there, with the subtle inclusion of other flowering plants to add richness.

Dunnett at Trentham

More Dunnett and his Sheffield team at Trentham

The newest plantings are those of Nigel Dunnett and his Sheffield team. The photos tell the story. These are so fresh and deceptively simple. Just a joy. It is the first time I have seen a Sheffield planting that is so tightly colour-toned as the blue border. Consumer demand? Further round the lake, I understand it is more woodland which would have been interesting had the path not been closed because we have only seen Sheffield plantings in full sun so far. What a delight they are. I see their branding is as “Pictorial Meadows” which seems an appropriate descriptor.

The ‘Upper Flower Garden” – oops

What is really interesting on this massive project is that a private business has looked to some of the top designers and practitioners working in the field of contemporary landscape, design and gardening to turn a very old site into a modern attraction. We are lucky indeed that St Modwen, as owners of Trentham, had the vision to go well beyond the obvious Victorian bedding plant tradition. It is a brave decision. If you are looking at a mass market, the reality is that the average Joe or Josie Public is going to be quite happy with bedding plants of the floral clock genre – lots of tidy colour planted in patterns. These are not entirely lacking at Trentham, as witness the “Upper Flower Garden”. I raised my eyebrows at these but I bet poor old Tom Stuart-Smith has to avert his eyes in horror when he stands on this top terrace to get a long view of his plantings out to the lake. But in the hands of a less visionary investment company, this could have been the story of the entire place.

My photos are entirely ‘of the day’ – a snapshot in time. When top-flight plantspeople are given free rein, they are not planting for a small window of time. These are plantings that are designed to take the gardens through the seasons, or at least three seasons from spring bulbs through to autumn colour with a more static picture of winter rest. This is a high level skill but never more so than in public plantings predominantly of perennials, where one planting must gently age and fade gracefully as the next wave of plants takes over. Which is to say that should you visit a month or two months later, the gardens may look very different but should still look as if they are at or close to their peak.

There is a really complex entry charge system, depending on which areas you want to visit (the gardens count as one area). Goodness me, you can even use Tesco Clubcard vouchers (Tesco being a supermarket chain). It is worth looking on line – I found a two for one weekday voucher there though I then felt a bit mean when I used it.

Postscript *I do not want to overstate the evening concerts. In fact I looked at the programme boards and wondered if it was just the one contracted band in different guises. The amphitheatre stage was but modest. Maybe they are catering to a specific local demographic, this year at least? On our last visit we saw Hatfield House in London preparing for a major concert. U2? Or was it UB40? I have waited three years to use my photo of the portaloos at Hatfield. Trentham is not trying that scale of concert at this stage but give them time. I am sure they will be looking at it for feasibility and profitability.

Portaloos at Hatfield House in 2014

Because I had many more photos than I could use on this post, I have added an album on Facebook.

The Missouri Meadow in 2009, 2014 and 2017 (Part 3 of observations on the Sheffield School genre)

The Missouri Meadow in 2009

No discussion on the Sheffield School is complete with the Missouri Meadow at the RHS flagship garden, Wisley. This is the work of Professor James Hitchmough. We first saw it in late June 2009 and it was an absolute highlight of that trip for us. A joy. Inspiring.

The planting was started from seed sown in 2008 so we saw it in its second year. The selected mix had a heavy focus on North American perennials, hence the Missouri reference. It was still low growing and relatively sparse with gravel mulch. It was also completely different to its adjacent plantings – the Tom Stuart-Smith perennial beds that face the glasshouse directly across the lake and the Piet Oudolf twin borders up the slope. That distinction was a defining character of the area.

And again at the same time of the year in 2014

We next saw it five years later in the same month of the year in 2014. It had matured, changed. The juvenile charm had gone but it was still meadow-like with lots of variety and bloom. The demarcation lines had begun to blur as some plants formed sizeable clumps so it was not as clear where the Missouri Meadow ended and the Stuart-Smith plantings started. I think most of the echinaceas had gone. Ain’t that just the way? I don’t feel so bad about our failures to get them established as permanent plants.

And in 2017

Looking at the photos, I think there are lessons to be learned in  terms of the outcome of a very laissex faire maintenance regime. Meadow it may be but whether this is the meadow effect that is wanted is something else altogether. Also the growth habits of the different perennial plants has a major impact Where plants form solid, vase-shaped clumps, such as the day lily and red hot pokers (hemerocallis and kniphofia), over time they morph into a more traditional herbaceous planting where they will dominate more ephemeral plants and choke them out. Plants which gently spread, rather than clump, like the geraniums and achilleas, retain more of a meadow feel in the longer term. Many of these are quite shallow-rooted so they can get out-competed by more determined neighbours. I am no longer clear where the meadow planting by Hitchmough meets the perennial planting of Stuart-Smith so I am only guessing that the kniphofia may be the former and the hemerocallis the latter.

 

2009

2014

Three years on, we were looking forward to seeing the Missouri Meadow again in 2017. Same time of the year (note to self: it is time I booked these trips at a different time of the year). One-Who-Knows warned us that we may be disappointed. I would say more interested, than disappointed.

It wasn’t ALL like this in 2017, but there was enough of it to be a worry

Most of it was no longer a visual delight, though it may well be eyecatching for a few weeks when the aster flowers, turning it into a sea of blue. I am deducing it is A. oolentangiensis, as named on the display board, that has colonised the largest area and is on track to smother everything else out. It would seem a problem for Wisley staff in that they cannot continue to leave the area to evolve because it is in a prominent location, taking up substantial space. Garden visitors are more likely to judge on immediate appearances than take an interest in the evolution of a naturalistic planting. The inclusion of this aster in the original mix appears not to have been a good long-term decision for the conditions and climate at Wisley. I wonder if it has been dropped from subsequent seed mixes from the Sheffield School?

Of course there is trial and error in this new wave gardening and that is one of the roles taken on by the Royal Horticultural Society in collaboration with others. Mark observed that the whole area had been in for nine years, requiring very few resources and, seemingly, little maintenance. If it needs a major reworking once a decade, that is still a lot less input than more traditional perennial plantings in herbaceous borders.

As I understand it, the aim of the Sheffield School is to create self-sustaining eco-systems that don’t require even that level of intervention. It will be interesting to see whether the higher proportion of grasses at Olympic Park overwhelm the pretty perennials over time or whether the current balance is maintained. The extensive recent plantings by Hitchmough’s colleague, Nigel Dunnett, at Trentham Park are currently at the show stopping stage of gorgeousness. More on these in a post to come. No doubt the experience gained from the Missouri Meadow will have been applied to these newer plantings in some way or another. And we will continue to follow with interest what the Wisley staff decide to do with their earlier example of a managed meadow of predominantly American perennials.

The Dunnett plantings at Trentham Gardens are like a pointillist painting from the Impressionist era at this time

There is a quandary in gardening: when you have a style that looks its most appealing and delightful when juvenile, do you commit to returning that area to its juvenility from time to time in the ongoing attempt to recapture the charm? Wisley is not alone in having that problem. I see domestic gardeners do it all the time – hacking back shrubs like azaleas and camellias to ground level to encourage them to “come again” amongst other examples of gardening brutalism. We lean more to celebrating maturity and moving on, probably in life as well as gardening.

Will the Missouri Meadow be developed further or should it be wiped and resown to achieve that early charm again?

Naturalism or prairie-style at Olympic Park (part 2 on the Sheffield School of planting)

From Dunnett at the Barbican, we went on to Olympic Park – the site of the 2012 London Olympics. There was quite a lot of media coverage at the time and everything I read praised the Hitchmough and Dunnett plantings which were strongly naturalistic and meadow in style. I can’t think why we didn’t go and see it when we were over in 2014 so I was determined to get there this time. The perennial plantings presumably went in some time in 2011 to allow them to get established so they must be in the sixth year by now. Some may even have gone in a year earlier. Most of it will have been done from seed. Given this is an expansive area undergoing repurposing after the Olympic hype, I deduced that maintenance of the plantings would be minimal at best. What would survive under a laissez-faire regime?

A prairie! Almost. Maybe. Though I admit I have never seen a genuine prairie. I think of early summer meadows as lush and green. These were more white and golden with a heavy population of grasses already in flower and seed and perennials that have naturalised within the environment. I bet a lot has been lost since 2012, but there are lessons to be learned in what can cope within this competitive environment. The charm within the detail was a delight.

Would NZers accept this as a naturalistic eco-system? I doubt it.

Alas, I am not sure that New Zealanders would accept this as urban landscaping. The cries to mow the rank, long grass may be too loud. We are still mired back in the suburban values of short, mown, green grass with tidy edges and tidy, colourful bedding in amenity planting. If it can’t be mown, then too often it is sprayed. There is a brave new world awaiting us out there. One where the input costs are much lower, the maintenance requirements minimised and where the environmental contribution is hugely greater. It just needs us to take off our judgemental glasses where the managed environment is judged in terms of “tidiness”, to look instead at Nature.

Just a sampling of flowers from one small area

My heart will never sing at the sight of sprayed edges, mown grass and bedding plants, be they in rows, blocks or circles. But we exclaimed in delight as we wandered the areas around Olympic Park. I started gathering the flowers from one area, just to see how big the range was. The hollyhock block I wrote about earlier was on the perimeter of these plantings.

I am guessing that these areas are subject to a very light maintenance regime – probably strimming them back to the ground in winter and I doubt that much of the resulting straw waste is removed. They are not irrigated at all. But I did figure that litter must be removed from time to time because there was not a huge and unsightly build-up of rubbish in the growth.

The colour-toned woman in the sari was serendipity at the playground area

The areas of generous perennial plantings around the playground area were more intensively maintained and visibly ‘gardened’ as is appropriate for the most intensively used areas. Even these were contemporary in style and concept, away from the old-fashioned bedding plant genre.

The work of the Sheffield School concentrates on environmentally friendly plantings which can be achieved for hugely lower costs than more traditional approaches. They are not alone in this position and the acceptance of the need to work with nature, not to bend it and control it to human will seems to be widespread in the UK. A friend tells me much of Regent’s Park is now wide mown paths through meadow land and we have seen similar changes within the Hampstead Heath green belt. There is much to learn for New Zealand but it will be a brave local council that leads the charge.

Again, I have posted additional photos of the Olympic Park area on Facebook.

Around the Barbican (part one of observations on the Sheffield School of planting)

The Barbican plantings by Nigel Dunnett

After a week in Italy and a week in Normandy, we hit the ground running when we landed in Britain. This is familiar territory. We can find our way around without too much stress and we know how most things work. Even the traffic comes from the side we expect so the risk of being run over crossing the road is greatly reduced. And we were very focussed on what we wanted to see. The contemporary directions. The modern trends.

When I use words like contemporary and modern in connection with gardening in New Zealand, I fear people may instantly think of hard edged gardening with mirrors and stainless steel, all those colourful cushions on hard concrete benches and mass plantings of a single variety that used to be seen in UK show gardens. No. No. And no again. Consign that back to the turn of the century, which is nearing two decades ago now. It is time to wake up to the new directions in gardening and in spaces both public and private.

The new face of sustainable and ecology focused gardening

The new focus is about ecology, sustainability, good environmental practice and creating eco-systems that support the diversity of nature – a worthy if didactic approach to gardening for this new age.  The unspoken aspects are where design and aesthetics fit into this somewhat radical approach. That is what we wanted to see.

At one end of the spectrum is the so-called ‘Sheffield School’, under the leadership of professors Nigel Dunnett  and James Hitchmough.  The work coming out of the Landscape Department of Sheffield University is exciting. In a nutshell, this is about lower input, low maintenance plantings that will co-exist with some level of harmony, develop ecosystems and bring visual delight. The skills lie in the range of plants selected (plant communities) and getting these established in the first place. That is a simple summary but if you want to know more, google them.

We first saw the Sheffield School signature plantings in the Missouri Meadow at the RHS Garden Wisley in 2009. I will return to that because in 2017, it is a little problematic and raises some interesting questions.

While there were a lot of kniphofia and phlomis in bloom when we visited, this is layered planting to take the garden through the seasons.

The first place we went to on this visit was the Barbican, having read about Nigel Dunnett’s new gardens there.  I have not been to the High Line in New York yet but I am guessing this is something like the smaller London version of that. A planting in a public space one story above the street. It is more about informal herbaceous planting as derived from New Perennials or the new naturalism than prairies or meadows. The new casual take on the classic, colour-toned and graduated herbaceous plantings that used to typify the best of English gardening. Meandering paths and seats through the garden encourage people to get in amongst it, rather than viewing from the side. We thought it was great. Full of movement and colour and more inviting in this day and age. There was no “amenity planting” look to it, although obviously it is in that category.

Mark went looking for evidence of irrigation to save you having to tramp on the garden yourself, should you visit

We were told that there were weight restrictions that reduced the number of substantial trees that could be used on this elevated site. It was also whispered to us a little later that the maintenance is not quite as light as claimed and that a team of volunteers put in work to keep it looking as good as it does. It is surrounded by high density housing and if some of the residents choose to take ownership of this communal space and keep it looking good, that is surely a benefit. Unlike most of the other Sheffield School planting we have seen, the Barbican must have used plants to start with, not seed. It gives a very different effect. Mark went looking to see if it was irrigated and found only the most perfunctory hose so our guess is that it was watered to get it established but the long-term hope is to follow the principle of planting to the conditions and avoiding a reliance on irrigation. How realistic this is with a limited depth of soil remains to be seen.

I have too many photos to post here, so have put an album up on Facebook if you want more details of this Barbican garden and its environs.

Next post is on the Olympic Park plantings. More prairie than New Perennials.