Tag Archives: Travels

The changing face of Kings Cross – the London one.

On our last day in London, we headed off to see the urban renewal project in Kings Cross. Our second daughter had lived in the area for some of her four year London sojourn so I had visited her there, in an ex-council flat. Inner city, gritty urban is how I would have described it a decade ago and I am sure large tracts of it still are. But the greening of Kings Cross has transformed the area to give it a people-friendly heart.

We have no expertise at all in urban landscape architecture and precious little in public horticulture so I make no pretence at doing anything other than trying to convey impressions of the humanising of a former industrial area.

A sandpit in Handyside Gardens

Upon entering a small precinct named Handyside Gardens, what did we see? A sandpit! A sandpit designed to be used by children. I asked the dad’s permission before photographing him with his little boy in the sand. Sure it is surrounded by tall buildings so shade must be an issue, but that is the nature of inner city living. This was an area that had been designed to give a series of intimate spaces with lots of different seating areas. Leading out from the sandpit was a rill or small canal of flowing water which looked clean and inviting for children to play in. Indeed some of the sand had made its way into the rill. “Wait til you see the fountain,” said the father in the sandpit.

And a rill, or canal

We wandered our way along, noting all the different seating areas and planting that was not out of the usual School Of Bedding Plants and Floral Clocks. These plantings are the work of Dan Pearson whom I have mentioned before although his involvement in the entire project goes well beyond just the planting plans. It is therefore no surprise that there was a mix of material which shows that pretty seasonal plantings are possible even when the brief includes functionalism and practicality. There were plenty of scented plants though a high mortality rate on recently planted trachelospermum jasminoides suggested that somebody may have planted out a whole lot of nursery stock that had been grown under cover and not hardened off.

As we walked along, we saw a few sodden children in their togs (bathing suits) and towels walking towards us. We rounded the corner and there, truly, was an amazing sight. The fountain in Granary Square. It was large and safe for playing. The seating around was occupied by parents watching their children as the water danced in sequences, sometimes stopping altogether for a brief moment, sometimes shooting high and then in waves across the area. It was magnificent. And safe fun. An urban beach, of sorts. Our kids would have stripped off and been in that water like a shot when they were young. It wasn’t exactly tropical on the day we were there but clearly kids still love water play. At night it lights up – 1000 different points of water and light.

The fountain installation in Granary Square was fantastic

A lull in the water

 

The skip garden. Look at that magnificent glasshouse made form recycled window frames on the right.

Further on we found the skip garden, a movable community garden supported by students at the Bartlett School of Architecture. Unfortunately the skip garden café was closed on the day so we couldn’t try the locally produced fare.

From there we wended our way round to the Gasholder Park, a major redevelopment utilising the old gas tanks for upmarket canal-side apartments and green space and gardens open to all. There is serious money going into this redevelopment around Kings Cross and plenty more information on line if you wish to look it up. The somewhat remarkable impression is that it is not just serious money to cater to the wealthy; it is serious planning to provide an enhanced living environment for all which seems unexpectedly inclusive in this day and age.

That is a floating nest and the background is green canal water

London has a major network of canals and Mark was shocked every time at the water quality and the rubbish. According to our London friends, ‘wild swimming’ is the rage. That is swimming in ponds, lakes, rivers and canals. We have plenty of issues with water quality in New Zealand, but all I can say is you would be a brave or drunk fool to want to swim in London canals. And you would not be wanting to enter those cesspools with any open wounds or even scratches. Maybe there will come a day when  the city canals get cleaned up and no longer used as a receptacle for rubbish. Then the birds may not line their nests with plastic waste.

There was lots more to see around the Kings Cross area but it was time for the flights home. For those who have never done it, this involves around 25 hours flying to New Zealand. It is usually done as two long haul legs of a bit over 12 hours each via Asia (or the USA if you are unlucky) or 7 hours and 18 hours via Dubai or one of the other Arabic emirates. It is not fun.

There is an album of additional photos posed on our garden Facebook page for those who may wish to see more.

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A day at Wisley

An attention grabber! The Pink Pantser in the RHS Wisley glasshouse.

We like to end up our UK garden trips at Wisley, the flagship garden of the Royal Horticulture Society about an hours south from London. It gives a context to what we have seen and it is interesting to look at the evolution of some of the recent plantings and reflect on styles and designers over time. The twin Piet Oudolf borders are a personal favourite. And they are certainly standing the test of time with considerably lower input than the classic double herbaceous borders. They were not without controversy when first planted in 2000. I still recall talking to an English visitor in our garden here. I commented that we were heading over to the UK to look at contemporary planting directions and he replied disdainfully, asking if we would be planting in a herringbone design as they had at Wisley.

The Oudolf borders July 2, 2017

The Piet Oudolf borders are not in fact a herringbone design and when we got to see them, they were a delight – soft rivers of colour. Those rivers give a sense of form to a garden which has no hard landscaping. In case you are interested in the background to these borders, I quote the instigator of this planting. “I started talking to Piet about these borders in 1997 with plans agreed in 98/99 with planting using 17000 9cm plug plants in Jan.2000.The only significant change to Piet’s maintenance regime was to mulch the entire borders with 6mm quarried gravel in c.2004 to a depth of c.60mm.This was `topped  up` in 2009.”

And back at the same time of year in 2014

There is considerable restraint and knowledge in the selection of plants. It is a lot more than just picking for flower colour. Obviously, compatibility in growth habits is an issue but so too is a high level of uniformity in height, an ability to stay upright without staking, repeat flowering without the need to deadhead and a succession of blooms and foliage interest from spring through to autumn. Allied to that, there is no place for dominating thugs in this type of planting, nor for prolific seeders. I would guess a fair proportion may be sterile (in other words, not setting viable seed) which usually prolongs flowering, eliminates seeding issues and keeps the plants true to type. When we did a count on our last visit, we estimated a proportion of about 3 perennials to each grass in these borders. Each river of colour is comprised of just a few different plants. I think it was looking at the composition of several rivers that led us to the 3:1 ratio. The borders have to work equally well viewed looking up or down the slope and also close up, so the individual combinations of plants are as important as the mass effect. For those readers trying to keep echinaceas going, over time these borders have apparently shown that E. pallida is short lived while E. purpurea is longer lived. It is multiple visits that help us to understand better how these plantings are put together and managed. You can never take it all in on just one visit.

Detail of one river in the Oudolf borders

I posted earlier on the Missouri Meadow as observed over our visits.  In 2014, we saw the new South African meadow in its infancy. This is Professor James Hitchmough again, as was the Missouri Meadow but in this case, the focus is on South African plants, not North American ones.

 

South African meadow 2014

and three years on in 2017

Three years on, the dominant plant at this time of the year is the eye catching Berkheya purpurea, which Mark covets for our garden. It is a thistle. The maintenance regime on this meadow is clearly more hands-off than the Oudolf borders. It will be interesting to see it again a few years’ time. With agapanthus, kniphofia, crocosmia, nerines, geraniums, eucomis, osteospermum, gazanias and more, there is quite a mix in there including a few that would be thugs in our climate. We love these meadow plantings and find the range of meadows illuminating but our London friends (one a keen home gardener) could not relate to the whole idea of a South African meadow in this context. So that was an interesting response.

These friends had recently been to Great Dixter and expressed surprise at Christopher Lloyd’s dramatic ‘subtropical’ garden being taken out and seeing conifers going back in instead. It became a little clearer when we came across the Wisley project along similar lines. The conifers are being used as a framework for subtropical plantings. This is not a combination that would ever occur to a New Zealander but we will reserve all judgement until we see the finished product. Sometimes it is good to be surprised. Conifers are long overdue a revival and who knows? Maybe a new combination will launch a new fashion. Or maybe not.

Tom Stuart-Smith plantings were a delight

There is so much more to Wisley. The Tom Stuart-Smith plantings in front of the glasshouse really appealed to us this visit. They had seemed a little ‘blocky’ and amenity in style when young. Now the combinations and the relaxed style of mature plantings is a highlight. The trial grounds included both echinaceas and nepetas as well as coloured lettuces. The national collection of rhubarb never fails to amuse – though more the concept of it than the reality, I admit. I have posted an accompanying album of more photos to Facebook again. It starts with the succulent cake and ends with the Famous Five and the issue of whether George was a boy or a girl.

Impressions of Parham – horticultural excellence

The white border at Parham

Parham was the only garden we went to on our recent trip without knowing anything about it in advance. As a result, while I have a fair number of photos and recollections, I lack an overview, a wider context. There is an interesting lesson for me there on future trips – we learn more if at least one of us does a bit of advance research on the destination. When we live so far away, making a second visit is unlikely so we need to short circuit the familiarisation step to have any hope of getting beneath the superficial.

The yellow border at Parham

That is why I only offer this as ‘impressions of Parham’. Just for context, it is a private house, garden and estate in Sussex that opens to the public. They say house. We New Zealanders are more likely to describe it as a mansion. Or stately home, at least. Big, historic – Elizabethan in fact. That is the sixteenth century one, not last century’s one who is still with us. We did not tour the house. I did not even think to photograph it. Nor did we look at the estate, a 16th century deer park and working farm, or test the on-site café which serves locally sourced food including from the garden. I can report that the plant centre had some of the best displays I have seen in a garden centre and good plants on offer and that the gift shop was better than many I have visited and not exorbitantly priced. I bought myself a souvenir – a pretty milk jug with Redoute’s roses on it.  I don’t even think we found the Pleasure Grounds. It was just the extensive walled gardens that we looked at. But, as you may gather, this is a multi-faceted operation which has to work hard to keep it financially viable and in private ownership.

There was a team of seven hard working gardeners though I can’t tell you if they are all full time. We met the head gardener because he did his apprenticeship under the eye of our friend who took us there. Britain still has an enviable tradition of training professional gardeners. I have seen a few gardeners at work when we have been out touring, and I can tell you that these Parham ones were hard workers and focused on tasks to hand.

From memory, they are required to provide 30 buckets of blooms to the big house a week. That is a huge amount and they must be hard pressed in winter. But the production of both food and cutting flowers was impressive – highly productive, in fact. Also done without chemical sprays.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The herbaceous borders were another modern take on classic design and techniques. The blue border was the most recent to have had a major makeover and it certainly looked glorious. I complimented the woman in blue whom I photographed strolling through the border, for her superb choice of toning colours. The yellow border was less flowery on the day but carefully composed and  easy on the eye. The shorter white border was also at peak border perfection that the Brits can do so very well. If there was a red border, I missed it entirely but I do not think there was.

Along the back wall – for this is all contained in a walled area – were the hot, vibrant colours and combinations, many of which were designed to zing.

Some of the statuary was… very white. Not necessarily to my taste. Some were more subtle than others. This was not. I am sure there will be somebody out there who can explain the significance of this figure and the inscription he is marking out with his finger.

Railway tracks of blue nepeta that many of wish we could achieve in NZ but rarely succeed

What we saw of Parham’s gardens were predominantly herbaceous or productive and sometimes both at the same time. They were not flashy or even particularly innovative, but they were very good. It is an example of high level horticultural excellence. Presumably it is tourism, both domestic and international, that enables a private estate such as Parham to maintain this level of excellence.

If you want to see more photos and get more detail, I have matched again to an album on our Facebook page.

Postcards of Devon

The hunt dogs! Or hounds, I have just been informed (see reader comments below). Indubitably hounds. Out for a morning run on a Devon lane with their keepers on bicycles. Beautiful hounds, so very well trained and an interesting scene but still incomprehensible to me. English garden media personality and writer of steamy romantic novels, Alan Titchmarsh, may defend foxhunting on the grounds that it is, apparently, a traditional part of country life – country life, that is, as experienced by the toffs who cry ‘tally-ho’, not so much a traditional pursuit for the peasantry. But tradition alone is not a justification for anything, really.

It was interesting to be told elsewhere that the keeper of another pack of hounds had recently resigned because, he told my informant, he was worried by how often he was expected to break the law. Apparently, foxhunting may just have become more covert and is sometimes justified on the grounds of an upsurge in the population of foxes. Hmmm. The failure to institute other, more humane strategies of population control is a dubious justification for a savage method of hunting a terrified animal to the point of utter exhaustion and then letting it be torn apart, all for the pleasure of privileged humans who regard it as “sport”.

Lovely dogs, though.

The Devon roads can be notoriously narrow, though they are by no means alone in that. These roads can carry more traffic than the upgraded, single carriageway that passes by our place at home but there does not appear to be an uproar with loud demands that they be widened, straightened and allegedly made ‘safer’ for cars and trucks. It means drivers must be fully alert, dropping speed to meet the conditions, courteous and capable of backing up to the passing bays that are dotted along these roads. It is a very different ethos to the aggressive driving on New Zealand roads. If we were more defensive, tolerant and patient drivers, maybe our corner of the world would be a better place?

We went to south Devon to have another look at one of our all time favourite gardens – Wildside. More on this garden in a future post, but it is on the edges of Dartmoor. It rained on our day there, though fortunately it was not cold. There is a certain evocative gloom to the open moorland on a grey day with low light levels. Because I have always done my reading from across the world in New Zealand, the geographic location of different moors is hazy at best (though I think I have the heaths and heathers of Scottish moorland separated in my mind). I kept thinking of the likes of Daphne du Maurier but I see she set ‘Jamaica Inn’ on Bodmin Moor which is the next one down and Dartmoor belongs to ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’. But one can imagine this landscape with the bleak winds of winter blowing across it and it certainly has its own identity, including the roaming stock and lack of fencing.

While in the area, we headed over to see the RHS garden, Rosemoor. The original garden and accompanying land was gifted to the RHS by Lady Anne Berry, now a long-time resident of Gisborne. Lady Anne had been particularly kind to us in our earlier years so we were pleased to finally get to see Rosemoor. While the traditional rose garden left me unmoved, the rose and clematis combinations in the adjacent garden enclosure were a delight.

I make Mark pose for vanity photos beside what we call ‘Jury Plants’ as we come across them around the world. Part gentle boasting, part family record. In this case it is Phormium ‘Yellow Wave’, bred by his father Felix and one of the first generation of variegated flaxes for home gardens. He never received a cent for it (or a penny, as it would have been back then) and is rarely credited with it. It is not easy to keep good foliage on phormiums in New Zealand so Felix moved on to astelias and then clumping cordylines in his attempts to get an extended colour range into plants with this habit of growth and foliage. Eventually, this led to our Cordyline ‘Red Fountain’ but Phormium ‘Yellow Wave’ continues to hold some ground internationally.

Still at Rosemoor, the herbaceous plantings are terrific. If you are looking for a middle road between the traditional herbaceous border and the grassy new wave look of Oudolf, Stuart-Smith and New Perennials proponents, you probably end up with something closer to these Rosemoor beds and borders. Lots of vibrant colour and care with combinations, often quite tight colour toning but also lighter on plant options that need continual maintenance to keep them flowering and looking good. However, these are herbaceous plantings for large, public spaces, not so much for downscaling to the home garden. You can see more in the album on our Facebook page if you are interested.

A perfect garden?

The elliptical pool reflecting the house

Is there such a thing as a perfect garden? I would have said no until we visited a private garden in a little village in the Cotswolds. It was as close to perfect as I have seen.

Let me explain what I mean when I say perfect, by starting with what I don’t mean. I don’t mean it is the best garden that I have ever seen or the most exciting one – we don’t rank gardens like that. Nor that it is static and frozen in time. It is anything but. What I mean is that on the day we visited, it was a garden in perfect harmony where all the elements came together at the same time.

I would list those elements as:

  • the owners’ expectations, wishes and lifestyle
  • the designer and his design within the particular location
  • the plantings
  • use of colour
  • the hard landscaping
  • the underpinning infrastructure,
  • the maintenance of the garden
  • and the incidents of surprise and delight.

All these elements were in balance, to an extent that I have not seen before. There were no jarring notes.

The designer is Dan Pearson, a gentle tour de force in the contemporary gardening scene. He has a strong focus on enhancing nature by working with it, bringing a naturalistic philosophy to his gardens.

To set the scene, from memory the owners told us it is an acre in size. It is flat and Pearson took it back almost to a blank canvas. With the typical Cotswold two-storeyed cottage in the local golden stone being on the road side of the site, the body of the garden has four distinct sections, three of which feature water. The first is by a charming stream boundary and centres on a large elliptical pool with restrained plantings. The second is a formal garden built around a canal, with a dining area closest to the house. The third is the most spacious and contains a swimming pool. It was apparently the first garden Pearson had done that included a swimming pool and he was not keen. I can understand why. Pools are awfully difficult to integrate without turning it into the Miami look. But this pool was beautifully executed, though that is easier when you don’t have our laws requiring childproof fencing close in on all swimming pools.

The fourth area contains contemporary block plantings adjacent to another outdoor entertaining area.

The swimming pool and meadows

 

The canal garden

There is a feeling of timelessness, particularly in the canal garden, that I attribute to the proportions the designer has brought to the space. We had been thinking about issues of space, proportions and symmetry in Italy the week before. It is those which make classic Italian gardens classic. Looking at it in a much smaller-scale domestic garden reinforced the view that this is what you can get if you choose the right designer. The key word is “can”. It is not guaranteed from all designers but I will say that it is even rarer to see an amateur gardener achieve this. That confident use of space and proportion underpins everything but done really well, it is not obvious.

What I call the ‘hidden infrastructure’ of the garden is well camouflaged to the point where it was not apparent at all. Again, attention to detail is paramount. There is no pond lining visible on the elliptical pool. I asked and the pool is made the old fashioned way, presumably with clay lining to remove the need for an unsightly pool liner. I did not spot a single skerrick of plastic anywhere in the garden. No cheap solar powered lights either.  There were no visible hoses hanging about, no clumsy afterthoughts of garden edgings. The swimming pool filter was housed out of sight. The motorised pool cover was near to silent and the wiring was hidden. The compost bins and inevitable wheelie bins were discreetly housed. Everything had been thought of. We fall well short of that in our own garden but we admire the impressive attention to detail.

Look at the attention to detail on the dry stone walls

The visible infrastructure – more commonly called the hard landscaping – was beautifully executed to the highest of standards. Just look at the wonderful oak-framed arrow slits in the new stone wall.

The maintenance of the garden was unobtrusive but immaculate. Britain has a long, enviable tradition of training professional gardeners. Not for them the experience of the self-claimed garden maintenance contractors. An Auckland friend ruefully noted recently that “The woman doing my “gardening” was moved to “prune” my daphne last month. I will have a daphne-free winter.” These are high level skills that keep this Cotswold garden in peak condition and true to the original vision while meeting the owners’ expectations. There is a wonderful eye for detail and a sure hand in knowing what to leave and what to ‘edit’, as is said in modern parlance.

Roseraie de l’Hay, I think 

The plantings were botanically varied but more restrained than the current UK fashion for large and vibrant perennials in ever more shocking colour combinations – and probably easier to live with for that. But I appreciated the unexpectedness of colour – the bright golden aquilegias and the  yellow Clematis tangutica, the latter combined with red crocosmia. A less bold planting would have gone for the safe but cliched option of the white rugosa, Rosa Blanc Double de Coubert, rather than the bold, deep cerise of what I assume is Roseraie de l’Hay.

This is a garden of charm, restraint and timeless elegance. It has the good bones that may allow it to endure down the decades. On the day, for us, it was simply a delight of gardening perfection.

Again, I have posted an additional album of photos on Facebook for those who would like to see more pictures around the garden.

Even the wheelie bins and compost bins were screened from view by dry stone walls. 

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.

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.