Monday, September 20, 2010

Mob rule in Bexhill

It is not often I have to face a baying mob whilst planting. But I did last week in Bexhill – a small and quiet town on England’s south coast, one of those middle-middle places between the better known bohemian/down-at-hill Hastings and trendy Brighton. The town’s chief claim to fame is the De La Warr Pavilion, a superb early modernist building; it’s just had a refurb and of course it is now the surrounding landscape, including a section of seaside promenade which is getting some attention from the local council.

There has been local opposition – there probably has been a failure of community consultation (a mixed blessing at the best of time, see below), but you can’t help but feeling that there are a lot of folk here who just dislike any change - Bexhill does not feel like a go-ahead with-it kind of place. The planting in question was right behind the walkway that runs along the top of the beach – right in the teeth of salt-laden winds and spray. I’ve looked at a fair number of coastal gardens over the years, with varying aspects, and got a good feel for the tough wiry sorts of plants which survive, a lot of them Mediterranean sub-shrubs like lavenders and cistus and grasses. And I took advice from Naila Greene, a garden designer in Devon, whose garden is in a very similar location on the south coast – and is a superb mix of intermingled perennials and low-growing shrubs.

The Bexhill locals who gathered on the other side of the Harris fencing where we were setting the plants out maintained that nothing would survive here. I went out to meet “the local residents”; some of them were prepared to engage in a discussion about what would work and what wouldn’t, but one woman got into a total frenzy and started to shout at me about the whole development, with her gang adding in their halfpenny’s worth in the background.  She was just short of abusive. You end up feeling like a scapegoat for everything they don’t like about the new development, which by the way includes play areas, seating, shelters and shower points - scarily trendy stuff - replacing grass, a low wall and strips of annual bedding.

I suspect there could have been more ‘community consultation’. But this does cost a lot of money  to do properly – which means less to spend on the actual development, and you will never satisfy all ‘the community’. Besides which ‘the community’ have a variety of views, and many of these are conservative, unadventurous and driven by prejudice. I think many of us felt sympathy with the well-known garden designer at a Vista evening who declared “f*** the community”. If all landscape designers were led by ‘the community’ we would never get anywhere further than beds of petunias and grass. My own feeling is that it is important to listen to people: their ideas, experiences of the locality and fears, but at the end of the day, a landscape designer has to be allowed to be creative, without which there will be no innovation.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Awarding Rewarding Plants

I got invited to an interesting meeting the other week, a gathering at the Royal Horticultural Society garden at Wisley to take part in a ten-year re-evaluation of the plant trials system. An interesting gathering – felt good to be amongst so many people who just know so much stuff, mostly members of one RHS committee or other, and a few from the nursery trade. I think I was the only one there who didn’t fit into either category. Felt a bit like I’d joined the grown-ups.

 The RHS awards an ‘Award of Garden Merit’ to plants which it deems “outstanding excellence for ordinary garden decoration or use” after subjecting them to a trial – usually at the Wisley garden. The AGM’s credibility tends to decline the further away from Wisley you go – which is perhaps not entirely fair, as a lot of the characteristics for which something gets the AGM are genetically-determined factors, which will show up wherever the plant is hardy enough to survive. Actually, life beyond Planet Surrey is recognised - to answer an obvious question – a hardiness rating is integral to an AGM award.

As part of some research I did earlier in the year (of which more later in a future blog) I did a comparison between the very different RHS and German systems. They are actually very different, with different objectives; there’s more money for trialling in Germany  I think – how else could you trial something in 14 different places (which include Switzerland and Austria), and the German system is not aimed at an award but a grading (3 stars, 2 stars, 1 star, “for collectors” (i.e. second rate plants for nerds) and then a final grading which I understood to be a polite way of “to the compost heap”. I liked the objective set of criteria which was used to judge the plants in Germany, and was rather puzzled by the lack of anything like this for the RHS system. A certain amount of prejudice as well perhaps – visions of RHS committees of blazer-clad old buffers voting in a post-Jolly Good Lunch stupor are, to be honest, rather a thing of the past. The RHS system seems to be entirely relative, but the reports are thorough and are in fact the very best sources of information on garden plants available.

So there we go. Invigorating to be amongst so many experts, and to have our opinions really respected. Let’s see if this  actually very useful system can be fine-tuned and made even more useful.

Pic above by the way is of ‘Uchiki Kuri’, a Japanese winter squash, a group which does not appear yet to have been trialled; bred on Hokkaido and at 150m up in the Welsh borders the only squash worth growing. Its flavour is also really good  - I suspect its dry matter content is higher than any of the others. 21 fruit from 8 plants and more to come.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

I don't usually do this kind of thing

I don't usually do this kind of thing – summer bedding that is, but with some empty beds in front of my office building I thought I'd give it a go. Specifically I wanted to do something with a Mexican theme; having made a couple of visits to the country over the last few years I wanted to play with some colours I'd got to particularly associate with the place, in particular a very strong carmine pink which you see a lot, in fact my Mexican friend, Dr. Cruz Garcia Albarado, describes it as the national colour. We wouldn't dream of combining it with yellow, but the Mexicans love to.

So, with a backdrop of corn (a sweet corn variety) and amaranthus, two of the crops which fed Aztec and other Mesoamerican civilizations, I splurged out with some outrageously colourful flowers, all bred by the Aztecs (dahlia, tagetes, tithonia, zinnia), or of Mexican origin, nicotiana and bidens. Mostly started off in plugs sown March or April in the polytunnel and planted out May.

A few lessons for if I ever do it again. One is that it is almost impossible to get hold of a tagetes marigold which isn't ridiculously compact, although my friend Blair Priday saves seed every year of a very loose-growing one which would have been better. Same problem with the tithonia, but that might have been my problem choosing the variety. What happens is that compact plants get swamped by the sprawling bidens and nicotiana, quite apart from the irritating parks department look of compact annuals.

Everyone LOVES the zinnias, they don't seem to be a particularly fashionable flower right now, but the colours are so intense, and brings together that real Mexican pink and yellow.

sweet corn
Amaranthus 'Marvel Bronze
Amaranthus 'Autumn Palette'

Bidens ferulaefolia 'Golden Goddess'
Tithonia rotundifolia 'Fiesta del Sol'
Agastache mexicana 'Sangria'
Tagetes 'Legion of Honour'
Zinnia 'Scabious flower mix'
Nicotiana affinis
and although you can hardly seem them in this pic: Dahlias Dahlia 'Gallery Art Deco', 'Princesse Gracia', Bishop of Auckland, 'La Recoleta', ‘Ellen Huston’.