Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The joys of spring

There are surprisingly few good spring gardens around. So often, a 'spring garden' consists of drifts of daffodils let loose in grass. Very nice, but so easy to do, it hardly counts as gardening once its done, just mowing at the right time. Then there are that small number of gardens where there are thousands of tulips, which, given that tulips are generally one-year wonders, means that the cost, not only of tulips but of putting them in, limits this form of horticultural expression to the very wealthy. And in times of austerity, such flaunting of wealth is perhaps a little rude (I remember Prince Charles planting tulips in meadow grass once, I don't suppose even his budget allows a repeat of that gesture; if it is, I look forward to the appropriate peasants' revolt throwing down the gates to Highgrove).

So, I was very glad to finally get round to visiting Olive Mason's garden in Worcestershire a few weeks ago, a garden well and truly full of the joys of spring. She opens for her snowdrops in Feb (for the NGS) and hopefully one day might do later too. A medium-sized and very intensely planted garden clearly relies on clipped box and perennials for its impact most of the year, but amongst these are a great number of bulbs and spring-flowering perennials. For many years, Olive has looked after a severely disabled son at home, and making and maintaining a garden has been something which she could do, whilst caring for him. Clearly, she spends a lot of time gardening, but at the same time it is an example of what I call intelligent management – a great deal of self-seeding and spreading is allowed or even encouraged, and so weeding and other plant control is very much like sub-editing – dealing with the detail.
Corydalis 'G.P. Baker'

Olive's plant management encourages what is key to making a good spring garden which then turns into a good summer garden – integration. Most spring-performing plants have a different annual cycle to summer-performing; they grow at lower temperatures, and by the time they are dying back, the summer species are coming into growth. Their growth cycles are complementary, so it is possible to shoehorn both into almost the same space. Summer perennials, and bulbs, and spring-flowering but summer-dormant perennials can be cheek by jowl. Those which are not summer dormant, such as many primulas, cannot be quite so close, but will still tolerate summer shading by taller perennials. Given this neat complementarity, it is possible to think of having two, completely different, planting schemes: spring and summer/autumn. A summer planting scheme, as it uses larger plants with a longer period of growth, can be the 'main' one, and then the spring planting can be thought of as another layer, dropped on top. The only real points of interaction will be perennial clumps emerging amongst the bulbs and spring perennials; for the most part these will just be blobs of background green, but a few with dark foliage (peonies and Anthriscus sylvestris 'Ravenswing') do look very nice alongside the predominantly blues and yellows of spring.
Primula wanda types seed attractively, low enough to fit in a variety of places.

...even seeding beneath a box hedge.

Visiting Dial Park made me realise how much harder I must work at this. We have plenty of Barnhaven primulas and Primula elatior which is simply the toughest primula out, some daffodils (not as many as I'd like, as so many have rotted off in our wet ground) and a few scatterings of scillas and muscari. Primula wanda will be on the seed shopping list this summer, nicely coloured very short and very spready primulas for seeding around the front of borders and amongst perennials. And I must try harder with corydalis – C. solida clearly seeds well.
Thinking of a garden as a two layer project: spring and summer, seems a good thing to keep in mind, one of those ways of looking, which can be very useful.
Good integration between bulbs and summer perennials in this and following pictures.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The vandal in the park - Margaret Thatcher

Council contractor planting team April 2006. Good people. They deserve better.

Margaret Thatcher had an impact on everything that happened in Britain, and in a way still does. She was not known to have any particular interest in gardening or landscape, but her effect on Britain's public urban landscapes was enormous, and arguably, very indirectly, on a particular era of private garden design too (but more of that another time). Here I'd like to reflect on what she set in motion has affected our public parks and other planted greenspace. It has important lessons.

Those who are not British, were too young at the time or indeed who benefited from her rule (1979-1990) have no idea of the sheer loathing, the deep and visceral hatred she inspired in those at the sharp end of her policies. Change is always difficult (and an awful lot in Britain in 1979, when she was elected, was in desperate need of change), but it was her seeming contempt for the whole idea of community which caused so much suffering and anger. For everyone who admired her leadership and policies there was at least another who found her arrogant to the point of being dictatorial, viciously divisive and intolerant (of opposition and of minorities). After a decade or so of privatising state assets (sometimes to our benefit, but more usually to the benefit of those who bought the underpriced shares) she turned her attention to our public parks – which are a community resource if they are anything, and it is an irony that the privatisation of their management occurred in the very last year of her rule.

In 1990, Compulsory Competitive Tendering was introduced, so that the management of parks and greenspace had to be put put to companies who bid for the services – the most competitive (i.e. the cheapest) winning the contract. The impact was “horrendous” in the words of Ivor Stokes, who had a career in Swansea parks and ended up as Curator of Swansea Botanical Complex. “A lot of young people used to get apprenticeships with the parks... that all went” he recalls. Park services, like the railways, and to some extent the other state-owned industries had something which cannot be expressed in monetary terms – a culture, which passes on knowledge from one generation of the workforce to another, but also shares that knowledge within the profession. Park services used to be run “very hierarchically” says Ivor, but everyone would have horticultural training and people could work their way up. The new system involved contractor companies providing services, with managers who knew nothing about horticulture and unskilled staff, who only knew how to mow and cut, “you had time and motion people assessing jobs, and staff decision making replaced by computer-driven programmes instead... its week ten, so we can to cut all the shrubs now, just the other day I saw some forsythia which isn't going to flower because it had been cut back by someone on schedule”. Horticulture cannot be managed with this kind of dogmatic inflexibility.

Not surprisingly, standards plummeted, young people lost the opportunity to move into a healthy and interesting (if badly paid) profession where there was a real opportunity for progression, and many public spaces simply got duller, less well managed and often more dangerous. I remember in Bristol staff employed by one company (contracted to manage parks) would throw rubbish into the playgrounds (managed by another company), who would throw it back again. It summed up the shambles of the whole exercise. My conversations with parks staff always revealed deep frustration at the lack of opportunity to use and develop their skills, at the way management failed to respect them, and how everything was dominated by the need to cut costs.

Although quality plummeted, the very best parks were rescued, thanks to Baroness Trumpington who introduced a bill in the House of Lords to keep parks of botanical and historical interest in public ownership – hence Ivor's job at Swansea. It was a rare victory in a decade of government assets (which we all own and have some political control over) being sold off, and workforces being made redundant or de-skilled.

The decline in quality in public greenspace, the loss of jobs, the loss of skills and accumulated knowledge was symptomatic of what happened in the Thatcher years. The well-off generally did not notice, but for people who lived in working class communities, who saw factories and mines shut, public services reduced, public housing sold off and not replaced – what they saw was a heartless contemptuous vandalism. Contracting out in the parks was like so much else done in these years, not done to improve quality but done for reasons of political ideology and to save money.

Not that pre-1990 parks and greenspace was a golden age. Not at all. (Small 'c') conservatism, funding cuts and a rather dreary lack of imagination meant that there had been little in the way of innovation for years. I came across a rather interesting survival of this old mentality a few weeks ago. Shouldn't say where yet, until I do more research, but it is a council-run botanical garden that was in danger of sliding into being yet another mediocre park. The council wanted shot of it, sold it to a Community Interest Company who then engaged a business consultant who was passionate about the place. The chap in question has now invested a considerable sum of his own money into the place in order to turn it around. The whole thing was like one of those TV programmes where the business whizz kid goes into to rescue the failing country house or whatever. The entrepreneur described to me the great difficulty of finding out what went on, who did what, when they did it, or to get staff to change age-old working practices, such as working at weekends (when most of the public visit) etc. etc. It was a good example of 'the bad old days' that has given local government in Britain a bad name, and of course helped open the door to Thatcherism. The garden in question will be very interesting to watch. First signs are very hopeful - and again, more later.

There has to be a better way – to modernise the way public space is managed yet maintain flexibility. Germany, Sweden, Holland, France, all have much better parks and greenspace, although all very different. There are different emphases on public and private ownership, but what actually counts is a political commitment to continually improving quality, openness to innovation and a career path for staff.