Category Archives: This and that

The Natural History of Flint

(This blog is the first from Jeff Stephenson, head of Bowles & Wyer’s Aftercare and Gardening division)

From a driveway on the outskirts of Berkhamsted to the chalk seas of the Upper Cretaceous;

When you walk into a garden, do you ever think about where everything originated from? You might find plants from such diverse places as the swamps and wetlands of the Kamchatka Peninsula (e.g. Lysichiton camtschatcensis), the prairies of eastern North America (e.g. Echinacea purpurea) or the coastal forests of Chile (e.g. Fascicularia bicolor). That’s just the chlorophyll containing contingency; what about the supporting cast of hard features; decking materials, manufactured corten steel edgings and natural stones?

In this blog I’m going to concentrate on one of the most unglamorous and overlooked materials we use in gardens. It has been a mainstay material for infilling drainage channels, adding to compost mixes, covering driveways and paths or incorporating into traditionally crafted, regional, walls.  I’m going to share with you what I know about flint. Before I took up horticulture, long before I joined Bowles & Wyer, I studied natural sciences; geology was and still is a particular interest of mine; so when I go into gardens I’m not just thinking about gardening, I’ve also got one eye out for the past; the vast expanse of the geological past.

Flint driveway in a Hertfordshire garden.
Knapped flint wall in a garden in Berkshire.

The flint that you would handle as a landscaper has much more dynamic origins then simply being extracted, graded and bagged. It originates way, way back, over 65-90 million years (Ma) ago during the Late Cretaceous Period; a time when, on land, Tyrannosaurus rex was stalking it’s prey, ancient bees were pollinating the first flowering plants; and in the sea, gigantic mosasaurs swam amongst ammonites and sharks.

What is flint? 

This is the scientific bit; Flint is a particular type of chert that is specifically found in the chalk deposits of the Upper Cretaceous. It is made from the mineral chalcedony, an opaque, unified coloured and cryptocrystalline (micro crystal) form of silica.

What is chalk?

To talk fully about flint, I first have to discuss it’s bedfellow chalk. Have you ever walked atop the White Cliffs of Dover or around Beachy Head? Well the rock you’re standing on is chalk. If you were to take a piece of this chalk, crush it and view the pieces under a microscope you’d find rather unusual disc shaped structures called coccoliths. These were once part of tiny spherical units called coccospheres; the hard calcareous (calcium carbonate) skeletons of billions of microscopic organisms called coccolithophores, a type of marine plankton (they can still be found in parts of the oceans today).

They lived in the upper sunlit reaches of the Cretaceous sea. During this time the supercontinent Pangaea was breaking apart and volcanic activity was producing greenhouse gases which, through increasing global temperatures, prevented the formation of polar ice; leading to elevated sea levels.  As they died they would have ‘rained’ down onto the sea floor forming a lime mud. These sediments eventually compacted into chalk.

Sponge spicules under a light microscope.
Scanning Electron Micrograph of Coccolith plates in Upper Cretaceous Chalk.

How did the flint form in the chalk?

Take a closer look at those chalk cliffs; interspersed in dark hard bands you will find the garden familiar flint.  But where did it come from? From a rather unexpected source. Living on the ancient sea floor were sponges whose bodies contained silica in the form of tiny needle like structures called spicules.  It is mainly the silica from these spicules which, upon the death and burial of the sponges, broke down and enriched the water in the pore spaces of the buried sediments.

These siliceous rich waters then migrated along bedding planes and precipitated out in burrows made by the activity of organisms such as shellfish, sea urchins and worms. Over time and with further burial this material becomes flint. Millions of years of this cyclical process led to the accumulation of chalk deposits within which regular flint bands are found.

How did the flint get separated?

This is where plate tectonics comes in; movements of the earth’s plates (leading to the formation of the Alps) caused the uplift and exposure of these deposits which were then subjected to weathering and erosion. The chalk degrades but the hard resistant flint material gets eroded and re-deposited a number of times through the activity of seas, rivers and glaciers and can be found in numerous deposits laid down during the Tertiary and Quaternary Periods (65 million years ago to present). This is particularly evident along a number of beaches around our coastline.

The most recent part of it’s journey is via human activities; quarrying and extraction.

 

Flints reworked into beach deposits.
Chalk cliffs containing nodular flint bands.

So from a journey of over 70 million years ago in seas where mosasaurs once swam, to a designed driveway to keep your car on; flint has a story all of its own. You’ll never look at it in quite the same way again.

Jeff Stephenson

Horticulture, travel and global imperialism

Vinca minor ‘Bowles Variety’

Most garden designers, indeed most gardeners are aware of the diverse origins of the plants in their gardens. It only takes a brief look at the specific epithets to realise that terms like canadensis, japonica, europaea, lusitanica, etc. are direct geographical references. It is possible to take a swift journey around the globe in a few minutes in most gardens, from Hebe in New Zealand, to Tulips from west Asia, Rhododendron from the Himalaya and Japan, perhaps ending up at Dogwoods from North America. These plants were collected by dedicated and pioneering plant collectors who travelled the globe to bring back ever more exotic fare for the discerning Victorian gardener. their names are also commemorated in specific epithets and varietal names – fortunei, davidii, wilsonii, banksii, etc and of course ‘Bowles variety’!

Much of the time we forget this and simply take gardens and the plants they are stocked with at face value, arranging them in terms of colour, texture and flower period in what we see as a pleasing combination. The more practised tend to look for subtler combinations – planting associations that speak to origin or habitat; it is these that tend to prove the most interesting and longest lasting arrangements.

There are of course other ways in which we ‘travel’ in our gardens: countless references to Mediterranean or Japanese gardens; snippets of designs collected magpie-like from here and there. As a child I remember being fascinated by a grove of bamboo in our local park. It was quite a big area (to an eight-year-old anyway) with paths winding through it. I imagined I was in some tropical bamboo forest – I expected to discover some long-lost soldier at any point. Later (in my teens) I was captivated by Canizaro Park in Wimbledon, which I visited many times – a fantastic garden well stocked with exotics as well as areas of simple woodland. I was transported when wandering around it and felt that I was really somewhere else completely.

Tea – Camellia sinensis

Britain is famously a nation of gardeners. But it was actually our obsession with gardening combined with our growing sea power that led to the birth of the empire. Far-fetched? Give it a little more thought. Let’s start with the spice trade. The ability to grow spices in different locations from their origins aided the breaking of the monopolies. The same with tea – the Chinese monopoly was broken by the English (and to a lesser extent the Dutch) successfully cultivating tea in India and Ceylon (as it was then). In fact, the horticultural story for coffee, sugar, rubber, tobacco and an endless list of other products are closely bound up with colonial expansion. So principally for commercial reasons, horticulturists and botanic gardens were very important to the expansion of the empire. Along with mining and extraction, it can be argued that the European fortunes were almost entirely built on these products.

So next time you site in your garden (perhaps with a cup of tea or coffee?), give some thought not only to the origins of all the plants around you, but also to the broader role that horticulture has played in the development of society, for better or worse, over the last two and a half centuries. Alternatively, you could just be transported into another world by the beauty around you!

Who is Chris Bowles, how did it all start and where do we go from here? (or a short history of Bowles & Wyer)

Presumably, if you are reading this you have heard of Bowles & Wyer, and indeed of me. You may be less familiar with the ‘Bowles’ half of the partnership. Chris Bowles is fairly well known to most of our clients and to many of our suppliers, but less well known in the broader industry. As Chris is retiring at the end of September (to spend more time with cricket!), I thought now would be a good opportunity to give a potted history of Bowles and Wyer, Including how Chris and I met.

Sowing the seed 1984-1992

The partnership’s genesis goes back to April 1984 when Chris and I met on a landscape site in Lower Thames Street. Shortly afterwards I started at Clifton Nurseries as a designer. Chris had been there for a year at that point, having been taken on as the contracts manager following a job in Maracaibo, Venezuela establishing a botanic garden and a brief stint at another contractor in London. By the late 80’s we had begun to explore the idea of going into business together, with some helpful advice from Michael Johnson at the Needham partnership. Although recession in 1990 slowed the process, the break finally came in 1992.

Germination 1992-1994

In May 1992, John left Cliftons to start up Bowles & Wyer, initially called ‘John Wyer – Landscape design and construction’. Both partners had made an investment at that point with me putting 70% of the money in and Chris 30%. Their first big job was a private garden in Weedon, near Aylesbury for one of the founders of Virgin Music. Initially the business ran from Shoreditch Studios in Scrutton Street (we were ahead of the Shoreditch curve!). The following year in April 1993, Chris joined up and the business was renamed Bowles & Wyer, with the share capital being equalised. At the end of 1994 the partners decided to move the office from Shoreditch to Hertfordshire and took space in the attic of a serviced office in Berkhamsted. Turnover went from a modest £80K in 1992-3 to £350K in 1994-5

Potting on 1995-2000

All the construction work in those early years was done by sub-contractors. Meanwhile Chris was out on the mower maintaining our first few gardens, in between project managing the business’s first really large garden – a three acre plot on the Bishops Avenue in North London. Our first really big break came in late 1994, when we were retained by Northacre (still a client today) to design their project at Earls Terrace, having done some design work the previous year for them at Observatory Gardens. Earls Terrace was the job which really put Bowles & Wyer on the map. The project comprised 24 rear gardens and a 160m long communal front garden in Kensington, with a host of construction challenges. It was finally finished in late 1999. The maintenance portfolio was growing and in 1996 we were joined by two old friends in the shape of Jeff Stephenson and Richard Pantlin to form our maintenance arm. The business became a limited company in 1998 and after several moves within the business centre, made the bold move of relocating to our own rented offices. By this time, as well as Chris and me, we had two designers, as well as Barbara Northcott (still with us) on the admin side. Turnover topped £1m in 1997

Chris and me around 2002, taken at the newly completed Pavilion Apartments project for a ‘Gardens Illustrated’ article.

Planting out 2000-2006

This started with a period of rapid expansion, with lots of large and small projects on the go and many new members of staff joining – several still with us today. Stuart Wallace joined us in the spring of 2000 with Neil Percival on the design side in 2002, having started as a summer student the year before. Dan Riddleston also started working with us (as a consultant) during this period. The business growth slowed to a steady consolidation from 2002-2004. In 2005 we had an exceptionally busy year with three major projects in the form of Victoria Square in London for Grosvenor Estates, a country Garden for a Pink Floyd and a large garden in Kensington Palace Gardens for an industrialist. James Smith joined in the same year. Turnover for 2005 reached about £2m

 

A team picture taken in Sept 2006, shortly after we moved into the new offices in Pitstone.

Transplanting 2006-2016

2006 saw two defining shifts in the business. After eighteen months of talks, Dan Riddleston and Matthew Maynard joined the Business with Bowles & Wyer Contracts formally launching in June 2006. This had a slightly different business model, concentrating on construction of schemes for other designers rather than the pure design build model of the mother company. Also in that summer, we had finally outgrown our rented office and made the move to our current location at Pitstone, buying and converting a building to add more space. The business continued its rapid expansion for a couple of years or so until the recession finally began to bite in 2009-10. However, 2010 did see a major milestone with B&W winning the BALI Grand Award for a private garden in Surrey, built with cooperation from all parts of the business. Although we had our problems, after a bumpy few years we climbed out of recession to a more solid and predictable turnover across the group, although individual divisions do still have their ups and downs.

Today

The business is in good shape overall, with strong cash reserves, a loyal and committed team of people and an expanding client base. In July 2017, Chris Bowles stepped back from day to day running of the business, leaving me as CEO. I am supported by an exceptional team including Dan Riddleston, Matt Maynard and Vicky Wyer along with Stuart Wallace, James Smith and Jeff Stephenson. The B&W group is seen by most of the industry as a single brand and is well respected. Group turnover hovers around £5.5m.

And the future

..is exciting! The business is going through something of a revolution at the moment. The management team have written a paper outlining want we want to achieve over the next ten years. From this, we are in the process of developing a more detailed strategy. There are also various different projects running internally which have spun out from this, and I will come back to in more detail in later posts. The first is one on Purpose and Values, which is being run by Vicky. This is really exciting stuff and is all about what drives the business, the values that are common to all the people that work here. The very first post that I wrote in December 2010 talked about this:

“…everyone at B+W has a commitment to high quality that borders on the obsessional. It is difficult to achieve a really good result without staff at all stages of the project being focussed on the same thing. It doesn’t matter how many forms are filled in, how many checks are done or how much snagging. In the end it will only happen because people want it to. This may seem smug and even a bit facile. But it strikes me that communication, training, camaraderie and a relentless focus on quality are the only way to produce consistently good results in the long term. The bottom line follows – not the other way around.”

The values project that Vicky is running attempts not only to capture this, but to define and feed it back in the business so that the values become embedded in everything we do, in every process in the business.

Meanwhile, Dan (and I) are looking at a Capacity plan and Stuart is just to starting an exercise on Workflow and Engine-room. This latter will look at every aspect of the business and involve everyone. The aim is to iron out all the wrinkles, all the bottle necks so that internal stress is reduced (to us and the business!) and customer experience is improved.

Finally, I am going to be looking at Positioning. This is also quite a big one but from it flows brand identity, a marketing strategy and a really good understanding of how our work comes to us.

So – the next few months and years are looking eventful. We have some other plans too, but I am going to keep those under wraps for the moment – you’ll just have to keep reading to see!

Light, time and landscape

When I first started thinking about a career, I wanted to be a town planner. There was something about the scale of it that appealed to the teenage me – the ability to plan whole towns with a sweep of your hand. Later I moved on to architecture, before finally settling on landscape design. These days I am also much involved with garden design. Of course there is much in common between these fields – indeed, all the various design disciplines have fuzzy edges – they overlap and merge one into another.
However, I have long been interested in what sets landscape apart from the others. Clearly, the unique element is plants, but the simplicity of this statement belies its huge implications. A building or any other designed object generally looks at its best on day one. It is closest to the designer’s intentions when it is newly finished. True, with the passing of time buildings (as with most things) develop a pleasant patina of age, but this is incidental to the designer’s intentions. However, landscape architects and garden designers work with a different medium. Planting design is complex enough as it is – a bit like working with an orchestra. Each plant has different shapes, colours textures and requirements. But of course, plants are living things; they change and grow. They do so at different rates and with differing habits. This means that a landscape is constantly changing; it will never look the same twice. Planning for this can be a complex task, made more difficult by the huge number of variables involved. But whilst this makes the task trickier, it also introduces serendipity into the process. I am often surprised in schemes that I have designed by unexpected combinations of plants at particular times of year. Sometimes it is because one has grown more quickly or slowly than I planned or possibly migrated within the planted areas to a different position.
The real joy though is not the long-term changes, but the way a landscape changes month to month, day to day, even minute to minute. Being living things plants react to their environment. Their leaves and branches move with the wind or sag with the weight of rainwater.  And we have all had that sudden rush of emotion when walking through woodland or across fields when the sun suddenly comes out and transforms the landscape in a second, sunlight lancing trough foliage to pick out an area on the ground. Light is integral to how we perceive the world, not just in the obvious sense, but in all its subtlety. Landscape designers lay on this.

I often put tall grasses or lightly foliaged tall shrubs where I know they will catch the late low afternoon light. Early morning or late afternoon light can be very dramatic, but also lends a warmth and softness to a landscape because of its colour.

Good design with artificial light also makes use of this luminosity of foliage. It tends to accentuate both the high points and shadows, but it is the effect of light passing through leaves that gives glowing greens and yellows. This effect needs to be used sparingly, or the abundance of the jewelled colours dulls their impact. Artificial light can also bring a new perception and definition to form quite different to that of natural light. By doing so it adds drama, but the beauty of this is that it only works because it is such a contrast to the natural light we take for granted.

The ability of landscapes to change with time is what drew me to landscape design. And is that very seasonality and freshness that brings joy. We notice and react to change – bulbs bursting through the soil or leaves turning to autumn shades. And no matter how long I have been doing this, the capacity of landscapes to surprise me remains a constant source of delight.

[This post was written as a guest blog for Nulty+ lighting design – www.nultylighting.co.uk]

Permaculture versus my lettuces.

For advocates of permaculture, this will probably make them bristle. Although secretly, they will admit (but only to themselves in the wee small hours) that sharing their lettuces with the pigeons, slugs, rabbits and anyone else that wants some is at best irritating and at worst – well let’s not go there. What is permaculture? It started from a principle first put forward by a New Zealand ecologist, Bill Mollison (and his student David Holmgren) who noticed that the greatest amount of useable biomass in terms of food was produced by multi-layered complex ecosystems such as forests. It has long since expanded to cover a whole philosophy of life and way of thinking.

The three core principles at the heart of permaculture are:

  1. Care for the earth: No disagreement here, right?
  2. Care for the people: Well, that sounds pretty sensible too.
  3. Return of surplus: Reinvesting surpluses back into the system to provide for the first two ethics. Needs a bit of clarification perhaps? This is sometimes referred to as ‘Fair Share’ to reflect that each of us should take no more than what we need before we reinvest the surplus.
Plenty for all - come on down! Although if I am honest, these are not my lettuces. Mine didn't get quite this bad.
Plenty for all – come on down! Although if I am honest, these are not my lettuces. Mine didn’t get quite this bad.

The third ethic – fair share – is a great principle, and clearly life would be a lot better if we all lived like that. However, will somebody please tell the pigeons in my garden? They seem to think that ‘fair share’ means all my brassicas, lettuces and young pea shoots. This year, they have been kind enough to leave me the broad beans (although read my blog post from last year – ‘Badly balanced vegetables’ for other problems with broad beans). They have also pointed out to me on a number of occasions that I can also have the nettles and thistles. Negotiations are ongoing, you might say. Meanwhile, I have netted my lettuces to keep them off and also have some (totally ineffective) cloches over my kale and cavalo nero. This also seems to keep the other interlopers (rabbit and his friends & relations) out of the beds. However, this particular year slugs are taking their fair share. Unfortunately, they seem to take it rather unevenly – a bite here, a bite there – and also once they have eaten their fill, like to snuggle down for a little nap between the leaves. This does not go down well with offspring (or anyone else at the table, come to that).

These are my lettuces - complete with plastic slug collars.
These are my lettuces – complete with plastic slug collars.

My solution has been to use plastic soup containers (herein lies an admission that I sometimes don’t make all my own soup – but don’t tell anyone). I cut the bottoms off them and gently thread them over the lettuces. this seems to work, and it is even a bit permaculturey – I am recycling after all! You might notice in the picture mulching with grass clippings and my irrigation system, which runs off rainwater stored in an IBC (International bulk container). All a bit Bob Flowerdew, but it works! Ignore the weeds please.

Of course this acceptance of intervention is at the heart of gardening and of garden design. Indeed, it is what defines it (see my blog post from a couple of years ago – When is a garden designer a landscape designer?). By making interventions we clearly make conscious choices about what we will or won’t allow in our space. The natural world impinges upon that space; it is allowable if it works with or doesn’t directly undermine our choices. When it does, we define it as a pest. So I suppose what fascinates me about all this is that we are very keen as gardeners and garden designers to cater for ‘wildlife’. As long as it doesn’t eat our lettuces, that is. This same view pervades our view of plants as well. The difference between a wildflower and a weed? Well, the old adage is that a weed is just a plant in the wrong place. So by extension, is a pest just wildlife in the wrong place? Squirrels are OK when they eat nuts from your hand in the park, but not from your walnut tree? Rabbits are OK in a hutch but not (as with us this winter) when they cause several hundred pounds’ worth of damage to newly planted trees – all ring-barked. Do I sound bitter and twisted? Maybe a little, but as least with my soup container solution, the slugs and I can live happily side by side! Maybe they will even eat the weeds…

What’s the point of community gardens?

John has invited me to write this month’s blog post as it is 15 years this year, since we started the Triangle Community Garden (www.trianglegarden.org) with a group of friends around our kitchen table in Hitchin.

Over the years, the question I get asked most often is: what is the community garden for? So I thought I’d try and answer it properly this time …

As many of you will be aware, the community garden movement started in the 1970s in cities, where plots of land lay undeveloped awaiting a better financial climate. High rise populations looked longingly at the waste land and sought ways to cultivate it and use it in the meanwhile. Once these ‘meanwhile gardens’ became established they took on massive importance to urban communities, as oases of usable productive green space and a way of bringing people together for positive ends.

Making a garden, as a community
Making a garden, as a community

At the Triangle Garden our tagline is ‘Connect, Grow, Enjoy!’ and it’s the sharing of the process of growing, creating, planning, gardening, harvesting, baking, making and just soaking it all up, that is what it’s all about.

Many people assume that community gardening is all about food growing, and for many projects it is, but the Triangle Garden has always been about the making of a garden, for everyone to enjoy.

That’s not to say that we don’t grow food – we do – but there are other, equally important, yields to be had. Over the years we’ve shared in the creation of a place of unexpected peace and beauty; a magical place between a busy road and a noisy railway line, with a magnetism for children and a time of its own … a secret garden.

Volunteers have come and gone, and as the Triangle Garden has evolved, so those involved have grown with it. We’ve learnt skills, like willow weaving, composting, pruning, mosaic making, peace-making, delegating, problem solving. We’ve shared wildlife adventures: the discovery of bats, hibernating newts, basking lizards, new froglets, bumblebees, butterflies, the creation of a wildlife pond, a bug hotel and a pollinators’ garden.  We’ve made mistakes, missed opportunities, suffered setbacks, had successes, been inspired, worked hard and had fun.

Volunteers picking this year's apples, and showing off a bottle of last year's juice
Volunteers picking this year’s apples, and showing off a bottle of last year’s juice

This month we’ve been busy picking and receiving donations of apples, to be processed locally into bottled juice, and sold to raise funds. We don’t make much money out of it, but it’s positive and fun, and makes use of fruit that would otherwise go to waste. People can’t wait to give us their apples or offer us their orchards to pick.

They say horticulture is a de-stresser because plants can’t talk back at you, but I think it’s more than that. Working with nature grounds you in a way that nothing else can: nature works to its own agenda and at its own pace – try and tame it at your peril! But when you observe it, try to understand it and work with it and not against it – then it gives back in spades!

One of our gardeners with some of the things she's grown this year
One of our Growing Ability gardeners with some of the things she’s grown this year

Our Growing Ability project for adults with learning disabilities, demonstrates that in abundance. In between the weekly sessions, nature is at work, rewarding our ‘gardeners’ for nurturing their plants and helping to achieve a small step towards a result they can be proud of, whether it be a crop of beans, a bed of strawberries, some bee-friendly flowers or a long-awaited and much-revered aubergine.

For those who attend, the project is a place where they can come together for a purpose and interact with the natural world.

Through planning their crops and tending their plots, our gardeners are learning and consolidating their literacy and numeracy skills, recognising cause and effect, and taking responsibility for seeing something through. From choosing and buying seed, to enjoying and sharing what they’ve grown, there is much to discover, learn and remember.

Growing Ability gardeners and staff at our allotment
Growing Ability gardeners and staff at our allotment

Observing and interacting with nature, even just being outdoors, can be therapeutic – individuals enjoy sharing their knowledge and feelings about the life around them: whether it’s birdsong, butterflies, earthworms, bees or the robin that frequents our allotment.

The social aspect of the project cannot be underestimated either. For some of our gardeners it is the only activity they do outside the house during the week. With no work, no spare cash and a limited circle of people who accept you, life can be very isolated. Sharing one morning a week in a supportive, positive, natural environment is a highlight to look forward to.

Our Growing Ability project has a sister initiative, born a couple of years ago from the desire of many of our gardeners to lose weight and get fitter. Growing Health provides a supportive environment where individuals can learn about weight management, portion control, and how to plan and cook healthy food on a limited budget, using the facilities available at home – usually a microwave and a kettle. The group share cooking and eating experiences, support each other in setbacks and successes, take regular walks together and play outdoor games in the summer.

Cricket with Growing Health
Cricket in the park with Growing Health

In the first year of the project, the group lost a total of 3 stone 12lbs, and this year another 14lbs was lost overall. As well as playing basketball and cricket, and walking together around the park during sessions, individuals are now choosing to walk into town instead of catching the bus and several have joined Hitchin library, making regular visits on foot. At break times in both projects, biscuits have been replaced by fruit as the snack of choice. Impressive stuff .. . and thanks overwhelmingly to our amazing staff team led by Project Manager Liz McElroy.

I must end now, having probably gone on far too long, but that’s what happens when you’re passionate about something…  (just don’t get me started on latin drumming).

Any questions on this blog, please drop us a comment below.

Vicky Wyer (landscape architect at Bowles & Wyer, Chair of Trustees at the Triangle Community Garden, wife and mother to his children,  mad drumming woman).

If this has inspired you to find out more, please visit our website at www.trianglegarden.org.

Our community gardening sessions are on Friday mornings and the last Sunday of every month and are open to all. Our learning disability projects: Growing Ability, Growing Health and Growing Gang (a community-based work-experience project), run during the week from our allotment and the Triangle Garden.

If you’re in the area, come and find us at our next local event: Apple Day in Hitchin town square on 17th October 2015, 10am-2pm. Follow us on twitter @triangle_garden and Facebook: TriangleGarden

Notes from FutureScape ’14 – what do you do if your business plateaus?

Back in the spring, I was asked by Jim Wilkinson, the organiser of FutureScape, to speak at the event, which took place last week. Great, I thought, mentally running through which projects I might talk about.

“The title of your talk is ‘The Way Forward’ ” he said.

“That sounds very grand, what does it mean?”

“Well, last year you spoke about marketing; everybody’s done that now and they want to know what to do next” Quiet groan to self.

However, when I started to think about this, it occurred to me that all small businesses face a similar challenge, and it is one that all the self-help management books don’t really talk about.

It all starts with an idea...
It all starts with an idea…

Businesses start with an idea. Perhaps it is one you have carried around with you for years. Maybe you are pushed into it by redundancy, or maybe you’re just a brilliant entrepreneur. You nurture this idea, feeding it with time and money. You have great hopes for it, but somehow it stays stubbornly stunted. Why is this? Let’s look at the reasons and explore some possible solutions.

 

Not enough work. Wrong sort of work

What most people complain about is simply not enough work. Or perhaps the wrong sort of work? Do other people seem to get all the best jobs – how did they get that?

Well, one answer is to diversify. This could be a matter of selling a different type of product to the same clients – maybe offer maintenance to your existing clients. Alternatively it maybe lateral expansion into a new market – schools or care homes for example.

Richard Reed, founder of Innocent Smoothies
Richard Reed, founder of Innocent Smoothies

The opposite might also be a good strategy. If you find yourself chasing round after lots of small projects with no time to think, perhaps you need to focus. Richard Reed, co-founder of Innocent Smoothies put this brilliantly when asked about singularity of purpose and focus: ‘If it’s too broad, there’s too little focus. But if it’s too small you might not give yourself enough money to grow. So there is a trick to working out what you’re in the business of. You have to work out exactly what it is you’re doing, and do that better than anyone else.’ I must confess to not being the best person at this – I tend to get dragged in to distractions too easily. But I do understand what my core market is, and we are very competitive in that market.

It may be you need to do more effective marketing. Once you’ve got your message and market clear, the starting point should certainly be your website. This may sound obvious, but it is amazing how many small businesses ignore it – out of date, unloved websites are positively counter-productive; they actually put people off. Use quieter times to rethink your marketing material. During a downturn in business a few years ago, I spent the time putting together some A4 landscape format sheets to make a digital (or print) brochure: four or five general sheets, then half a dozen or so case studies. Over the last few years, we have gradually added to these until we have about 80 or so sheets which we can choose from to make up a brochure – although we still don’t vary from 12-16 sheets in any single brochure. Finally don’t ignore networking and social media. These frequently are slow burners in terms of marketing – they often produce leads in unexpected ways.

Finance

cash-wadDo you have too much work, not enough money? It’s a common enough problem with smaller businesses. There is a simple answer to this – put your prices up. It is a straightforward way of slimming down the workload and making more money at the same time. Often, it is surprising how the market reacts to this. Consumers do not always equate lower prices with value as much as they do higher prices with quality. In a market for luxury goods and services, the latter is often a bigger driver. If you can’t put your prices up, then look at your costs – can you buy more cheaply? Could you put more pressure on your suppliers for price? Or trim your overheads – how much plant do you really need? Could it be hired in?

Maybe cash flow is the problem. Most SMEs are pretty awful at credit control, especially in the design sector. It is almost as if they are a bit embarrassed about asking for money. Be proud of what you do and don’t be afraid to ask for payments regularly and on time. If you go out for a meal, the restaurant doesn’t say ‘That’s fine, drop by tomorrow and pay; or whenever you like really.’ If credit control is a serious problem, then one solution that some businesses use is invoice factoring. It can be expensive, but is often used effectively by enterprises that are expanding quickly. Another solution is simply to build up a cash cushion that allows you to ride out the vagaries of the market and still take advantages of opportunities as they arise.

Could you expand if you had just a bit more money? The obvious first stop is family. This has been the favoured way of funding businesses for hundreds of years. It can provide solid funding from somebody who trusts and understands you and is unlikely to foreclose without notice. Failing that, you might think about Asset based lending. This is bascally borrowing against some asset as surety, including intangibles such as future profits. You can find good articles about this at Fresh Business Thinking. Don’t write off the banks either. Since the government has been encouraging banks to lend to smaller businesses (with schemes like Funding for lending, British Business bank, Enterprise Finance Guarantee) they are quite keen to lend money, only if of course they see you as a good risk. One solution that we sought was essentially selling of part of the business to grow the whole. This allows other people to come in and re-invigorate the enterprise and often provides a much needed cash input. Branson has expanded his empire in this way – with almost every step; he sells part of his existing business to fund the expansion of a new enterprise.

Not enough you

Perhaps we get to the crux here – this is why most businesses plateau. They expand rapidly while they are based on one owner, but eventually that person runs out of enough time and energy to grow the business further. The solutions to this are sometimes obvious, but also sometimes counter-intuitive. I found that getting away from the coal-face often paid dividends. Recharging

Spending time with family and friends for a while often allows you to recharge and focus. Equally, instead of working, find inspiration! Go to an industry event, an exhibition or a networking opportunity. This should be a real driver in your business allowing you to absorb new ideas and move forward.

Andrew StraussTo really move the business on, you have to look at how you relate to others in the business and what the culture of the company is. You need to be open in the way you talk to others. I always find that talk to everyone as your equal is a good mantra – and this cuts both ways. Don’t undervalue yourself but also don’t patronise others. And you won’t always be right – Andrew Strauss put this well in a recent interview: “There’s a fallacy that strong leadership is about being right all the time. Actually strong leadership is admitting you don’t have all the answers sometimes, and encouraging other people to think a bit as well. I always think probably the best leaders are those that understand their own strengths and weaknesses the best and don’t pretend to be all things to all people”. I have a friend in Spain who runs a large language school. She runs a session with her staff each week called ‘Challenge Jill’ in which they can ask her what they want and question any of her decisions.

Listen to everyone: talent is everywhere. Ask people what they think; listen more than you speak and you may just find out what your people are capable of. Teams need nurturing. If you value your staff you will get more out of them and they will respect you. Andrew Strauss again: “Good leaders have empathy and care deeply about the people they’re leading. My philosophy is that if you care about them, they’re more likely to want to be led by you”.

Give back – this again is one of those counter-intuitive things. If you have achieved, give something back. Volunteer on a charity project, become a committee member in your professional or trade association, or become a school governor. Often these are self-affirming activities, and it can be great to use your brain for something other than work! They can also be good networking opportunities.

Despite all this, things go wrong. But don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is part of the learning process. I think almost everyone has some event from their childhood seared into their brain, some occasion when they failed. Failure is how we learn, and avoiding making the same mistake again is a huge motivation. Many great thinkers and entrepreneurs have remarked on this:

Coco ChanelCoco Chanel, fashion designer

“Success is most often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is inevitable.”

 

Branson

Richard Branson, entrepreneur

“You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.”

 

Henry Ford

Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company

“Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.”

 

 

Churchill

Winston Churchill, UK prime minster

“Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”

 

Drew Houston

Drew Houston, Dropbox co-founder and CEO

“Don’t worry about failure. You only have to be right once.”

 

 

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison, inventor and businessperson

“I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

“Many of life’s failures are made by people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up.”

JK Rowling says she may have got it wrong by matching Hermione with Ron in the Harry Potter books

J.K. Rowling, author

“Failure is so important. We speak about success all the time. It is the ability to resist failure or use failure that often leads to greater success.”

 

Finally and perhaps most importantly – surround yourself with good people. Stelios Haji-Ioannou (the founder of EasyJet) once said that he always surrounds himself with positive people – negativity is a killer. But there is not point in surrounding yourself with great people if you are not going to share the responsibility – and the glory – with them.

Julian Dunkerton, founder of SuperDryI’d like to finish with a quote from Julian Dunkerton, founder of SuperDry: “Never think of yourself. It’s about your staff, your customer, and your business. You’re tenth on the list. If you’re thinking that you are doing it for a Porsche then forget it, because you’ll never make the right decisions to build the business.”

Urban (notes from the SGD Autumn 2014 conference)

If you put the word ‘Urban’ into Google image search, this is what comes up:

Central Kowloon in Hong Kong: glossy, sleek urbanism.
Central Kowloon in Hong Kong: glossy, sleek urbanism.

A glossy, sleek, landscape of steel and glass. Actually, I think that many people’s idea of Urban is grittier, more individual; maybe even a little threatening. Something more like this:

An Urban explorer
An Urban explorer

The truth is more interesting. Landscape and Urbanism are intimately linked. If you ask almost anyone what is the earliest example of garden design they can think of, they will probably say (other than Eden) the hanging Gardens of Babylon.

new-old-7-wonders-hanging-gardens-babylon-iraq_18308_600x450

This is the only one of the seven ancient wonders of the world to have no known historical location, although it is almost certain to have been in what is now Iraq. The important point is that the very concept of gardens emerged at the same time as Urbanism. Cities only became possible because people moved from a nomadic hunter-gatherer existence to one of settled agriculture. The idea of making gardens emerged at the same time – gardens and buildings are inextricably linked; so one could argue thatwithout cities there would have been no gardens.

Dense medieval Bologna
Dense medieval Bologna

Medieval cities were pretty dense – look at southern European examples that still survive. The same was true in a more haphazard way in Northern Europe, where wealth came later. Significant green urban spaces only began to emerge here with the Agrarian and then Industrial Revolutions, and the explosion of learning that came with them. Buildings began to be taller, partly because of new building methods. Larger scale developments began to emerge, along with ideas of urban design and town planning. These higher densities created value which effectively funded green spaces between the buildings: much of central London with its squares was built in this way. I love this image of Belgrave Square, a chunk of woodland surrounded by a dense urban grain:

Belgrave Square from the air
Belgrave Square from the air

This trend continued into the twentieth century. Look at this wonderful example of Urban design from Darbourne and Darke in Lillington Street, Pimlico. This was the project that inspired me to go into Landscape Architecture in the 1970s. Once again, the buildings justify (or perhaps are justified by) the landscape spaces between. Is this buildings in a landscape or landscape between buildings?

Lillington Street Estate in Pimlico by Darbourne and Darke for WCC
Lillington Street Estate in Pimlico by Darbourne and Darke for WCC

We have tried to follow this route with our own work. Look at this example of dense Urban development in St Johns Wood, below. It is easy to grasp the scale of the space and the way it is shoe-horned (over an underground car park) into a sliver of land between new houses and the back of the adjacent C19th houses.

The COllection, St Johns Wood. Photo: Steve Wooster.
The Collection, St Johns Wood. Photo: Steve Wooster.

And finally, Singapore. Some of you might remember from James Wong’s barnstorming presentation at the ‘Exotic’ conference in spring 2014 his fantastic images of ‘greened’ urban development in Singapore:architetcure-parkroyal-sky-garden-hotel

Here, they seem to have the daring to achieve the sort of things that British Cities achieved in the Victorian era. In our own way, we are still making daring statements in London, such as this huge living wall on the Rubens Hotel designed by Gary Grant.

London's largest living wall
London’s largest living wall

This tied in very neatly with one of the co-sponsors of the conference, Treebox, whose system for living walls has the lowest water and nutrient usage of just about any on the market.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in Northern Europe though is how to deal with the post-industrial age. Nature has its own way of doing this of course. Look at this picture of a deserted, derelict Aldgate East tube station:
_9876013_orig

Duisberg in Germany (by Latz and Partners) is the best known of these post industrial landscapes. Here the gutsy nature of the industrial structures was retained rather than being sanitised, and a series of contemporary uses was found for the former steelworks.

1210_DU-Landschaftspark_DSCF0095_3007x1050

Partick Cullina explored this more fully in his fascinating presentation on the New York Hi-Line Park. This landmark project came about through the intervention of residents when the structure was threatened by demolition, and a design competition was staged. It was won by a Briton, James Corner, a graduate of Manchester Poly like me. There is no doubt though, that the real success of the project is Piet Oudolf and Patrick Cullina’s subtle herbaceous planting.Herbaceous planting on the Hi-Line

‘Grand Projets’ have their place here too, and there is room for both these and the post-industrial renovations like the Hi-Line. Dan Pearson and Thomas Heatherwick’s Green Bridge project in London promises not only to be a fantastic structure and addition to London’s skyline, but also a major regenerative engine in its own right.

The Garden Bridge over the Thames designed by Dan Pearson and Thomas Heatherwick
The Garden Bridge over the Thames designed by Dan Pearson and Thomas Heatherwick

Mudchute FarmHowever, cities are as much about anarchy and the individual as government (perhaps more so?). So within the city grain there is room for outbreaks of individualism. I love London’s city farms such as Mudchute. Who could ask for a better picture than this:

There are also hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of tiny back gardens, each crammed with plants and artefacts in an orgy of individualism and biodiversity. James Fraser’s anarchic gardens perfectly represent the importance of small interventions. These are perhaps more important for the ‘green life’ of a city and together make up the mosaic that is its true character. Here we can all play a part, and particularly the garden design community. Sue Illman talked passionately about the way water (as an issue) links all landscape spaces. How we manage water resources and how that influences the design decisions we make, thus becomes very important. She mentioned CIRIA and its C697 paper (downloadable for free) as a particular resource in this respect, and although some of the thinking has expanded a little since then, it is still a useful source of information.

The true nature of cities therefore begins to emerge; far from being sterile hard environments, they are as much made up of a network of vegetated spaces running through and between the buildings. In fact, more than 50% of London’s area is either ‘green’ or ‘blue’ (water). If we go back to aerial photographs, look first at this picture of Central London, and then one of the whole of London.

Aerial photograph of Central London
Aerial photograph of Central London

 

London from the air
London from the air

It is noticeable from these just how green the London is; it is not just the capital however, Manchester, Sheffield, Bristol, Glasgow and many others are just as green. The world’s largest urban horticultural survey (iTree) was undertaken in London this summer in an attempt to quantify cost and other benefits accruing from trees in the city. And there are many; look at the map below of the density of street trees in the London boroughs from the GLA website. What comes through is not only some of the surprising boroughs (like Southwark, with 50 trees per km of street) but also how haphazard the pattern is: it does not follow the ‘green doughnut’ that one would expect. Investment makes a real difference here.street trees per km London

 

I think what was remarkable about this conference was that at a day devoted to ‘Urban’ we spent the whole time talking about plants and nature. Our most important actions are to create the framework; nature will do most of the work thereafter. Indeed, one of the most interesting threads to emerge from the day was the way in which all the speakers worked with rather than against nature. Sue Illman’s rain gardens, Patrick Cullina’s planting on the Hi-line, James Fraser’s forest gardens and Dan Pearson’s carefully poised plant communities all had the underlying principles of permaculture in common. As Patrick Cullina pointed out, our interventions are important but they need to be finely balanced.

147909d1391704616-i-tree-eco-project-london-dsc01803

The SGD owes a particular vote of thanks to both Treebox and Griffin Nurseries for their generous sponsorship of this conference. We shouldn’t forget that planting can’t happen without nurseries!

Speakers details:

  1. Chairman: John Wyer CMLI FSGD, Bowles & Wyer: www.bowleswyer.co.uk
  2. Sue Illman PPLI director of Illman-Young and immediate past president of the Landscape Institute. www.illmanyoung.com
  3. Patrick Cullina, former director of horticulture at both Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the Hi-Line. Patrick Cullina Horticultural Design & Consulting 894 Sixth Avenue, 5th floor New York, NY 10001 pjcullina@me.com
  4. James Fraser, The Avant Gardener, www.avantgardener.co.uk
  5. Dan Pearson FSGD, www.danpearsonstudio.com

What makes a good chair?

 

Court 2 Seater from aboveA little over twenty years ago, I was wandering around Landscape Professional show in Olympia, Kensington. It had been a long morning and I was feeling tired both physically and of being ‘talked at’ by well meaning people telling me how wonderful their product was. At the end of one of the aisles was a small stand with nothing more than a couple of benches on it and a man wearing a panama hat. The benches had a slightly seductive curved shape, and were just asking to be sat on. Sitting down never felt so good – it was really comfortable. Of course, I was tired – you know how good the most ordinary food can taste when you are hungry? But years later I can confirm that this bench is the most comfortable I have ever sat on – and I have sat on a lot of benches (in fact, I now have one of these in my garden). I was sold. The man in the hat (Simon Burvill) started to explain that the furniture was handmade in the UK from English-grown oak, with a steam bent back giving it those seductive curves. The name of the firm was Gaze Burvill.

Over the years I have specified this furniture many times. The range has expanded hugely to encompass more benches, chairs, tables, loungers and now outdoor kitchens. Recently I revisited the workshop where it is all made – no longer exclusively from English oak, but still all sustainably sourced European oak (French, English and German). It is still craftsman built, although these days helped along by some very sophisticated machinery. The steam bending however, is still admirably Heath-Robinson like.  Steam bending only works on cool temperate timbers which have the right balance of cellulose and lignite. The cellulose softens when heated (most easily done by steam to prevent over-heating and ‘cooking’ the sugars in the timber). This is a fascinating process to watch – see the photos – almost magical to see the solid pieces of timber bend before your eyes.

Watching a piece of wood bend before your eyes is magical...
Watching a piece of wood bend before your eyes is magical…

May throne detailSimon Burvill is still committed to the founding aims of the company – craft-built, beautiful, comfortable furniture from sustainably sourced local timber. The company actively promotes good woodland management and planting of new hardwood forests. Somehow I think they will still be around in a hundred years to see the results! Its the details that really make this furniture though. The junctions, the way lines and planes come together; the simple but elegant fixings and joints. When you first come across the furniture, you can’t help but reach out to touch it.

So what should a good chair be? Comfortable? – tick; Beautiful? – tick; Sustainably/ethically sourced? – tick; Affordable? – well, good furniture is never cheap, but for something that is going to give you twenty-five years or so of pleasure, I think it is great value.

I am just off for a lie-down on my bench.

Court seat