Light touch landscape design – lessons from Croatia in combining large numbers of people with sensitive landscapes.

As some of you are no doubt aware from my social media posts, I went to Croatia earlier this year. I say that because I had more comments than almost anything else I had put on Instagram in recent months. All the comments from people said the same things – ‘I had no idea that the national parks there were so beautiful!’ There were some who said things like ‘Another cocktail?!’, but we will gloss over those.

Water – and waterfalls abound in Croatia’s Plitvice and Krka National Parks. The Tufa geology allows for some spectacular formations.

The national parks in question were the Krka National Park and the Plitvice Lakes National Park. Of the two, the Krka is the smaller and more recent, but also much more accessible from the coast, which is the where main concentration of tourists travel from.

Examples of some of the combinations of landscape forms that make up the parks’ scenery.
Typical tufa formations brought about by accretions of calcareous deposits from the water. This picture is of a naturally abandoned river course.
There are huge number of insects in the parks, both predators like these but also many pollinators.

Both represent very good examples of typical Karst topography and Calc-sinter formations. These are relatively rare in river formations but similar features in lakes exist elsewhere in the world. This sort of topography is both breath-taking to see and rich in biodiversity. Eight hundred and sixty species and subspecies of plants have been identified within the territory of the Krka National Park. The Plitvice Park alone has 55 species of orchid.

Because of this, visitors are a problem. Over one million people visit Plitvice every year, which is incredible given that most of it is either water or inaccessible rock cliffs and slopes. For this reason, if you are intending to visit, I would stick to early in the season or leave it until autumn. If you must go in the summer – get there early!

The boardwalks wind through trees and water in a very picturesque (if sometimes nerve-racking) manner

These people are accommodated through a network (around 18kmin total at Plitvice) of timber boardwalks. These are cut from local timber sources and maintained on a rolling basis by a dedicated labour force. There are many advantages to this.

Firstly, it is a natural limit to the number of people that the Park can accommodate. There is only the walkway. If you step to one side or the other is it generally water or a towering rock face. At times this can be quite scary as you can see from the photos!

Secondly, it allows large numbers of visitors to be funnelled through the park with minimal physical impact on the landscape in the way of actual footfall.

The boardwalks are relatively low impact, although there is some evidence of damage to the substrates from the timber stakes. The Park Authorities are currently exploring alternatives

 

The walkways themselves are relatively low impact. I say relatively because there are some issues with this. The original walkways (particularly in Plitvice) were put in place decades ago using wooden stakes driven into the substrate. This has caused some degradation of the tufa layers beneath and the Park Authority is now moving towards less invasive methods such as pontoons. Interestingly, the timber walkways are very similar in concept to those on Reed Hildebrand’s ‘Half-Mile Line’ project (link here opens in separate tab). There, RH used simple metal screw-piles into the soft substrates, but here I suspect that even those might cause damage. Either way, the timber walkways have a low environmental footprint – locally produced, sustainable and biodegradable.

The walkways can be exceptionally beautiful as they dip beneath trees and swing past bodies of water.

They are also exceptionally beautiful. There is nothing quite like the curve of one of these walkways across a march or lake or nestled against a cliff. And some of those that swing almost rope-bridge style across the falls are genuinely awesome. These walkways allow you to get right in amongst the landscape and its flora/fauna. Somehow you are both a participant and observer at the same time. These parks left a deep and lasting impression on me.

Calming the Chaos

The following is a blog from Max Harriman, one of the most recent (and talented!) additions to our design team at Bowles & Wyer. You can reach him on Max@BowlesWyer.co.uk. The garden is currently under construction and due to open next week – please visit!

A hi-view perspective

‘Mental health’ is the buzzword of the moment, and for good reason. One in four people in the UK will suffer a diagnosable mental health problem each year [1]. Unsurprisingly, the prevalence of anxiety and depressive disorders increases by up to 20% for urban dwellers [2]. Urban life is stressful; increased social stresses, high population densities, disturbed chrono-biological rhythms and increased pollution are all major contributors. However, a surge of recent research has also pointed to the link between poor mental health and the lack of contact with the natural world or ‘Green Space’.

Plan of the Tatton garden

On 2nd July I, and a team from Bowles & Wyer, began the build of a show garden of my own design selected to compete in the Young Garden Designer of the Year competition. The competition, run by the RHS, allows the opportunity for aspiring designers just starting their careers, to exhibit a show garden for a chance to win the coveted title. This year’s theme for the competition was to design a garden that highlights the benefits plants and gardening have on health and wellbeing. I decided to focus primarily on mental health, designing a garden to maximise the restorative benefits green space has on our mental fitness, particularly for those of us living in the urban context.

A perspective view of the Tatton garden from the front

My garden ‘Calm in Chaos’ was inspired by scientific literature surrounding the subject as well the realisation of the importance of green space in the urban environment having moved to London two years ago. The stresses of urban life are pacified when in the garden, transporting the guest far from the hustle and bustle to a woodland-like setting. Design elements aim to distract and absorb the guest, to take their mind off the associated stresses of city life. The garden is also designed to prolong the time the visitor spends in the space, therefore maximising the effects of the associated restorative benefits.

An elevation of the garden at Tatton from the front

I designed the garden around four main elements of the natural world that have been proven to have a positive impact on mental health in the urban environment [3]. The first is the feeling of ‘being away’ or removal from the city hardscape, which goes hand in hand with the second, the notion of scale or the feeling of extent in a space. Overthinking or rumination is a common symptom of mental health problems, so the third element is fascination or captivation to distract the guest’s attention away from the stresses of urban life, if only for a moment. Finally, the last intended element of the design was accessibility. I wanted the green space to be useable and inviting to encourage entry and therefore exploitation of the positive effects the garden would generate.

Escape

Gardens have the power to transport us to another place, which is the one of the main concepts behind ‘Calm in Chaos’. By using visual cues, for example planting style, the guest is psychologically removed from the urban setting. The feeling of escape on sight of the garden, and then once crossing its threshold, hypothetically would increase the uptake of restorative benefits. The path in the garden is made of compacted gravel to convey an ‘off the beaten track’ aesthetic far removed from the concrete and tarmac constant of urban life. The naturalistic woodland style of the planting is adopted to give the visitor the impression of being as far removed as possible from city life. A woodland planting palette was also chosen as walking through woodland has been proven to be an effective preventative health care measure: lowering blood pressure, reducing stress hormones and boosting the immune system.

Extent

Space in cities is scarce, and green spaces even more so, therefore ‘extent’ or an impression of scale was an important element of the garden to address. The winding path is essential to the design; snaking and meandering through the garden, it maximises the space and increases the sense of scale. The main feature of the garden is the series of timber posts that frame this winding path. The posts create a porous barrier through the space that only allows small glimpses through certain areas, adapting to the moving perspective of the guest as they walk along the path. The dynamic concealing and revealing of views in the garden is designed to give the impression of a larger expanse of space.

Distraction

Taking your mind off something is not always an easy task, especially for those who suffer from anxiety and depression. The natural world, however, is full of ‘soft fascinations’- things that can hold your attention in an effortless fashion such as waves hitting a beach or rustling leaves. Therefore, ‘distracting’ elements were a significant consideration whilst designing the garden. Planting in the garden was designed to include a multitude of leaf forms, shapes and textures (much like a natural woodland) to visually stimulate guests. Increased fascination distracts guests from their urban stresses, makes them pause, slow down and ultimately increase the time spent in the garden. The posts, obscuring views whilst opening up new ones, are designed to entice and captivate visitors. The calming effects of water are also well documented, increasing creativity as well as possessing restorative qualities of its own. Water evokes a child-like fascination in all of us and people are generally attracted to it, so I have placed a reflective water dish central to the garden.

Accessibility

Compatibility of urban green spaces and its intended use is important. I often notice public green spaces that are not only unimaginative and repetitive, but also seem not to encourage exploration or spending time long enough to achieve any associated benefits. Sure, it can look great – but can you use it? Do you want to use it? The path in ‘Calm in Chaos’ plays an integral role in inviting the visitor into the garden, with the water bowl and bench providing an enticing destination point. This is the best place to enjoy the garden. It encourages entry into the space and will ultimately be the place where guests stop, sit down, whilst immersed in greenery and soak up the restorative effects of the design.

Research has shown that those living in urban areas close to green spaces are significantly less likely to suffer poor mental health [4]. Interaction with nature and the integration of green spaces into our busy modern lives will undoubtedly become increasingly important in reducing the prevalence of mental health issues – a daunting but very exciting prospect!

‘Calm in Chaos’ will be exhibited at the RHS Tatton Park Flower show from the 18th-22nd of July. More notably the show garden will be relocated and transformed into a permanent feature garden at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge after the show to be used and enjoyed by patients and friends and families of patients alike.

How the garden will look once it is installed at Addenbrookes Hospital
How the garden will look once it is installed at Addenbrookes Hospital
How the garden will look once it is installed at Addenbrookes Hospital

Elements of ‘Calm in Chaos’ were kindly sponsored by Groundwork UK and UBS Wealth Management. I would also like to thank the following supporters of the garden.

  • London Stone
  • Crowders Nursery
  • AllGreen
  • The Pot Company
  • Hedges Direct

References:

1] McManus et al. (2007) Adult psychiatric morbidity in England: 2007 results of a household survey [online] Available at: https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/adult-psychiatric-morbidity-survey/adult-psychiatric-morbidity-in-england-2007-results-of-a-household-survey [Accessed 17.06.18]

2] Peen et al. (2010) The current status of urban – rural differences in psychiatric disorders. Acta. Pyschiatric. Scand. 121(2) 84-93

3] Kaplan S. (1995) The restorative benefits of nature: towards an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology 15 169-182

4] Richardson et al. (2013) Role of Physical activity in the relationship between urban green space and health. Public Health 127:4 318-324

 

Photos from the Bowles & Wyer 25th Party

For those of you that came to our 25th Anniversary party last Thursday, below are a selection of photos from the party – spot yourself! For those of you who couldn’t make it, we missed you!

I also include a transcript of my speech as quite a few people missed it and asked about it afterwards. I may have added one or two jokes on the night, but this is roughly what I said! John.

“It will surprise very few of you that when I first met Chris Bowles thirty-four years ago, I was riding a bike (although equally unsurprising is that he wasn’t). Chris was working for Clifton Nurseries at the time and I joined shortly afterwards. Five years later, Chris and I went out for dinner and came up with the idea of Bowles & Wyer, with my brother Nick. The plan was delayed for four years, partly due to the recession in the late eighties. Our business advisor in those day was Michael Johnson and looking through the job book the other day I saw that his garden was the second project we undertook – so he put his money where his mouth was!

I can’t quite believe it, but here we are, twenty-five years later. Nearly all of you in this room, friends, family, suppliers, clients (and some of you are in more than one category!) have played a part in that journey. The drawings on the invitation are part of that story. 19 Wilton Crescent was a project we undertook with Paul Davis and Partners in 1993 – and we are still working with them today on Kings Road and Regents Crescent. Klas Nilsson of Northacre gave us our first large commercial project at Observatory Gardens (and many others afterwards, including The Lancasters). Northacre are still a client today – we are working on Palace Street with them. We first worked with KSR twenty years ago on the Pavilion Apartments and they, BTP and Elliot Wood (also old friends) are all involved with 41 Frognal – another remarkable job, currently on site.

Those of you close to Bowles & Wyer know that we have being going through something of a quiet revolution in the last two years, helped by Alan Wick. The business has transformed and is re-inventing itself. Although a lot of people have been with us a long time, many new faces have joined us, and we have welcomed a few old friends back as well! We have been doing a lot of thinking about what we are for. We’re in this industry for the love of it. The closest we could come to why we do what we do is that we are here to ‘Enhance Lives and Landscapes’. We want people to be happier for having worked with us, either as an employee, a client, a supplier or on the same team. And enhancing landscapes is not just about creating beautiful spaces; we also want to leave the environment better than we found it.

Two and a half years ago sitting round a table we asked ourselves what we wanted from the future. The answer we came up with was ‘Better fit for our employees; better fit for our clients; just better.’

So, thanks to all of you who have played a part in this story over the last twenty-five years and will continue to do so.”

 

 

 

 

25 years in drawings

What stories do drawings tell us? Each site, each client is different and each drawing represents a snapshot in time. Some of you may have seen the invitation that we sent out for our 25th anniversary party. We wanted to choose some drawings to represent the last 25 years of Bowles and Wyer. This was not an easy task – there are thousands of them! Each of the drawings we chose tells a story.

IMAGE No1 – A garden in Parliament Hill. Project 100

At the beginning of 1992 I was lead designer at Clifton Nurseries. I left there in the May of that year, two months after the birth of our first child (the illustrator and graphic designer, Polly Wyer: http://pollywyer.co.uk). My first project under my own name (job number 100 – I didn’t want to start at 1!) was a garden in parliament Hill, Hampstead. This was an interesting project – a ground floor flat belonging to a fund manager. The garden had two awkward features. One was a large angled rectangular ‘bite’ out of the plot. the other was more fundamental. The apartment had been extended out over the previous patio so that only about 70cm of flat space remained. Beyond that all you saw from inside was a retaining wall over one metre high and a load of weeds at the upper level. To combat this, I designed a ‘scoop’ of space at the lower level, leading up a flight of steps to a landing at an intermediate level. My solution to the odd shaped plot was to divide the space along two radii; one to a small circular sitting area to the left and the other to a narrow vista to a sculpture or pot. I remember doing this drawing; it was drawn by hand at home, around 10pm the day before I was meeting the client! I still like the design now. It went on site almost immediately and was my first project to be finished. The profit from this was basically my seed capital for the business.

IMAGE No2 – A trellis feature in Wilton Crescent, Belgravia. Project 154

 

A spot of Classical trelliswork! This was for a very grand house in Belgravia. A year has passed since the last project. The brief was to provide a shelf for planting at first floor level opposite the dining room and ‘something to look at’. This drawing got us the rest of the project and formed the basis of a long working relationship with PDP, with whom we still work today (Regent’s Crescent and Kings Road). Looking back I am fascinated to see the detail I went into with the notes and the fact that I combined presentation and construction on one drawing! All looks a bit classical now as well, although I do like it!

IMAGE No3 – Thames Court Roof Garden. Project 460

Although never built, this was one of my favourite projects. We were approached by the developers to design a roof terrace for a speculative office development overlooking the Thames in Central London. For the first time, we looked at the space in a really different way – back to first principles. The environment on roof terraces is always extreme – sunnier, windier, colder, hotter than it is at ground level. This design was strongly driven by its context. In terms of its physical environment, this led us to look at other similar environments and their ecologies. Cliff-tops, foreshores, dry hillsides and the like. This in turn drove the plant selection. It also led us to specify thinner, less fertile soils which required low levels of irrigation and were lighter. The historical context also played a part. the swooping lines on the drawing represent the different shorelines of the Thames over previous 2000 years or so and are expressed as cuts running through the timber decking. The ‘view contours’ of the St Paul’s visibility corridor were also influential in the design. This scheme permanently changed the way in which we approached all projects, but roof terraces in particular. (Drawings by Stephen Richards)

IMAGE No4 – Seafield House. Project 1155

One of the more unusual projects we worked on – conversion of a former nuclear bunker into a luxury home. The building and site had lain empty and unused for years. This was a challenging scheme, but also a fascinating one. This was the first time we began to merge three different media to give a cohesive drawing style – hand drawing, 3D packages (in this case SketchUp) and Photoshop. This combination is still at the centre of how we render work thirteen years later. (drawing by Neil Percival)

IMAGE No5 – The Lancasters. Project 1115

This was one of the most unusual (and for us iconic) projects we have worked on. We were approached by Northacre, a client with whom we had worked for many years, on a new development overlooking Hyde Park. I was struck by the flamboyancy of the original façades – the way they overlooked the park reminded me of promenade buildings. Later I discovered the architect had been influenced by French design, particularly on the Riviera. Following a lot of research, we came up with a design based on ornate contemporary C19th motifs, cut and pasted – almost sprinkled – in a randomised pattern along the garden. The scheme was finished of with a row of 6-7m high fan palms in front of the façade. The client was so delighted with this that they adopted the palm tree and the idea of travel to the Riviera as a theme for all the marketing for the event. (drawing by Neil Percival)

IMAGE No6 – A Hampstead Garden. Project 2160

This sketch is for a project about to go on site. The style layering digital and hand drawing is typical of the way we present designs at the moment. You can read more about how we build these up to the finished drawing in a separate blog-post: ‘Anatomy of a sketch’

So there it is – 25 years in six drawings. From the first one drawn in my flat in London in the spare room to the final one worked on by three different people and across three different software packages and hand drawings. The fascinating thing is that hand drawings are a consistent thread from 1993 to 2018.

 

if you want to read more about the history of Bowles & Wyer, go to ‘Who is Chris Bowles, How did it all start and where do we go from here?’

Here’s to the next 25 years!

 

Finding your own hill.

My proudest hill moment (a few years ago).

As a cyclist (of sorts), I often use an app called ‘Strava’. This not only tracks your route, speed, altitude etc., but also lets you know how you are doing against your previous efforts (as well as other people).

Out for a cycle a couple of evenings ago, I tackled one of my favourite hills. ‘Personal Record’ gushed Strava enthusiastically after my ascent – this was apparently the quickest I had climbed this particular hill in the twenty or so times I had cycled up it.  My satisfaction was short-lived. After a little investigation, the app informed me that I was the 1188th fastest person up this hill in the last five years or so. That must include a few races of super fit young guys though, surely? Not only that but I was only the 23rd fastest up it today! I then found similarly depressing figures for my gender, age-group and weight, suggesting I suppose that quite a lot of other middle aged slightly overweight men had done better than me.

The lesson here is not to get sucked in to measuring yourself against other people. For most of us, for any task or achievement, there will always be someone who has done better. We are each our unique mix of talents and abilities. I don’t suppose many of those people who climbed the hill quicker than me could design gardens very well or probably cook an omelette as well as I can (I do mean scrambled eggs as well). Try your hardest and do better than you did last time.

Curiously enough, businesses do much the same. They often spend far too much time comparing themselves against their competitors. “How did they get that contract?” “Why are they able to sell that more cheaply than we can?” Instead, we should concentrate on what our clients want. In the end, they are what drive the business. if we get that right, the competitors cease to matter. As business leaders, we should concentrate on serving our clients’ needs as best we can, along with fine-tuning our internal processes to make improvements to our performance. We should also be looking for new ways to delight them, perhaps even identifying needs that they didn’t know they had.

And that is like finding a hill which no one else has cycled up yet.

Two gardens in Massachusetts

Last summer I spent a few weeks in the United States, travelling round seeing friends and family. We visited Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Boston and the Berkshires, where we went to a delightful wedding. While we were there, we took in a couple of interesting gardens.

‘The Mount’ viewed from the garden behind its serried ranks of conifers
The very green-looking garden

The first was Edith Wharton’s house from 1902-1911, ‘The Mount’ in Lenox, MA. Although delightful, this was in many ways what you would expect a New England garden to be: derivative of European Gardens, but with the scale and confidence of American sensibility. Wharton reputedly designed the garden (and the house) herself, living there for only about a decade, but ploughing much of her earnings from her books into it. However, what is interesting about the differences between this and European gardens is the use of plant material. It is distinctly North American – the use of rank upon rank of spruces and other conifers in particular. In fact, one of the distinguishing things about the garden is its sheer greenness – we went there in late June and it felt really fresh, despite the high summer temperatures.

The main avenue cuts assertively through the garden parallel to the house.
Interesting layering here – very American in style and plant choice (and noticeably C20th) but European in influence
The interesting (but slightly scary) change in level between the main avenue and the formal gardens below the house.

I also like the arrangement of the formal elements, the way in which the main avenue cut through the design, masking sharp changes in level. The house sits on high ground and has a commanding view over the garden, as you might expect. Plenty of flowers here, surrounded by pleasant rolling park and woodlands. There is also a stone plaque, with a delightful inscription which almost serves as mantra for life: ‘In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things and happy in small ways.’

Naumkeag – actually a far more homely place than it appears here. Although grand, it did have the feel of a family house.
The Oak tree under which Joseph Choate picnicked as a child is the main feature of one of the terraces.

The second garden we visited was Naumkeag, in Stockbridge MA, just a few miles from The Mount. The name is of American Native origin, although it was originally the name of a people rather than a place. The house and garden have an interesting history. It was originally designed for a prominent New York lawyer, Joseph Choate and his family, although it was later much added to and changed by his daughter Mabel. Choate had a deep emotional involvement with the place, having picnicked as a child under a large oak tree whilst on summer vacation nearby with his parents. He later acquired the land and set to building a house and garden for his own family. Interestingly, the commission for the garden design was originally offered to Frederick Law Olmstead, but his designs were rejected after he suggested locating the house where the oak tree was situated – a lesson in ignoring a client’s brief perhaps! The tree still stands and forms a focal feature in the garden. Although the early gardens were laid out by Nathan Barrett in the 1880s, they were considerably expanded and altered after Choate’s death by Fletcher Steele over a 30-year period from 1925-1956 under the guidance of Choate’s daughter Mabel.

Not quite sure what the influence here is… Gondolas?

As with other New England gardens, Naumkeag draws deeply upon the European Well although there are also several very unusual features in the garden. The house sits high up on the lower shoulders of the hillside, with spectacular views over the valley. The ground falls away beneath it in a succession of levels down to the valley floor. Away to the left of the house (looking out) sits a curious eclectic garden a small parterre, and carved timber poles which could have come straight from Venice.

I really like these riveted slate steps.

 

From this, beautiful riveted slate steps lead down from one side to a terrace, with the oak tree sitting away to one side on the ‘picnic lawn’. A rill runs from this level right the way down through the garden. It is an interesting feature – the water first begins to flow over several regularly spaced steps.

The beginning of the rill
This rill takes the water on the first stage of its long journey through the garden.

These set up a pulse in the water which is still evident several metres further down the rill. However, it is the feature beneath this that is Naumkeag’s (and arguably Fletcher Steele’s) most famous feature – the ‘Blue steps’.

The famous blue steps. Note the logarithmic step riser and treads.

A central rill runs through the feature, with a series of arched grotto-like spaces with landings above. One of the things that make this such a fascinating feature is the logarithmic steps which descend sideways from each landing to meet at a lower landing below each grotto; ‘blue’ because of the concrete used (itself an unusual feature).

The pleasantly understated planting that is the setting for the blue steps

The setting is admirably restrained with simple undergrowth and Aspen trees. It is in stark but playful contrast to the ebullient delphinium beds beneath.

Naumkeag’s other famous feature is Steele’s last piece of work at the property – the rose garden, although to my mind this does not quite work. Although the shapes are interesting, the roses seem at odds with the design – indeed all the various elements feel at odds with one another.

The rose garden – Fletcher Steele’s final addition

A much more pleasing feature is the formal garden below and to the right of the house. Here (as at The Mount) the interplay between European design and American plant material is at its most obvious. Steele plays skilfully with the serial views and perspective. Above it towers a ‘thunder house’ very reminiscent of the one at Hidcote, although if anything rather better – certainly grander. It was supposedly a place for ‘assignations’ which could be both observed from the house but private at the same time. Finally, a (for me) disappointing Chinese garden – a mish-mash of imported ideas and titbits from the Far East.

The view form the thunder house – supposedly used for ‘assignations’.

The curious thing about Naumkeag is that Steele was actually at his best when he wasn’t trying too hard. The picnic lawn, the formal gardens and the thunder house all have a comfortable elegance which is confident but accessible. The Chinese Garden, the Parterre and the Rose Garden on the other hand, all have a very self-conscious character which gets in the way of one enjoying them. The great exception to this is the blue steps, which is not only a masterpiece, but strikingly inventive and original.

If you are in Western Massachusetts at all, I would recommend a visit to both gardens, but particularly to Naumkeag.

Biosecurity at Highgrove

 

The horticultural and arboricultural world seems have to been beset by one wave of pest and disease after another. From Box blight to Oak Processionary Moth, Ash Dieback to Bleeding Canker and horse chestnut leaf miner every onslaught is as distressing and threatening than the last. Why is this, and perhaps more importantly, what can we do about it? Two weeks ago, I went to a conference on biosecurity and plant health which attempted to answer some of these and other questions.

The caterpillars of the Oak processionary moth Thaumetopoea processionea. This pest is already in the UK.

The conference was staged by Prince Charles at Highgrove House in Gloucestershire. At first, I have to say that I was initially rather sceptical. I received a somewhat mysterious invitation from Sir Nicholas Bacon. Mysterious in that it gave precious little details about the conference (other than that it was at Highgrove and the general subject matter). However, on acceptance, more information flowed. I was sceptical because there has been much said and written on the subject of biosecurity in the last few years, but actually precious little action. I wondered if this was to be another talking shop. It was far from that. Principally because of the draw of Highgrove House and its illustrious owner, nobody could turn down an invitation. As a result, the assembled company covered the owners and managers of many of Europe’s leading nurseries, UK importers, leading garden and landscape designers, foresters, contractors and other representatives from the industry. There were also members of the government including Lord Gardiner (the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Rural Affairs and Biosecurity), Professor Dr Nicola Spence (Chief Plant Health Officer to the UK Government) and the Secretary of State for DEFRA Michael Gove (as well of course of one other notable guest!). The discussions that followed were generally of a similar calibre to the delegates.

Xylella fastidiosa

The morning session was largely taken up with speakers from different sides of the industry outlining the issues we face (particularly from Xylella fastidiosa, which was never far from the conversation). They began to venture on to solutions, but this was largely left to the afternoon.

Leaf Scorch on Oleander caused by Xylella

Global warming is often blamed for the spread of new pathogens and pests. Although this Is in part true, there are many other causes of which increased trade is the principal. Because of this, three overlapping strains of argument began to emerge fairly early on. The first of the was that of traceability (as in other industries such as food production or pharma). This accepted that trade would happen but argued that being able to trace the source of any infection would allow swift action to be effective in finding and isolating the source of the outbreak. The second was one of cooperation. This considered trade as inevitable and saw the solutions coming out of a collaborative process and good communication. The last was an opposing one which saw quarantine and strong border controls as the way forward. This had the added attraction of supporting the UK nursery industry. Although the arguments swayed back and forth, it became clear that the solutions probably lay in a combination of all three approaches.

Olives, one of the main plants at risk from Xylella and also one of the carriers.

In the afternoon, we broke up into tables of ten people to discuss the issues in more detail and propose solutions. there was some brisk discussion (at least on our table). While people agreed on many subjects, there was disagreement on others. At the end of the day we were joined by Prince Charles and Michael Gove and the chairman (Alan Titchmarsh) summed up the findings. There were a number of things that emerged:

  1. Awareness. All agreed that there needed to be more education about the issues involved, not only within the industry but in the broader public, particularly at air and sea ports. Better leaflets and other information needed to be readily available in places where people buy plants.
  2. Certification. A scheme of certification for nurseries is needed to ensure that all nurseries are complying with good practice, particularly those exporting.
  3. Traceability. It is essential that plants can be traced back to there source so that in the event of any infection being discovered, the source of the outbreak can be quickly discovered and isolated.
  4. Responsible Person. these should be one person in every nursery and plant retail centre who is trained and responsible for biosecurity. This might be extended to include landscape firms.
  5. Border Controls/Quarantine. There was considerable discussion and no real agreement on this. Many people felt that the plants that are the most prolific carriers of Xylella fastidiosa in particular should be banned from import (this is about ten plants on the list of 300). Others felt that 12-month quarantines needed to be put in place instead. This is unlikely to be entirely effective, partly because some of the plants are short term crops (such as lavender and rosemary) and also because  Xylella can take up to 18 months to become evident. Quarantining can also concentrate the infection and give a hotspot which is near other plants, unless it is done very carefully.

I left the conference not only more educated about the issues, but also determined to do something more on this, both in my own organisation and more widely.

Have you heard of the gardens at the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon? You should have done.

On a recent trip to Lisbon we visited a couple of really interesting sites. I know I probably bored you all silly with my pictures on social media of amazing paving patterns, but that has already been much written about elsewhere. The Gulbenkian Park however, was a revelation. According to Wikipedia, it was originally designed in 1969 by the landscape architects Gonçalo Ribeiro Telles and António Viana Barreiro in close collaboration with Alberto Pessoa, Pedro Cid and Ruy Athouguia who were architects of the buildings of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation erected in the park. For me, it was almost like all the design books and manuals I had read in the late 1970s had come to life. A wonderfully cohesive mix of large boulders, large slabs of in-situ concrete and a simple but effective planting palette give a very pleasing experience which has weathered exceptionally well. I am used to visiting – and being disappointed by – iconic C20th landscapes (read my piece on Parc Citroen: “The whole life cost of a Citroën”), but this was reverse: an understated and little known piece of work that really deserves more attention. This was the first thing that interested me, it is very little written or known about outside Portugal. I can imagine that if this site was in London, or New York, it would have become one of those iconic landscapes that people would visit and write about. It certainly deserves to be written about and visited.

The large lake, Park Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon

The second thing that struck me is the completeness of the vision. It is not a large site – about 7.5ha (19 acres), but the design has a coherency and the relationship between the brutalist architecture and the naturalistic landscape works very well, as though they are different parts of the same musical piece. The slab-like buildings sail gracefully over the water and the softness of the trees provides the perfect calm note to counterpoint the concrete. Nearer the building there are also drifts of orange Strelitzia, which although they don’t quite work with the parkland, do make an interesting contrast to the concrete.

The smaller lake, crossed by a stepped slab path

The layout of the park is relatively simple, with a large lake in the northern part of the gardens and meandering paths through glades of trees. Like much modern architecture of its period, it borrowed much from both European brutalism and American modern architecture (Frank Lloyd Wright amongst others) which in turn borrows from Japanese design. So common is this language in design now, that the stepped bridges and panels of concrete seem entirely comfortable to us. At the time however, this must have been a bold but also incredibly comprehensive piece of design – and what a commission! The planting also has a slightly oriental feel, but uses an eclectic palette adapted to the local climate – Papyrus reed, grasses, Brazilian pepper tree (Schinnis terrebinthus), oak, eucalyptus and poplars.

Calm restraint and elegance (if one can ignore the rope-and-posts!).
Pleasing use of water, boulders and bamboo.

Finally, it is a landscape from a much under-represented period; it reminds me of some of Preben Jacobsen’s work or some of the better pieces from the English modernist landscape movement of the sixties and seventies.
Sadly, like many C20th landscapes it is suffering a little, although not as much as one would have expected. There is a steady income from other activities on the site and there is good support from the Gulbenkian foundation. So, I urge you – go there; visit! You won’t regret it.

The Journeys we Make to Become Gardeners.

(Written by Jeff Stephenson. Head of Horticulture and Aftercare at Bowles & Wyer)

A glimpse into my student days at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; 

As we made our way up the steep wooden ladders, which were perilously lashed (Heath Robinson fashion), to the gnarled root encased hillside, our t-shirts already clinging to our backs with sweat; we looked up through the morning gloom and dense canopy to make out  the mottled buff-grey stone wall of Temple IV  up ahead of us. We emerged around dawn onto the precarious stone terraces of the structure to sit and rest, drawing breath whilst we surveyed the dizzying panorama now displayed. The moisture laden air swirled below us like a low  fog over the sea. As the sun rose higher in the sky the white blanket of mist slowly rolled back, revealing one of the most memorable and awe inspiring views I had ever witnessed. My heart was beating fast in my chest. There, set out in emerald green, was the Guatemalan rainforest.

 

 

View towards Temple IV showing summit shrine; Tikal, Guatemala.

Majestic Kapok trees, festooned with Spanish moss and orchids, shouldered their way above the uninterrupted canopy which, when viewed from way up here, looked like tufts of lichen attached to a diorama. A cacophony of shrills, melodic woodwind like whoops and deep baritone honks could be heard emanating from the impenetrable green below. The hollow reverberating primeval ‘chant’ of howler monkeys could be identified in the distance.  A small flock of Scarlet Macaws in red,  blue and yellow passed in spirit-like effortless flight over the tree tops , whilst a pair of toucans bobbed and cavorted through the bows of a nearby tree, turning their heads on their sides to inquisitively eye each other, seemingly unhindered by their oversized tangerine bills. 

I couldn’t believe I was really here amidst such rich natural beauty; I was in the heart of the ancient Mayan city of Tikal.”

  • Excerpt from my R.B.G. Kew Travel Scholarship Diaries; Tikal, Guatemala; 18th September 1992.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

A client once said to me, only a few years ago and with much sincerity;

“When are you going to get a proper job, not just gardening?”

Unfortunately it is all too often that many people outside of our profession make assumptions about exactly who and what gardeners are and where they have come from. They have a very narrow perception of how large, interesting and diverse the horticultural industry is and how long good gardeners have spent in training (which never finishes), or indeed where it may have taken them.

My journey:

I began the Kew Diploma in Horticulture back in 1989 with much trepidation, being surrounded by extremely bright students with amazing backgrounds. I’d already studied sciences but only spent one year learning horticulture and countryside management at Capel Manor College in Enfield whilst also volunteering with The Colne Valley Park Groundwork Trust; my peers had spent years at places such as R.H.S. Wisley, Hampton Court Palace and Singapore Botanic Gardens. I was woefully outmatched, so I set myself on a route of committed study to justify being amongst my classmates.

Kews’ intensive programme covers everything from systematics and genetics to surveying and landscape design. One day you are dissecting flowers under a microscope, another you are micro-propagating orchids in a test tube.  With plant identification tests, every fortnight, covering wide agenda such as ‘The Palm House’, ‘The Pinetum’ or ‘The Order Beds’, you had to quickly build up your observation and recall abilities. We were privy to lectures from Kews’ own scientific and living collections staff (favourites included Mike Maunder and Tony Kirkham) and external lecturers with the likes of John Brookes, Peter Thoday,  Sir Roy Strong and Brita von Schoenaich.  Studies were both ‘in house’ and held at other centres such as West London Institute of Higher Education (now part of Brunel University), Otley College (Suffolk) and Writtle College (Chelmsford); we were influenced by wide ranging teaching styles and facilities.

Appennine Colossus; Villa di Pratolino, Tuscany.

There were study trips to Tuscany to see Medici Villas and Pistoia’s nurseries and field trips to Dorset and Sussex to survey coastal zonation and soil profiles respectively. I built a ‘Japanese garden’ for the NCCPG at the very first Hampton Court Flower Show and designed the interpretive Bee Garden which used to reside near Kew Palace. We worked in numerous living collection and administrative departments including ‘Planning’; one of my roles was liaising with film crews, book publishers, TV companies and celebrities (inc. David Bellamy), who wanted to use the gardens for filming and photo-shoots.  A high point was winning two Travel Scholarship awards which allowed me to investigate ecosystems in Central America, both on land and around the coast via SCUBA; surveying mangrove swamps, seagrass lagoons and coral reefs with ‘Coral Cay Conservation’ (but that’s another story!).

After three years at R.B.G. Kew and a fourth intermediate industrial placement year with Clifton Nurseries’ landscape team (during 1990-1991, which incidentally is where I fortuitously first met Chris Bowles and John Wyer), I managed to graduate with Honours as the highest scoring student of each year; the focused study and sacrifices had paid off.

So the next time a gardener passes your way, have a thought for where they have been or where they could be headed. They may have rich stories to tell and extensive knowledge to call upon; your garden could greatly benefit from their experiences.

by Jeff Stephenson.

People: the most valuable asset (notes from FutureScape ’17)

For those of you who either missed my talk at FutureScape this year, or just want a second read, here is a transcript. All businesses are built on two things: the quality of their ideas and the quality of their people. So the question is, how do you find and retain the best people? The first thing to ask yourself is…

WHY?
Why are you hiring? The obvious answer to this is ‘because I’m busy’. If you are a one-person organisation, you should think about what it is you want somebody else to do and what you want to keep doing yourself. What are you good at? What are you not good at? So, we have gone from why to What…

 

WHAT?
What are you looking for in an employee?  First step – write a job description. This will help you focus your thoughts on what duties you want someone to carry out. There are loads of ways to structure a job description with the minimum being simply a list of duties. I find it is helpful to start with the basics: Title, Place of work, Line manager (who does the holder of this post report to?), Accountability (to whom will they have to explain themselves if something big goes wrong?), Development path. Then move on to some general stuff about the business and the post. Next a short summary of general duties relating to this post. Finally, a list of specific duties, grouped under headings. There are different ways of doing this. Some people find it helpful to list them in order of importance. Others use some sort of chronological order. Personally, I favour listing them in the order of the percentage of time they will take up, but noting if there are any that are particularly important that appear further down the list.

Next step – write a person profile. Again, there are many different ways of approaching this. I usually divide these into sections under the headings:
Character
Experience
Qualifications
I then mark each with ‘essential’ or ‘desirable’. For example, ten years’ experience in your sector might be desirable, three years’ might be essential.

What are they looking for in an employer?

  1. Salary is a key decider for many people – around 60% put this top of their list
  2. CPD opportunities and career development come next – important for around 45% of people
  3. Company ethos and values is also really important, particularly with younger employees – I’ll come back to this later
  4. Company reputation is next – most people want to work at a company which has an excellent standing within the industry, and somewhere that will ultimately add to their CV
  5. Location is important for some people
  6. Flexibility of working can also be important.
  7. Size of business not important to most people, nor is job title.

WHO?
The character section on the person profile starts to touch on another area completely. The experience and qualifications are, if you like, ‘tangibles’. But at least as important are the intangibles. What is a person really like – who are they? And even if you knew the answer to that question, would it help?

The answer to this is in the culture of your business. Culture is made up of the intangible parts of a business, the non-commercial aspects. This includes things like purpose, DNA, values, ethos etc. It affects not only the sort of place it is to work, but also ultimately has an impact on the ‘tangibles’ – the commercial aspects of the business. If you have already thought about this, then you will be able to take some of this and use it to feed into the general section of the job description. More importantly, it will allow you to much more directly profile the sort of person you are looking for. Having done all this background work, where do you then look for the ideal candidate?

WHERE?
Whereas previously you would have had to rely on classified ads in the back of magazines or recruitment agencies, now there are a multitude of routes to candidates. Here are a few of them:
Your own website (Website Career Page)
Social Media – Instagram, Twitter, Facebook
LinkedIn Career Section (on your company page) or LinkedIn Paid Job Ads
Job Sites / Talent Acquisition Platforms / Aggregators, such as SmartRecruiters, Indeed, Monster, CareerBuilder, Neuvoo.
Niche Job Boards and Sites – SGD, BALI, LI etc
University Career Boards
Referrals from current employees
Agencies. If you go down the agency route, there are costs – typically 15-25%, but they will cover most of the options above, and it does take a lot of the hassle out of it.

HOW?
So, once you are flooded with applications, how do you go about selecting who you want? It is almost impossible to glean anything reliable about character from job applications, so in the initial application stage it is best to stick to the experience and qualifications sections of the person specifications you have already done. Normally this is straightforward – the candidates are well spread, and it is easy to pick out the obviously strong ones. Sometimes you have several candidates who are very similar. In this situation I often use a scoring system against my criteria. If it is still difficult, start by telephone interviewing the candidates you are most interested in. I tend to find that it can be quite good to cover experience and technical issues on the telephone. I stick rigidly to a script scoring each participant and then compare the scores afterwards. You can always weight the scores for areas that you think are more important.

When it comes to face to face interviews, allow plenty of time. Chat first to put them at their ease. Spend a little time telling them about the role and the organisation if you need to, but remember that at least half to two thirds of the interview should be the applicant talking. Ask open rather than closed questions and give them plenty of time to answer. A good part of the interview should be taken up with cultural questions. Some of these could be scenario questions. Others could be ‘give me an example of when you…’ So, if your core value is around excellence, you could ask – “Provide an example of a time when you went out of your way and jumped through hoops to delight a customer” or around team work you could ask “When you work with a team, describe the role that you are most likely to play on the team.” Followed by “How would co-workers describe the role that you play on a team?”
Apply the two-hour test… could you spend two hours (say on a train) with this person? Could you enjoy their company at the dinner table for two hours, or would you be bored stiff? And how will they fit in with other people in the team? Whilst it is important that you can get on with potential employees, it is also important that you don’t just hire people like yourself. The best teams are made up of lots of different types of people. Imagine a football team of all strikers (or worse still, all goalies!). And don’t just hire people who will make you look good. There is an old management adage that says: ‘Hire people who are smarter than you.’ I believe that learning is a two-way process. We learn a lot form our employees at all levels, just as they learn from working with us.
Don’t rule out some sort of test – particularly if you are a sole trader or very small business and this is a major step up for you.

Finally, Check references. Not long ago, we were looking to appoint a new member of the design team. Interview went well, applicant seemed good on the verge of appointing we took up references. This popped into my inbox (just an anonymised excerpt from a longer email): “My experience with XXXX is that she is motivated only by his/her own self-interests. S/he is extremely poor with client follow-through—does not provide any customer service after s/he has been paid his/her commission. Often s/he does not reply to email requests nor questions. S/he spends a great deal of time in the office FaceTiming with his/her partner and has taken 5 vacations or extended leaves of absence in the last 8 months. S/he has very poor people skills is the most moody employee I have ever employed.” We didn’t employ them.

Salary is a motivating factor for around 60% of people applying for jobs, so naturally enough there is often some negotiation on a starting package. Salary in particular is a difficult one – people starting often using their leverage at the time of appointment to drive up starting salary. Make the salary range clear from the start and do not ‘promise’ the job before agreeing the package. Bear in mind where the new person will fit into the range of salaries of existing employees. Sometimes agreeing a higher salary but tying it to no review for say eighteen months allows both situations to be addressed. Offering ‘one-off’ items such as help with moving costs can also ease the situation without affecting the position permanently.

Once an appointment is in place and a starting date agreed, make all the necessary arrangements swiftly and efficiently. Make sure that the new starter has all the necessary hardware (desk/chair /phone/computer/vehicle etc) and software and logins (including email addresses etc). They will have enough to worry about when they start without adding to it with hassles over their working environment, plus it will send the right message from the beginning.

So how do you retain staff once they are in post? Although money is important when people are looking to change jobs, curiously it is not the main issue for most people in whether they stay in a job. These are the top issues:

  • Feeling valued and rewarded. Money is important here, but it is not nearly as important as feeling valued
  • Knowing clearly what is expected of them
  • Quality of management – especially sticking to promises and being fair and consistent
  • Ability to speak their mind freely and being consulted
  • Opportunities to learn and progress
  • Chance to use their skills and talent

Your culture and values once again play into these points. Consult staff constantly on important (and less important) issues and have an open and democratic culture. Regular appraisals or reviews also help as well as give employees a framework for improvement.

It is all too easy to be ‘busy’ with work. Remember that your business – all businesses are built on two things: the quality of their thinking and the quality of their people.

Are you doing enough to attract and retain the best people?