I was reading WTF by Robert Peston this morning. ‘How on earth’ I asked myself ‘does a man with as many commitments as this find the time to write? And not just a paragraph now and then, but a whole book!’
I suppose that the answer is just a simple one of prioritising actions. I know that I want to write; it’s just that I don’t seem to be able to find the time to do it. The short answer is therefore to make the time. In the end, we do what we want to do. But… sometimes in retrospect we wish we had done things differently. Perhaps a little less time spent on my phone? Or looking at emails? I have (at least) three books in my head. Probably a dozen half-hatched ideas. So my failure in life isn’t failing to finish things (like some people); it’s not starting them in the first place!
Over the last two years, I also have come to realise the importance of ideas. And ideas start with thinking. The funny thing is though, ideas don’t always come along when you expect them, much like many other things in life. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that constant rumination of a problem or an issue is what drives the generation of ideas. Then before you know it, you are in the shower (my favourite place for ideas generation) or on your bike (second favourite) and – Bing! (lightbulb). Acting on and enabling these ideas is at least as important as having them in the first place.
So my New Year’s resolution is twofold: Think more and write more. I want to have at least one book finished by the end of the year and perhaps another half-done. Ambitious? Yes, definitely. Over-ambitious? Check in same time next year!
I have written before about Gaze Burvill’s furniture on this blog (What makes a good chair?), but after attending the unveiling of their new handmade bench at Kew Gardens a couple of weeks ago, I was moved to write again.
Over one hundred years ago, a soldier picked up some acorns and put them in his pocket. He was in France, about 30km from the Belgian border. The acorns were from the battlefield at Verdun, one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War, with over 700,000 casualties. The soldier survived and returned with his acorns to the UK. They were handed over to Kew and in 1919, an oak tree was planted out in the grounds to commemorate the fallen.
In the St Jude storm in late October 2013, the tree was badly damaged, and the decision was taken to fell it. Simon Burvill takes up the story: “Four years ago in early 2014, I received a call from Tony Kirkham, Head of Arboretum at Kew, to tell me that he’d had an idea for a challenging yet inspiring project… …Tony asked me if we at Gaze Burvill could create a commemorative piece from the wood of the Oak tree in time for the centenary of the end of the War. Tony is one of the world’s leading tree experts, and responsible for all 14,000 of Kew’s trees. He knew of the difficulty of this project – this tree was young for an oak and grew in parkland, not forested and therefore unlikely to produce prime quality wood. We had only four years until the Centenary event, to mill and dry the wood, followed by the designing and building of the seat, meaning timing would be tight. However, I felt honoured to be part of such a unique project, so I said yes…”
I called in to Gaze Burvill’s HQ and workshops in late 2014, where Simon told me about the project. When they were milling the timber, the saw had snagged on some nails deep in the timber and broken the blade. The position of the nails dated them to about 1947-48. That was the end of the milling, although most of the timber had been planked. Simon showed me the remaining ‘wedge’ (with the nail stains) which was made into a simple bench to commemorate Verdun and unveiled at Kew 100 years to the day after the end of the battle.
The main bench was designed and beautifully made by Gaze Burvill and a site was chosen. It was to be curved, with the concave or more reflective and introverted side facing the war memorial at Kew. The more outward looking convex side was to face out over the gardens, looking over the water and trees.
Apart from being a very poignant story, this also has something else. Landscape projects work best when they have a clear link with the land on which they sit – when they are (quite literally in this case) – rooted into the landscape. But this has another dimension: the back story arches over history, from the battlefields of France to the peace of Kew, and embedded within it there is an idea of the healing power of nature and by extension, horticulture. This concept is already deeply rooted in our collective psyche through the icon of the poppy, which flourished in abundance on the battlefields in the summer following the war. Not all projects have such a fantastic story, but the combination of link to the site and some deeper story of the client is a powerful one. For more exploration of this idea of landscape design rooted in the site, read a post I did a few years ago, called: ‘Why are landscape designers different?‘
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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
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.
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!
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.
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:
Care for the earth: No disagreement here, right?
Care for the people: Well, that sounds pretty sensible too.
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.
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).
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…
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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).
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