Will the crowd go wild?

Image of Robin Lane Fox

What will be the legacy from all the planting in London’s Olympic Park? The legacy will divide into two and there are also two separate types of planting involved. The site is now shut and will continue to be greened over an ever bigger area. Up to 100 hectares are to be included in the plan. More than 4,000 trees have already been planted. It is ridiculous to suspect that in 10 years’ time there will be no sustained legacy at all. On any view of the long-term aftercare, there will be hundreds of trees where once there had been sludge and a massive tip for London’s broken refrigerators.

From now on, there will be Anish Kapoor’s Olympic tower instead. I am glad I do not have to garden in relation to it, as it is remarkably ugly. Did it have to be so incongruous, like a helter-skelter with its guts showing, mainly in that tinny shade of red? Despite the difficult summer weather, the planting team did a great job with their first crucial assignment in the tower’s ambience – they pulled off the maximum flowery colour for August with a long ribbon of yellow and white flowers. They caught the golden mood of the occasion very well.

They also had a brief to show the botanical diversity of “British” gardens, in keeping with the multi-ethnic emphasis of our bid for the Games. Indeed, “native” plants are an ever-expanding category. Five hundred years of plant-collecting and importing into Britain from all over the world could hardly be shown in a park for mass effect. Nonetheless, the idea of four main gardens for four continents and their floras was a neat one. The designer Sarah Price applied the colour grading for which she is admired. James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett of Sheffield University had the chance to show off their vision of interknitted perennial planting for “low maintenance”. I disliked some of it, especially the great blocks of brown-leaved Deschampsias which are being pushed nowadays as a low-maintenance sort of ornamental grass. I liked the South African section best as its colours were very vivid. All the garden designers deserve a big round of applause, as flowers are even more temperamental to manage than horses and their Olympic riders. The team survived what can only have been intense uncertainty with a triumphant demonstration that all could be for the best after the opening night. Could they be given a post-Olympic gold medal, or at least remembered in the next bloated honours list of Team GB winners?

It is far too soon to say if their legacy will work so well. As they well know, the test will come after four or five years of planned maintenance. I fear staff with power strimmers, especially when they are wearing earmuffs and are cut off from the sound of what they are slashing. Like the supervisors, I wait to see if a balance between the invasive flowers can really be kept. I doubt if those ornamental restio-reeds will survive a hard winter. Will the yellow hot pokers be a blanket within two years and if not, what will? Wild gardens are very hard to maintain, especially those which depend on self-seeding flowers. I will go back and give an update in 2017.

Meanwhile there is the legacy of the overall concept. Stupendous hot air has started to circulate about the Park as a “landmark” or a breakthrough. It does not stand for a new siting of the line between the “wilderness” and the “garden”. It attaches to some 50 years or more of one style of flower gardening which has been self-consciously wild. That style has had most attention in the hands of a few experts in Holland and Germany, who have familiarised other countries with the use of broad swaths of vigorous herbaceous plants. It goes back even further, to William Robinson in the 1870s. Another part of the Olympic display, the self-sown wildflowers, has been around for a long time. Already in the 1930s the future queen of flower-gardening, Vita Sackville-West, was noting in her garden notebook that she must have wild clover sown in quantity at Sissinghurst.

Since the late 1980s, Hitchmough and Dunnett have studied the persistence and vigour of more such flowery plants than most of us ever will. Of course, they are keen on the style as the best way forward for urban parks and public spaces. When Dunnett is reported as telling us that “when people see this colourful naturalistic wildflower landscape, they become much less satisfied with what they generally see around them”, I have to differ. I went back to sit with relief under the big London plane trees in the mown grass in Hyde Park and to enjoy the nicely contrasted red-and-white bedding plants at Marble Arch.

Anish Kapoor’s Orbit tower

After its brief flowering, a ribbon of synchronised annuals looks a frightful mess.

The “legacy” of this Olympic display to our own private gardens is more questionable. The Olympic Park display is not in the least “natural”. It relied on the planned removal of most of the existing topsoil and not only because some of it was contaminated. It was replaced with chemically treated and sterilised soil which is beyond the range of the rest of us. I rebel against being told to begin by “fertility stripping” and throwing out my hard-earned topsoil because it is too rich for massed pot marigolds and annual yellow chrysanthemums. I would admire any local authority with the post-Olympic courage to ban the removal of topsoil without planning permission. It may not suit “naturalistic diversity” and annual ribbons of self-sown cornflowers, but it is a wondrous national asset for gorgeous roses and delphiniums.

Do not fall for the accompanying clichés that seduce non-gardeners. I do not want an “insect hotel”. I want as few midges as possible. Nobody risks catching deer ticks while cylinder-mowing that glory of the British climate, the green grass lawn.

I certainly do not want a “haven for wildlife” if the haven shelters weasels and marauding rabbits. The last woman to see the swift writhing of a grass snake in the one wild corner of my garden retired indoors to watch her pretaped episodes of Sex and the City and refused to come out. Plenty of butterflies will flock to a hardy blue “plumbago” in a border or a buddleia, chosen for its looks. They do not require a “nectar meadow”.

I love the sight of close-mown grass and borders of brilliantly graded plants with a slight spin to their wellbeing, from the hybrid lupins to the spotted toad lilies. They can be planned to flower all summer and autumn, instead of looking good for a fortnight and then a dreary mess until they are cut down. I am glad to have some wildflowers in my wilder corners but I do not want a central shaggy chaos of them for most of the year. Try planting mixed wildflowers in a formal raised bed. They look great in that witty inversion of the modern fashion.

Above all, think it out for yourself. Gardening is an art, not a shortcut to being naturally overrun. I live in dread that apprentices, beginners and self-taught workers will no longer pick up the older manuals and glory in the challenge of growing an unsustainable dahlia or carnation to its full potential. The last sort of Olympic legacy we need is a new generation of gardeners reacting to the meadow style like a flock of sheep.

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