Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Is England just a bad road movie?

Correspondence following a comment on

Felicity Waters blog - Gardenbeet

Noel - thanks for the comments on my blog. I once cornered one of the senior managers at the roads authority in the UK and gave him an earful - I am from Australia and worked at the road authority for 5 years - we were doing amazing projects - the UK is 50 years behind. And we always worked with Horticultural experts - sometimes from Burnley Horticultural Colleges (Peter May et al)
Amway not meaning to sound egotistically its just that I find the road system is THE LANDSCAPE for so many people these days. It deserves as much consideration as any outdoor area. The UK roads authority has not got a clue about its design responsibility - the UK roads systems is the definition of bad design- its non design- its not even thought about - you get a catalogue of plant mixes and stamp them over the country! These guys need to visit France.

Felicity Waters

Hi Felicity

Thanks for your thoughts – I agree with you that British highway landscaping is crap. In fact an awful lot of British landscaping is crap. My own bugbear has been the massive decline in the quality of planting of our parks and urban green spaces – a group of us did some campaigning about this a few years ago but did not go very far. I was lucky though and managed to do some good projects in Bristol (see my website). And there is one enlightened landscape company (HTA of London) who occasionally employ me as a horticultural consultant.

You are very right about roads being THE landscape for many people. But in fact we are not used to thinking of them as being potentially interesting landscapes – your mention of France is hopeful, I have not been there for years, but will be going this summer so I look forward to some inspiration. One problem we have in the UK is that currently there is some real dogmatic thinking about native planting which an ecology lobby has ended up foisting onto the landscape profession via local govt. and planning requirements. Our native flora is very limited and pretty boring – for landscape purposes anyway. There are a few places I can think of where unplanned nature has done some fantastic things – but very dependent on chance comings-together of low-nutrient soils and the local flora:
April – cowslips along the M5 between Bristol and Gloucester
June – pyramidal orchids ditto
April – early purple orchids and primroses along A38 west of Totnes in Devon
All are great at 70mph!

Do you know Rick Darke – Pennsylvania-based plant-orientated whizz-kid? He has been researching native plantings for highways in Delaware? He has even written a manual on the subject which is really good hardworking stuff. You must see it.

How do you feel about me putting this correspondence on my blog?



Wet, Wet, Wet

I haven’t been in the garden for weeks. It was incredibly wet here (Welsh borders) for practically all of November and well into December – and now it is so cold not much can be done outside either.

The rainfall is high here,nearly  2,000mm per year, and the soil, overlaying Old Red Sandstone has enough clay/silt content to slow down water absorption – so it gets saturated very quickly. When really wet, springs appear, and water can actually flow over the surface of the soil. Pooling for several days after rain is normal. In areas where subsoil or near-subsoil is exposed, it is even worse. The whole garden is on a gentle south-facing slope however so there is constant water movement through the soil and no long-term waterlogging.

So, given all of this, and the fact that we have had three cool, exceptionally wet summers, it is amazing what survives – or put another way, how little fails. Even Mediterranean plants like santolinas and lavenders flourish in sticky poor-quality soil with pools of water around them for days. It is hard to think of any failures: Lilium regale definitely, and I think the raspberries, although there was a complicating factor here, as we dug in loads of manure to ‘improve’ the rather poor-quality soil and I think phytophthora may have killed them.

The year before last there was an exceptional period of high rainfall, in, I think, June. A friend, who lives not so far away, Charles Chesshire, had huge losses, despite being also on a south-facing slope – but in his case, springs or at least great upwellings of water from underground (he has the very substantial Clee Hill just behind him) must have completely de-oxygenated the soil, and at a crucial period of very active growth. Thinking about places where you see plants in the wild, wet slopes are often a good habitat for a wide range of species. The conclusion I think must be that plants do not object to very wet conditions at the roots so long as there is dissolved oxygen in the water, so that they can respire, and that means that the water must be moving. This is more crucial during the growing season than the dormant.

Anyway, we’ll probably have a terrible drought this year, which’ll give us something else to think about.