Last time I went to London, I saw a lot of stone. And brick. And concrete. That's what visiting a city with architects will do to you. This trip, I went gardens all the way round.
One of the top spots on my list was the Queen Elizabeth Park, designed as the setting for the 2012 Olympics. It's a huge and slightly bewildering landscape - particularly on a Tuesday afternoon, there were only a few people wandering through paths designed to accommodate Olympic crowds. I'd like to see it when there's a festival on, with the spaces alive with hundreds of people and pets.
But, within these gargantuan spaces, there are some special plantings that make the transatlantic flight and long tube ride (plus traipsing through the Stratford Westfield) worth the effort. Nigel Dunnett, James Hitchmough, and Sarah Price have put together an amazing series of gardens within the frame of spaces devised by Hargreaves Associates.
There's a very detailed website for the gardens, with great informative chats with the designers, which is definitely worth taking the time to study in great detail. (It even has full plant lists for each panel, yay!) However, as a basic introduction, there are 4 panels along the river embankment which are designated the “2012 Gardens”. Each panel is a tapestry comprised of plants that represent different geographical regions: Europe, Southern Hemisphere, North America and Asia. In addition to these embankment gardens, there are a newer series of Pleasure Gardens directly around the stadium which were installed later under advisement by Piet Oudolf.
The Europe Panel is the farthest to the southeast and it completely bowled me over. There's no other way to put it. Clouds of giant yellow Scabious (Cephalaria gigantea) were anchored with pillows of Jerusalem Sage (Phlomis russeliana). And screaming through it all were masses of scarlet Maltese Cross (Lychnis chalcedonica). The sheer scale of these plantings, as well as the color echoing, were unlike any other perennial display that I've encountered. We’re all accustomed to gauzy diverse Oudolf-style naturalism. It's shocking to see a planting where plants are distributed, clumped and mingled, in a similar way - but with a more limited palette. The bold massing evoked that heart-tingle I get in my most thrilling moments observing plants in the wild.
Another quality that makes this panel so incredible is the immersive quality that comes from the plantings being placed on the angled beds of the riverside embankment. Hargreaves Associates often use highly sculptural earthworks in their projects. However, in their other projects, they've typically clad their tilted angular planes in mown turf. Witness the heavily publicized (in landscape architecture circles) Clinton Presidential Center here in Little Rock, Arkansas. At Olympic Park, the angular earthworks offer visitors the opportunity to see plants from below. It's a new angle that helps those walking through feel completely immersed in the plantings. Add to that the dangling butter yellow Scabious flowers dancing on wirey stems, abuzz with butterflies and bees.
The next panel is the North American panel. It hadn't erupted into full glory yet, with ripples of purple Salvia, burgundy Knautia and white Gillenia. Since the plantings were still low, the underlying structure of low arced boxwood hedges and tall multistem serviceberries (Amelanchier canadensis). This bed felt the most expected, strongly traditional contemporary naturalistic plantings. Following on, the next bed is the Southern Hemisphere Garden. These beds are topped with a gravel mulch, rather than a woody mulch like in the other beds. It also has the most unusual plant palette - mostly penstemon and dierama, with a few kniphofia glowing tangerine orange. I didn't get great pictures of this area, but Sarah has beautiful photos on her website.
The last of the four beds is the Asia panel. This bed has the most incredible foliage combinations: filigreed Thalictrum and Sanguisorba against a backdrop of grasses, Calamagrostis and Hakonechloa. This bed is composed of bright white and soft pinks against a backdrop of multifaceted greens. I'd love to see this bed in autumn when it’s swathed in Anemone and Persicaria.
So, what are the takeaways? First off, there's a great advantage to working with perennial beds as a series. That way, not all areas need to be in perfect condition at the same time. When one area’s plant palette is having a low moment, another area can be in full go. Secondly, it's worth investigating perennial groupings as really large masses. Any of us plant collectors want to jam as many different types of plants into a garden as we can. We often see really diverse perennial plantings in the large-scale naturalistic plantings that are now in vogue. But it can be more effective to work with a limited palette, especially if you’re just starting out. Thirdly, it's really effective to think about grouping plants by geographical origin. Plants that grow together in the wild often provide a great starting point for designed plant communities.
Lesson 4? If you're in London or even thinking about going to London, GO GO GO to the Olympic Park. It’s phenomenal.