A guest rant by Kelly Baldry
Our towns and cities are made up of thousands of individuals, many of whom will never pay to visit a garden, and perhaps have no garden to call their own.
The reality of everyday life is somewhat different to the designed spaces of historic buildings, legacy plantings around sporting venues, and private (usually well-funded) pay-to-view gardens. It’s the view that greets the vast majority of us every day that is important, made up of the spaces that surround us, shaping our immediate environment. The trip to the local supermarket, the school run, or the walk into town are the repeated journeys that reinforce our impressions of our immediate surroundings, good or bad. And when we arrive at our destination, the view from the office desk or glimpse of green space while walking between buildings defines our own personal environment.
It is generally these views that I class as shared space, identified as areas which the general public see, have access to, or work at, on a daily basis. This includes the gardens of private businesses such as offices, hotels and retail outlets, as well as public facilities: schools, surgeries and hospitals. I also include public spaces such as parks, playgrounds, and town centers. Why are the majority of our shared spaces so uninspiring, lacking vitality and dynamism, without any hint of design?
The planting in most shared spaces (with a few notable exceptions), appears repetitive, lacking imagination and purpose, and is therefore extremely forgettable. While we are all aware of the changing seasons, much of our shared space planting remains either relatively static (trees and evergreen shrubs), or is artificially altered to designate seasons. Seasonality is usually achieved by temporary arrangements of densely packed bedding plants—a traditional, ingrained response to a perceived public demand.
Where local authorities are responsible for planting, the bedding displays presumably soak up the majority of the permitted budget, but how many hardy perennials, bulbs and grasses could have been purchased, planted and maintained over the years for the same cost? The overall effect could be built up year on year and, as any gardener knows, just a few seasons to allow for maturity will make a noticeable difference. So why do we allow our local authorities to effectively do just the opposite, and labor away at high maintenance bedding displays? Why not start to see our shared spaces as giant gardens, to appreciate and mature over a period of time, and train horticulturalists accordingly?
In business ownership, the scenery is usually much more static. Typically, a sea of evergreen shrubs dominates, clipped randomly into rounded shapes of varying size. The need to fill an empty space as quickly and painlessly as possible, usually results in plant groupings that are essentially unsustainable—too densely packed for growth rate, or too thinly spaced to prevent weed growth, and incompatible plant combinations. Unless an industry standard is adopted, or training improves, this type of result will continue to be the outcome for our shared spaces. These plantings remain in place for years, so a few days’ work (good or bad), becomes a legacy. The initial planting also has a significant impact on sustainability—how many planned maintenance visits be required annually, and how easy will pruning and weeding be? Unless the garden’s maintenance is planned at conception, the likelihood of continued success diminishes with time.
A subtly changing scene, moving with the seasons, can undoubtedly be achieved with carefully selected plants. We need to overcome our fear of disorder, and learn to maintain a diverse, yet harmonious combination of plants. An evolving ecological planting can still look neat and cared for. If hardy perennials are mixed with ornamental grasses and bulbs, the overall effect is one of diversity and movement, and continual variation.
Our shared spaces often end up mass-planted with tightly packed evergreens—quick, simple and seemingly cost effective. However, in my experience, the mass planting leads almost immediately to natural thinning, as weaker plants die due to competition for light, water and nutrients. A secondary problem of embedded weeds then arises, and presents an ongoing maintenance problem. Eventually, the evergreens grow together and the obligatory pruning into square or multiple rounded shapes inevitably follows, complete with self-sown shrubs/trees that are never removed due to lack of knowledge or time constraints. The typical contractor’s hedge cutter pruning regime frequently results in unsightly random cuts, leading to dieback and bare stems, contributing to an already unappealing view.
In the medium to long term, a hardy perennials/grasses planting (maybe with a few shrubs) wins, in aesthetics, low-maintenance requirements and longevity.
My top tips for creating an interesting and diverse shared space are as follows: select a small number of reliably performing plants and repeat them at intervals throughout the grounds. This gives consistency and cohesion, especially in a corporate setting. Aim for an achievable maintenance regime which is not fussy—no staking, minimal deadheading, and targeted supplementary watering only in the driest of summers.
Once I have started work on a shared space project, the garden quickly becomes a shared enthusiasm. Staff and management team see the future potential from the already apparent improvement, and this usually results in more time and money being found. Greater commitment is made as the benefits become obvious. As members of the public visit the site, improvements are noticed, and commented on. I have been asked for divisions of admired plants, and questions about the plant selection; interest in horticulture is encouraged, and plant diversity grows. If a shared space is neglected, none of this happens.
What is it that makes a shared space worthwhile? Is it seasonal changes making a difference to the daily routine or regular glimpses of the natural world? Is it simply a new perspective, like a walk in the park away from the office desk? Our daily views are part of us, shaping our impressions of the world around us and directly affecting our quality of life. Perhaps this explains why we put so much time and effort into our own gardens—these are also the views we see every day.
This rant is excerpted (with some editing) from Kelly Baldry’s book Grasses and Perennials – Sustainable Planting for Shared Spaces. The images in this post are from the book; they illustrate office gardens (Orchard Surgery, at top, and Chesterton House Financial Planning, remaining images) Baldry has created and maintained for his clients. Baldry lives and works in Leicestershire, UK, where he looks after 11 gardens, all shared spaces—viewed by, or visited by the general public.