A matter of life and death

alium seedheadImagine a garden dotted with sculptural seed heads and a luscious lawn aglow with fresh white daisies.  Imagine a garden where inanimate objects come to life and where all of nature’s life cycles are celebrated, including death and decay.  Now imagine that garden at an English flower show.  Fairly traditional places, certain conservative views of gardening tend to reign strong at the summer shows.  Introducing so called weeds and pardoning flowers that have gone to seed from the secateurs’ blades could be considered quite risqué, but London Wildlife Trust’s garden will do just that.

As I write, we’re just over a month away from the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show 2009.  By early July, the Life Cycle Garden will be complete and standing brave under the strict gaze of the show’s judges. Designed by London Wildlife Trust’s expert gardener Elaine Hughes, it’s to be a sustainable garden that explores the natural cycles that are essential to successful wildlife and climate friendly gardening.

Linking in with the ‘Garden for a Living London’ campaign, which highlights the importance of gardens for both people and wildlife in the face of climate change, London Wildlife Trust’s garden reveals that wildlife gardening can be beautiful and playful, as well as environmentally friendly.

Elaine and a team of dedicated volunteers are working round the clock to create something stunning for the show.  The garden is currently taking shape at the Centre for Wildlife Gardening down in south London.  A tiny but very lovely site, it’s a local nature reserve and working wildlife garden open for the public to visit and be inspired.  The next few weeks are bound to be a little stressful for the garden team, but also incredibly exciting.  The joy of the finished garden will no doubt make up for all the sleepless nights and mad dashes across the capital for materials.

“We’re committed to using reclaimed materials and recycling found objects.  There are just a few weeks to find everything we need and build the garden” says Elaine, who is both breathless and excited by all the work required to design and build a show garden.  “It’s a challenge but a good one.  It’s making us resourceful and creative.  We recently sourced some fantastic old scaffolding timber and it’s being transformed into our living shed with its green roof.  Rejected materials are being given new life, literally.”

The plan is to make something that is accessible as well as artistic, to create something that everyone can identify with and could replicate in some way in their own green space, be that a large back yard, a small balcony or even a window box.    “The Life Cycle Garden is playful and multi layered, highlighting the ecological value and the creative potential of small urban green spaces” explains Elaine.

“It focuses on the importance of being wildlife friendly, with features such as a living roof, a small pond, a broadleaved tree, a species rich hedgerow, log pile and drought resistant planting.  A table and chairs with planted inserts, along with a main pathway with planted inserts and a hedgerow with windows cut into it, will all provide unusual habitat for wildlife and allow the user to interact with the life cycles in the garden in a hands on way.  The garden will give people ideas for creating their own beautiful, easy to maintain, wildlife and climate friendly outdoor space.

bee on achillea“The garden is inventive but it’s also a practical and sustainable place.  It invites people to find beauty in surprising places.  A lawn studded with brilliant white daisies, a seed head bursting with energy like a firework, a fence made of dead wood.  All these things may be a surprise at a traditional garden show but they will look gorgeous and at the same time provide food and shelter for wildlife.  The garden provides food and shelter for humans too.  Our growing garden furniture would be a talking point at any garden party and the planting scheme includes fragrant and delicious herbs that are also drought tolerant, which helps save water” says Elaine.

The Life Cycle Garden will be a magical place where everyday objects come to life, where tables are alive and hedgerows have windows in them.  Visitors will be able to peer through the living windows and discover a sustainable urban garden where all the stages in plant life cycles are celebrated.  It’ll be a place where the lawn won’t be uniform or neatly clipped, where seed heads will stand proud amongst the flowering plants and where rejected and found objects will be given a new lease of life.  Sustainability is central to the garden’s design.  The surfaces are being designed for maximum water absorption and there are recycled steel drums for rainwater collection.

It will be bounded with a large scale log pile wall and a contrasting living and dead wood hedge, all of which will provide shelter, food and nesting opportunities for birds, insects and mammals. These textural boundary features, in varying stages of decay, will illustrate a chronological changing cycle of life.  Circle and cyclical motifs will feature strongly.  The experience of walking along the main timber path, which will change in size and scale, and walking under distorting recycled metal hooped trellis, which will play with the light and cast interesting shadows, will draw the visitor into the circular, life cycle theme.

Over the next few weeks Elaine’s bright ideas will be transformed into a living, breathing garden.  It’s a funny way of gardening, a race against time to produce a mobile but well established and working green space.  But it’s a lot fun too, and being at Hampton Court for the annual flower show is a joy for any gardener and a great way to share ideas and challenge traditional views.  So, five weeks and counting.  Tick tock.

This article appeared in the July 2009 issue of Kitchen Garden magazine

ps: the Life Cycle Garden won a gold medal at the flower show.

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