University of Sheffield

What happens to a garden when the spotlight goes off?

Last weekend my husband and I made the long trek out to east London to visit the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. When the park was built to host the 2012 Olympic Games, much of the horticultural world’s attention fixated on the project’s ambitious gardens. They helped make Sarah Price a household name amongst working garden designers, and brought even more attention to the work that the University of Sheffield’s James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett do with plant communities, meadows, and naturalistic plantings. The resulting gardens, which focused on plants from various regions around the world, looked stunning and won deserved praise at the time.

I didn’t visit the garden when it was at its peak, but I have always enjoyed the pictures of the display. And although the past seven years have seen a fair bit of press lamenting the garden’s decline, I still wanted to see it for myself. So a cold and overcast April day found me wandering what turned out to be an almost empty, post-apocalyptic site, combing the weed-infested banks for any sign of the gardens they once held. Here and there I could discern what once would have been the meadows, planned to very high spec by two leading researchers in ecological planting design.

But now most of the intended plantings were smothered in weeds such as Galium aparine.

The “2012 Gardens,” each designed around a different area of the world, fared a bit better than the meadows. I could at least tell that they had been “gardens” at one point, though it was clear that certain plants had begun to take over where others had died out, such as in the European garden where the euphorbia and phlomis appeared to be running the show. For images of this garden when it was created, visit Nigel Dunnett’s Web site here. Sarah Price also has a lot of nice images on her site here.

There was a lot of bare ground, and though it is still early in the season I had a hard time imagining how so much empty space would elegantly fill in with anything other than the weeds which were again rampant.

Sadly, the boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) that carried the evergreen structure of the gardens had been badly damaged by box blight. Its strangely chamfered top also seemed out of character with the intended style of the plantings and didn’t match the photos of the gardens when they were new.

I’m not sure why the gardens have reached their current state, though I suspect that once the spotlight of the Olympics shut off it probably became hard to justify the maintenance of these extensive plantings. It is possible that the plantings were just too complicated for the gardeners to maintain. The meadows especially would have required a highly trained horticulturist to differentiate between desired self-seeded seedlings and unwanted weeds in order to maintain the design’s balance. A lot has been written about the park and how the dreams that it would revitalize a “wasteland” area of London have failed to come to pass. For more, read here and here.

Though the overall impression of the 2012 Gardens was of a space that’s been neglected and lost its way, there were a few spots that still held potential, or if not potential at least its ghost. Certain sections seemed better tended and like they had enough robust plants to fill in and provide adequate ground cover to smother weed seedlings. I know it is early spring, and it is possible that some areas could knit together into passable designs come autumn.

I was also impressed by the interpretation boards that accompanied each region’s garden. They were meaty enough for a plantsperson like me, yet still accessible to a park visitor with no horticultural background.

My visit to the park left me with more questions than answers, and was a good learning experience. It’s easy to photograph and write about beautifully designed, pristinely maintained gardens, but those images often disguise the money, hard graft, and professional commitment by trained horticulturists that it takes to really keep a garden looking its best. It’s good to see, and to show others, just what can happen when a garden that starts out with all the advantages — a stimulating site, healthy budget, world-class talent and well-grown plants — declines. It sparks a lot of questions about why we garden, and what the ultimate goal is of our work.

The plantsperson in me is pained to see a garden fall to ruin, and not only because of the huge waste of money, labor, and time. I know the mental, physical, and emotional energy that goes into creating a garden, not only on the part of the garden designer but also the scores of supporting acts who actually source, grow, transport, install, and provide aftercare to the plants. Might there be an unspoken contract that creators of artificial nature, which gardens most definitely are, are obliged to carry on caring for their creations?

And yet the artist in me can easily see how gardens could be viewed as installation art, as large and living set pieces that are never intended to exist beyond their time in the spotlight. Then is decline the final act in the performance?

And the ecologist in me is frankly fascinated by succession. What happens when you throw a bunch of plants together and walk away, leaving a free-for-all where stronger competitors can run rampant and any bit of bare soil becomes the site of a life-or-death land grab?

These are all important questions that will continue to take my lifetime to tease apart.