When faced with a challenging opportunity some people waver, others run in the opposite direction. Hampshire born Des Smith is made of sterner stuff. When he was given the chance to manage the planting in the 2012 Garden in the Olympic South Park he needed little persuading. Working in the largest new urban park to be developed in Europe for 150 years, and with the eyes of the world watching, this was to be no ordinary job.
Des followed a traditional career path. Raised in the New Forest, he moved to Chichester as a teenager where his father ran a nursery specialising in salad crops. City and Guilds qualifications and a diploma from Hadlow College followed. A steady succession of positions and a gathering of knowledge and experience led in 1996 to the post of Head Gardener at a 100 acre Kent estate. At this point, Des assumed he had reached the pinnacle of his career. He had no idea when he joined Kent-based Willerby Landscapes in 2010 just how much his life was about to change.
A large part of Des’s responsibility involves a garden, half a mile long that runs parallel to the river and close to the Olympic stadium. It’s a synthesis of the ideas of landscape and garden designer Sarah Price, and Professors Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough of Sheffield University. The clever design not only reminds us of our horticultural past but also provides us with a model for the future. Divided into four sections, each representing a different climatic and geographical zone, it shows us a time line of plants introduced to the UK over the last 600 years. All the plants selected are capable of coping with climate change whilst also being very attractive to wildlife.
The way in which the plants are distributed in the border is new and exciting. Des and his team have had to adapt to a completely different way of planting. Structure is provided by clipped evergreen hedges and strips of ornamental grasses but in between these are ‘field plantings’; a different mix of herbaceous perennials for each of the four geographical zones. Rather than being distributed in drifts or strips as would traditionally be the case in a designed garden, the ‘field plantings’ are placed in a random fashion, just as they would be found in the wild.
Usually, landscapers join a project in its final stage, after the construction team has left. The scale of the Olympic project has not allowed for this luxury. The Park is not just about the Olympics; it’s also been designed with an eye to its future as a public park. Everything, from disabled access to sustainable irrigation (akin to saving the bathwater on an Olympic scale) has been taken into account and provides the best example of its kind. This has meant that, in addition to planting in a new way, Des and his team have also had to adjust to working on a busy site.
Achieving a succession of colourful blooms that last through both the Olympic Games and the Paralympics is essential for the 2012 Garden. The vagaries of the weather have made this even more of a challenge. An unusually warm early spring threatened to stimulate too much growth too soon. But as Des says, nature usually balances itself, and a cool April slowed growth down again without the need for any intervention from his team. He ’s looking forward to seeing the garden ablaze with colour. Penstemon barbatus (Beardlip penstemon) and Callirhoe bushii (Bush’s poppy mallow) are two of his particular favourites.
Gold medal day for Des and his team will be 27th July – the day the Games open. He hopes that the world will come into the 2012 Garden and be amazed. From then on, the challenge will be to keep it looking good, not only for the 5000 people per hour who will walk through it but also for the many millions of us who will see it on television.
Take every opportunity to find out about what is going on in the Olympic Park. This is a sustainable way of gardening that could be adopted in your local park, or on the roundabout at the end of your road, and that we gardeners could reproduce ourselves, however small our plots. There is so much here that should make us proud to be British. It’s our future and it’s a good one.