There couldn’t have been a more spectacular way to demonstrate Great Britain’s horticultural talent than the planting in the Olympic Park. What a combination of great design, exquisite planting and extraordinary attention to detail.
Earlier in the year, I talked to Des Smith (who managed the planting in the 2012 Garden in the Olympic South Park) as he and his team prepared for the Games. I went back after the Olympics to find out more about his team’s gold medal worthy performance.
When I spoke to Des in the spring, the Olympic park had survived the unusually warm start to the year. Unbeknown to anyone, it was about to be hit by weeks of heavy rain. Des says that there were some tense times during the weeks that followed as torrential downpours threatened to hamper the growth of the wildflower meadows. About five weeks before the Opening Ceremony, there was a particularly heavy storm for which not even the most pessimistic of forecasts could have prepared.
An unexpected amount of debris blocked the drains overnight. Floodwater swept a ton and a half of soil over the paths. Miraculously the well-established plants survived but the pathways were badly stained. They had to be lifted and re-laid.
With many years of experience as a Head Gardener behind him, Des’s careful planning and well thought out contingency arrangements meant that he and the rest of the Willerby Landscape team had everything under control well in advance of the Opening Ceremony. He says that by the last two weeks they were ‘just polishing’.
It was the same good planning that kept the Park looking good throughout the Games. Des split his team into a day shift and a night shift. Part of the day shift’s task was to ensure that all the mowers and tools were working well and, if necessary, topped up with fuel so that, when the night shift clocked-in, they could just get on with the job.
Could anyone have imagined just how much attention the gardens would generate? Ten and a half million people went through the park during the Games and very many of them were completely overwhelmed by the display of flowers. On the second day, so many people were taking pictures of the Southern Hemisphere Garden that they blocked the bridge that overlooked it.
So keen were people to take photographs in the flower meadows that there was a real danger that the plants would be flattened within the first week. With seven weeks still to run, a solution had to be found. It was decided to cutand then rope off a small section. This allowed photographers to get right into the planting; immersing themselves in the glorious colours without causing any damage.
Between the Games, the team allowed themselves a couple of rest days and then went back to work, rejuvenating the lawns, staking and deadheading plants By the time the ParaOlympics started, the Southern Hemisphere garden was almost over but the North American with its purples, blues and yellows, was in full swing.
I asked Des whether there were any plants that performed particularly well? It might have been a silly question to ask about such a meticulously planned garden. Des said that ‘everything had performed as expected’. Perhaps it was the visitors reactions to the planting couldn’t have been predicted? Apparently, the s 2012 Garden’s beauty moved many people to tears. The yards of agapanthus underplanted with yellow osteospermums proved to be particularly popular.
There’s little doubt that, in the gardening world, it is experience that counts. It would appear that the years Des spent as a Head Gardener gave him the cool head he needed to manage such a magnificent garden and under such pressure. By the end of the Games, his calm manner had led to the nickname ‘Des-everything-is-going-to- be-fine-Smith’- and as we all saw, it was.