It didn’t take long. Just a year after the spectacular Olympics finished, the northern parklands of the new Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park were opened to the public. By early autumn, families were walking, cycling or enjoying the Tumbling Bay Playground; one of the most engaging children’s play areas imaginable.
The transformation of the South Park was more complicated and took a little longer, opening to visitors in April 2014. Des Smith, Willerby Landscape’s Head Gardener, and his team, who were responsible for the magnificent planting in the Olympic 2012 Garden, returned in April 2013 to develop South Park’s exciting new landscaping.
During the Olympics, the South Park was home to the Stadium and the Aquatics Centre. The vast expanse of concrete between the two venues, essential for coping with the large number of visitors to the Olympic site, is no longer necessary. Today, the miles of security fences and the enormous concourse have disappeared. Instead, visitors to the Stadium and the Aquatics centre can enjoy the South Plaza: an area designed for play, events and activities. It’s been softened and defined by new planting schemes installed by Des and his team.
One element of the landscaping that will be particularly memorable for generations to come is an avenue of 100 newly planted semi-mature native trees. The Quercus paulustris, Q. rubra, Q. robur and Liriodendron chosen for the avenue will provide vibrant colour in the autumn They also give height and structure to this previously flat and open space. Planting such large specimens in such a windy spot and in very new soil could have been problematic. However, Des says that they weren’t concerned as they have ‘tried and tested methods of anchoring trees’ and indeed, all survived the difficult winter of 2013.
Garden designer, author and nurseryman, Piet Oudolf, is responsible for the choice of plants in the beds. Des says that his team worked very closely with the Dutch designer in order to understand the approach he wanted them to take. Using ‘robust’ herbaceous perennials and grasses, they were encouraged to plant ‘by the feel’ rather than sticking rigidly to the drawn design.
Unlike the planting method the team used in the 2012 gardens, they’ve planted in drifts to which they’ve added accent plants. As the planting matures, it will further divide the plaza, forming screens and herbaceous ‘hedges’.
Over in the 2012 gardens, most of the planting remains as it was during the Olympics. Some sections however, were adjusted to allow for changes in the way that visitors move around the transformed South Park. Des explains that 1,200 plants had to be removed from the Southern Hemisphere Garden to make room for the new Westfield Bridge extension.
Despite the changes, nothing has been wasted. Plants that were not needed were donated to charities. Delmelza Kent Children’s Hospice Garden of Tranquillity project and Spadework, a Garden Centre/Farm that works with adults with learning difficulties are two of the charities that have benefitted from the park’s transformation.
Des says that his goal was to get the bulk of the planting finished before the winter set in. Given his team’s performance during the Olympics, it’s little surprise to learn that everything was finished on time. But who could have predicted the winter that followed? While gardeners around the country struggled with the difficult conditions, Des points out that the mild and wet winter of 2013 was just what the South Park needed. It ‘helped enormously’ with the establishment of the young plants and the newly laid turf. He says that, once they are established, the plants will be ‘almost indestructible’.
We look forward to watching the landscaping of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park’s South Park mature.