Plastic Pollution in the Pearlfisher Garden

I have loved the marine environment ever since my first school biology field trip to Anglesey. Although I moved through a career in English to garden and nature writing, I’ve never lost my affinity for the sea. I became a member of the Marine Conservation Society many years ago and started learning about and campaigning on the issues of marine pollution. Although society is slowly coming to terms with the fact that our throw-away culture is doing untold damage to many habitats – especially the marine environment – we are still too quick to dismiss the changes that are needed, perhaps because their magnitude seems beyond our powers.

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The Pearlfisher Garden aims to stimulate debate on marine pollution

But attitudes can change – I was involved in campaign organising in my home town around ten years ago – we surveyed the public about their attitudes to plastic bag waste and tried to persuade retailers to reduce the number of plastic bags they gave out to customers. At the time we were greeted with incomprehension and, at times, derision whereas now one-use plastic bags are accepted to have a negative impact on the environment, even if there is still some way to go to eradicate them completely. I believe the more we debate issues such as these, the more quickly change will brought about, so a Chelsea garden focusing on plastic pollution in the marine environment immediately caught my attention.

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Air plants (Tillandsia usneoides) in jellyfish mode

The Concept

The Pearlfisher Garden, created by Pearlfisher Founding Creative Partner, Karen Welman and designer John Warland, celebrates the largest garden on the planet – the underwater world of the great oceans, and highlights the perils it faces due to human activities. Descending into the garden is an immersion on many levels; ripples play on the crazy paving from sunlight passing through the aquatic tanks and plastic bottle wall, and marine flora and corals (represented by the succulents, cacti and air plants) are growing or floating in every corner. 

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Submerged in the underwater garden

Planting

Designer John Warland has used the San Pedro cactus (Trichocereus pachanoi f. cristata) with its undulating foliage which mimics the look of kelp suspended in seawater and woolly senecio (Senecio haworthii) which has similarly waving fronds. Coral is represented by the jade plant (Crassula ovata) with its red-edged, tubular foliage and cacti like the chin cactus (Gymnocalycium mihanovichii) and the mistletoe cactus (Rhipsalis baccifera) create the contorted shapes and vivid colours of the coral reef. 

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A selection of succulents and cacti from the garden

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The bleached and dying Coral Man

Every year more corals reefs across the world are being devastated due to rising sea temperatures causing acidification of the water and their plight is highlighted in renowned sculptor and environmentalist Jason deCaires Taylor’s ‘Coral Man’ figure by the entrance to the garden.

The contrast between the organic shapes and vibrant colours of the planting against the muted tones of the Coral Man suggests the beauty and diversity that will be irrevocably lost unless solutions to climate change and warming oceans are found in the near future.

Solutions

The garden also offers solutions to what can appear to be an insoluble problem. Across the world we manufacture 78 million tonnes of plastic annually, of which a staggering 32% ends up in the oceans. This waste plastic, as we’ve all seen in the news recently, harms and kills marine life, and we are just becoming aware of the dangers of microplastics to human life too. 

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The bottle wall

In the garden, 500 plastic bottles make up the transluscent wall at the rear of the garden, representing the amount of plastic thrown into the ocean every 2.5 seconds. Reducing, reusing and recycling plastic is becoming increasingly important, as shown by the 3D printed pearl diver – made from recycled PLA plastic – rising from the centre of the circular suspended ocean ceiling. The pearl diver – or Japanese Ama uminchu – symbolises humankind living in harmony with the ocean; an largely forgotten skill which needs to be revived if ocean ecosystems and human life are to have a long term future on earth.

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The recycled pearl fisher

What Will The Pearlfisher Garden Achieve?

The garden acts as a window into an underwater world that few of us will have the privilege of seeing in person. It has always been the case that ecosystems outside our common experience, especially those beneath the sea or the ground – marine and soil environments – are afforded less protection. These habitats often go unseen and we don’t recognise what is being lost until it’s too late.

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Tanya Streeter, world champion freediver, modelling a gown made by Brighton Art students from waste plastic washed up on the beach

But with the pioneering work of marine scientists being brought into the public realm by organisations like the Marine Stewardship Council and programmes like ‘Blue Planet’, we can no longer plead ignorance of the state of the world’s oceans. There are, undoubtedly, many unknowns when it comes to solving the plastic crisis, but there are also many small changes we can make which, collectively, will make a big difference:

  • use reusable water bottles
  • use reusable coffee cups
  • boycott balloon releases
  • avoid plastic drinking straws (unless a necessity) and use paper cotton buds
  • join a beach clean
  • support the work of organisations like the Plastic Oceans UK and Marine Conservation Society

If the Pearlfisher Garden stimulates debate and helps to encourage change – for example, persuading organisations like the RHS lead the way on banning one-use plastic from their shows and sites – then, to my mind, the Pearlfisher Garden will have been both an aesthetic and ethical success.

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Theresa May visited the garden whilst I was photographing it – I hope the garden highlighted to her the urgency with which this issue needs to be treated

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Gardening For A Sustainable Future

Wild, evocative show gardens like James Basson’s M&G Garden, inspired by the landscape of Malta, new plants to discover (my favourite this year is Raymond Evison’s Clematis ‘Pistachio’) and new technologies like the use of microalgae to capture energy at Capel Manor’s ‘Compost, Energy, Light’ Garden: these are all part of what makes RHS Chelsea such a captivating and vibrant show. But after six hours exploring the showground, learning about new plants and discovering new ways to combine old favourites, I had still to find a garden that evoked feelings strong enough to draw me into its story and planting, creating what Coleridge described as the ‘suspension of disbelief’ – in which the show garden recedes and you find yourself immersed in a landscape where nothing external exists. Then I found myself in Nigel Dunnett’s RHS Greening Grey Britain Garden and the showground faded away. Wandering through the garden, past the black elder (Sambucus nigra ‘Gerda’), surrounded by the loose planting of Camassia quamash, Euphorbia palustris, Dianthus carthusianorum, Libertia chilensis Formosa Group and Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ in deep purples and vibrant lime greens, with soft water over pebbles and looking up to green walls and roofs, I was in a garden that created a sense of peace: an instinctive oneness with both the planting and the environment.

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Nigel’s vibrant planting remains soft and delicate throughout

Up on the balcony overlooking the lower garden, Nigel explained that the main garden is designed as a community space where residents of high-rise and apartment developments could come together to relax, socialise and enjoy the planting based on drought tolerant, low maintenance species like Euphorbia cyparissias ‘Fen’s Ruby’ and Stachys byzantina that will thrive in our warming climate. The water channels running beside the walkways and benches create a sense of tranquility for residents and also provide hollows and wetland areas to deal with runoff from flash floods, whilst the pebbles enable water levels to remain higher even in dry periods. Like Nigel’s 2015 Greening Grey Britain Garden at RHS Hampton Court, this garden includes recycled materials, green walls and green roofs. I was pleased to see the binstore green roof, having designed a similar roof on my binstore after being inspired by the idea at Hampton Court in 2015. Next to the binstore, tall, multi-tiered ‘Creature Towers’ designed with recycled materials mirror the high-rise apartments, offering urban homes for the insects which form such an important part of the natural ecosystem.

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High-rise insect homes

On the balcony, intended as a private garden, Nigel demonstrates how even tiny outdoor spaces can provide colour and edible crops. The small wooden planters are full of tomatoes, artichokes, herbs and a wisteria which trails along the balcony, whilst the walls provide a vertical growing space with a simple pocket design attached to a mesh on the wall. These pockets can be used for planting or simply to place plants still in their pots and the wall is small enough to be watered by hand, making this a practical and sustainable way to maximise space, especially as many of the plants (like the Mediterranean herbs thyme and oregano) require little water. Looking down from the balcony the private garden is set in context – a small space to provide privacy, flowers and food: a personalised area within a larger landscape of community planting.

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Edible green wall

As a community garden volunteer, I believe that working with plants is a healing and nurturing activity. Gardening also helps us to appreciate the fundamental role that plants play in our lives: a role that will become even more important in the future. As climatic challenges arise we will need to develop our understanding of horticulture, crop production and environmental protection to keep up with the changing climate, so engaging young minds with the beauty and importance of nature is a priority. With this in mind, the fact that the plants and other elements will be relocated to a school garden via the BBC One Show’s competition after Chelsea ends exemplifies the ethos of the garden and adds to its environmental credentials. The only addition I would like to have seen was more detail on the information leaflet about the plants chosen for their drought-resistant or pollution-soaking qualities, for example links to the informative RHS website pages, such as the section covering plants which tolerate dry conditions.

During my recent sessions running a growing club at my local primary school, I have seen firsthand the impact that becoming involved in gardening has on children. They are so open and keen to learn about the magic of nature, so receptive to the ‘wow’ moments when a seed germinates or when they learn to identify a plant. After half term I’m planning a session about careers in horticulture and botany – looking at what it takes to become a greenkeeper, a NASA plant scientist, a horticultural therapist or a park ranger. Maybe one of my pupils or a student from the school which receives the RHS Garden will become a future soil scientist or a biodiversity officer. Let’s hope so because we need experts in these fields like never before. The RHS Greening Grey Britain Garden has engaged the horticultural community in discussions about sustainable gardening, offered environmentally-friendly options for both domestic gardeners and landscape architects and I’m sure it will go on to inspire the next generation when it becomes part of a school garden. The creation of a show garden with this level of aesthetic and environmental integrity is an impressive achievement, especially when it provides such a practical model for the development of urban spaces in the future. 

A garden full of practical ideas, yet suffused with beauty

Further information about the Greening Grey Britain campaign and to sign up to turn a grey area green, follow the link to the RHS website.

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Planting Palettes: Reflections on RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2016

Returning home from Chelsea yesterday and on waking this morning my main recollections of the show were all infused with colour, my brain still awash with the contrasts and blends which lent a particular character to each garden and plant exhibit. I’ve been entertained, surprised and soothed by the colours of Chelsea in the past and there’s no doubt that hues, tints and shades are a key part of designing gardens that engage the observer. But this year the use of colour spoke to me more directly, both the broad brush strokes across the show and the details of specific gardens.

Purple Predilections

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Purple, yellow, orange and white flowers and foliage in The St John’s Hospice – A Modern Apothecary

I could be accused of being a purpleaholic. I love purple flowers in all their guises – whether it be blending the soft purple of Verbena bonariensis or Allium ‘Purple Rain’ in gentle pastel colour schemes, using purple Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ to contrast with the zingy orange of a geum like ‘Prinses Juliana’ or using the deep purple centres of flowers like Centaurea montana ‘Amethyst in Snow’ or Nigella papillosa ‘African Bride’ against their white petals for delicate accents in the border. Purple foliage also has many uses aesthetically and for cutting. I’m particularly fond of Sambucus nigra Black Lace and even purple Pak Choi (Brassica rapa subsp. chinensis ‘Purple Choy Sum’), Kohlrabi (Brassica oleracea subsp. gongylodes ‘Azur Star’) and Kale (Brassica oleracea ‘Redbor’). All of these plants can be used to bring interest and beauty to a cottage or potager garden, whilst also supplying the table with vibrant vegetables and pink elderflower cordial.

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Calendula officinalis ‘Long Flowering’, Viola tricolor, Beta vulgaris ‘Bull’s Blood’, Amaranthus ‘Red Army’, and Allium schoenoprasum create a vibrant purple/red and orange mix

So I enjoyed the mix of purples in the flowers and foliage of The St John’s Hospice – A Modern Apothecary. Whilst appreciating the calm atmosphere evoked by the cobbled path, trickling water feature and gentle planting, I could also imagine a light salad eaten on one of the oak benches consisting of red/purple beetroot and brassica leaves (high in healthy anthocyanidins) and sprinkled with edible petals from the viola, chives and calendula.

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Surrounding the ‘Wellness’ water feature, the flowering thymes (‘Iden’, ‘Peter Davis’, ‘Porlock’ and ‘Fragrantissimus’) create a purple patchwork of texture and colour

The next study in purple I encountered was The LG Smart Garden, where purple combined with pale pinks and white results in an elegantly exuberant planting scheme.

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The gentle purples of the Hesperis matronalis, Linaria purpurea ‘Canon Went’, Phlox divaricate subsp. laphamii ‘Chattahoochee’, the soft blue of the Iris ‘Jane Philips’ and the white spires of Digitalis purpurea f. albiflora and Eremurus robustus create a soft celebratory atmosphere in this garden

 

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The soft blend of pastels in The LG Smart Garden contrast with the minimalist black and white hard landscaping

In The Chelsea Barracks Garden, Jo Thompson uses bronze foliage and sculpture as a background to the soft planting. However, unlike The LG Smart Garden, this garden takes the eye on a colour-based journey around the bronze-edged elliptical lawn.

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The pink and blue end of The Chelsea Barracks Garden

Beginning with blues and pinks alongside the purple foliage of Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’, the sightline travels past the Basaltite stone wall with bronze fins echoed in the handsome foliage of the Fagus sylvatica f. purpurea, which looks stunning next to the Digitalis purpurea ‘Sutton’s Apricot’.

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Darker purples and pinks adjacent to the bronze sculpted seating

 

When your gaze finally reaches the other end of the garden, the striking colours of Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’, Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ and ‘Amistad’, Rosa ‘Nuits de Young’, ‘Chianti’ and ‘Reine des Violettes’ and the purple stems of the Angelica archangelica contrast with the gentle colours at the beginning of the visual journey.

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Finally my purple preoccupation was almost sated in the Great Pavilion when I came across this wall of Heuchera ‘Obsidian’ (one of my favourite heucheras) and Echeveria ‘Pollux’. An impractical, but arresting and absorbing diversion.

Colour Blocks

In The Modern Slavery Garden, Juliet Sargeant uses striking blocks of colour to represent the bright social exterior which conceals the reality that people are still being held in captivity in the UK and forced to work without pay. Lupins, peonies, foxgloves and irises form a strong architectural framework in this garden. The message is bold and important and so is the planting.

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The Brewin Dolphin Garden – Forever Freefolk

Rosy Hardy’s garden is another space where colour dances for the spectator from the bright pathway to the wonderful daubs of unresolved planting. The vibrant contrasts serve to accentuate each plant, showcasing individual features that might get lost in more subtle colour schemes. Particular highlights include Achillea ‘Moonshine’, Geum ‘Red Wings’ and ‘Totally Tangerine’, Allium stipitatum ‘Mount Everest’ and Salvia ‘Eveline’.

Not to be outdone, the Grand Pavilion has stepped up to the colour challenge and delivered an engaging floral exhibit which showcases white and green flowers and foliage on one side and the Queen’s head resplendent in floral technicolor on the other. The exhibit was designed by Ming Veevers Carter for the New Covent Garden Flower Market to celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday. It is bold and striking, and I thought it might be rather strident, but up close the flowers have a beauty which I found softened the whole effect.

Filigree Colour

The use of strong colour blocks to showcase individual plants and their features is effective, but nothing at the show drew me into the gardens like the latticework effects of the lacy umbellifers and other intricate flowers hiding in between the frothy grasses. Such planting combinations are a study in the subtle use of colour, none more so than in my favourite garden – The Winton Beauty of Mathematics Garden, designed by Nick Bailey.

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The Winton Beauty of Mathematics Garden uses delicately smudged purples and oranges

I found the planting in the gravel borders absolutely riveting. Spires of Resda alba rise gently from the speckled Briza mediaGeum ‘Mai Tai’, Iris ‘Kent Pride’, Allium atropurpureaCentaurea montana ‘Jordy’, Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurascens’ and Calendula officinalis ‘Sherbert Fizz’ (which I first used in a design earlier this year and which I’m growing from seed in my own garden). The colour of this calendula attracted me because of its coppery, almost muddy tone – a characteristic shared at Chelsea this year with other subtle orange flowers such as Geum ‘Mai Tai’, Eremurus ‘Cleopatra’ in the RHS Greening Grey Britain garden and Verbascum x hybridum ‘Copper Rose’ in The Chelsea Barracks Garden. I also grow Allium atropurpurea, a favourite allium which I noticed was just beginning to flower this morning in the espalier/herb border. The deep purple rigid structure of this allium echoes another treasure in this scheme – the almost black Centaurea montana ‘Jordy’ with its delicately feathered petals. The flowers can get lost when combined with green foliage, but here it forms small velvety black holes in front of the orange Geum ‘Mai Tai’.

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The soft planting looks stunning in front of the copper band symbolising the germination and growth of a seedling which sweeps around the centre of the garden

The use of umbellifers is popular once again at this year’s show. Their lacy beauty acts as a foil for other plants and creates a shimmering backdrop against which to exhibit stronger colours. I loved the umbellifer combinations in the RHS Greening Grey Britain garden and the way they create a latticework of structure and colour. From the tall Angelica archangelica, to Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’, a lovely dark-leaved form of our native cow parsley, which froths up behind another beautiful umbellifer, Orlaya grandiflora. The clear, white flowers of the Orlaya highlight the dusky reds of Verbascum ‘Firedance’, Lupinus ‘Towering Inferno’ and Rosa ‘Heidetraum’.

Then on the other side of the path the froth continues with this beautiful combination of strong orange Geum ‘Prinses Juliana’ and the lovely purple Lysimachia ‘Beaujolais’ both emerging from beneath Deschampsia cespitosa.

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Delicate colour contrasts through the wispy grasses

I found one final umbellifer delight at Pennard Plants in the Great Pavilion whilst exploring their unusual vegetable range in the modern allotment area. A new one on me, it’s called the earth chestnut, giant pignut or black cumin (Bunium bulbocastanum) and has a tuberous root which can be eaten raw or cooked and tastes like sweet chestnut. And so I end where I began – with a plant which is both beautiful and edible. I’m off to find some and plant it alongside soft orange Geum ‘Mai Tai’, Calendula officinale ‘Sherbert Fizz’, Briza media and my Allium atropurpurea and Centaurea montana ‘Jordy’ in a pale recreation of a mathematical garden which will colour my memories of Chelsea for many years to come.

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Earth chestnuts at Pennard Plants