A couple of bees are busy burying themselves in the private parts of bright pink geraniums. I have it on good authority that ladybirds often lurk among the leaves and grasses too. Oblivious to streams of noisy traffic, nature is thriving on an island of wildness in Broughton.
It’s this “slice of wilderness in the city”, to quote John Frater who designed and planted the borders in Mansfield Place, that stops me on my way home from the corner shop. On a sunny evening flowering grasses catch the light. Something about the planting reminds me of similar free-flowing borders I admired in Berlin a couple of years ago. Not a stiff municipal bedding plant in sight.
And right enough, when I contact Plantforms, Edinburgh garden designer John Frater tells me he spent a week on what sounds like an idyllic gardening course: the Berlin Royal Garden Academy Summer School studying gardens and public spaces in the city. In English. A day with Christian Meyer – the landscape architect who has made his mark with naturalistic plantings across Berlin and many other parts of Germany – inspired John to contact the city council when he got home.
That led to the pilot scheme at Mansfield Place – “a test bed if you like” – which began last year. The aim is to show the benefits of replacing annual plants with a softer more natural scheme of perennials which last for years and, once established, need little maintenance.
It’s a small but perhaps essential step for City of Edinburgh Council and with luck it will go much further. In fact this new kind of planting is beginning to appear on urban roundabouts and city borders across the UK. Under the Sustainability Charter all local authorities must demonstrate efficient use of energy and natural resources and Parks and Gardens departments are no exception. To put it bluntly, producing millions of annual bedding plants costs too much in time, energy, water, waste – and wages.
Now Mansfield Place displays a fine mixture of perennial plants – geraniums, sedums, salvias, spring and summer bulbs – all weaving their way through beautiful waving grasses. The Scottish tufted hair grass Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Schottland’ is the star of the show. “Grasses are the backbone of the planting scheme all year round,” says John “They add height and a soft airyness that can be seen from a distance.” The mix of plants is good for biodiversity – birds, bees, beetles and butterflies – too. And the borders need only a monthly weeding.
Room for growth: John’s picture of the newly planted border last year.
So far so very good. Last year, complimentary comments to the council far outnumbered complaints. This year, as photographs show, plants are bigger and better (most of them survived the harsh winter). In fact the beds look so good I hope the council will gain confidence to let John plant up the whole of the Broughton roundabout instead of asking him to leave space for annuals (in case passers by miss those bright colours).
But that’s far from the end of the story. John, whose first degree was in ecology, has also persuaded the council to allow a more ambitious environmental trial at their nursery. As you can see on his own blog, he is now busy experimenting with seed trials on a spare plot of ground. He hopes to produce a sustainable flowering perennial cover for tricky urban areas like roadside verges and woodland edges. Again there is inspiration from Germany.
So this is a good news story with full marks to City of Edinburgh Parks and Gardens for letting it happen. I am looking forward to following the seed trials – and hope to book a place on one of John’s classes on garden design in autumn and early spring. (And maybe that Englische gartenschule in Berlin!)