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The RHS Wisley garden with links to Olympic Park landscapes

PUBLISHED: 09:50 28 November 2012 | UPDATED: 22:26 20 February 2013

The RHS Wisley garden with links to Olympic Park landscapes

The RHS Wisley garden with links to Olympic Park landscapes

If you were lucky enough to get tickets for the Olympics, you may well have admired the landscape that formed the iconic backdrop to the London 2012 Games. Back in Surrey, Leigh Clapp experiences the innovative meadow planting closer to home

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine November 2012


If you were lucky enough to get tickets for the Olympics, you may well have admired the landscape that formed the iconic backdrop to the London 2012 Games. Back in Surrey, Leigh Clapp experiences the innovative meadow planting closer to home with a visit to the prairie meadow at RHS Garden Wisley, created by the same designer


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Although the main focus of the London 2012 Olympics was, of course, to celebrate the sporting prowess of the world, the site itself is of great interest too, as the largest urban parkland to be created in London since the 19th century.


Two-and-half square kilometres of reclaimed industrial land by the River Lea have become rolling grassy contours, formal gardens, managed meadows and wetland areas. Central to the landscape design is an emphasis on sustainability and providing a permanent park as a long-term legacy of the Games that people can enjoy in years to come.


One of the key players in the design of the Olympic landscape was Professor James Hitchmough, from the Department of Landscape at Sheffield University, who has revolutionised the way sustainable meadows are designed and managed. If you were fortunate enough to visit the site, you will have seen the visual impact of ten hectares of pollen-rich perennial and annual meadows, awash with golden blooms and alive with bees and other insects.


The main meadows, in the north park, are composed of native species only, to provide a sense of local character and also support as much wildlife as possible, says James. They are unlike most nature conservation meadows, however, as they are also designed to be colourful and attractive as well.


My work in the south park uses non-native species (USA and SA) and celebrates the gardening traditions of the British over the last 500 years.


In both areas, I chose to use random repeating patterns of individual plants, rather than planting in blocks.


A golden opportunity
You can also experience this trend-setting concept of managed low-maintenance perennial meadows closer to home, by visiting RHS Garden Wisley, where in 2008 James Hitchmough designed the Perennial Meadow that spreads out behind the glasshouse.


The planting scheme is designed to build year after year and for a long season of interest, from pasque flowers in March, through vibrant echinaceas, rudbeckias and kniphofias in summer and autumn, to statuesque skeletal seed heads in winter.


Tall accent plants emerge out of dense ground-level foliage in a meadow-like natural scene. The majority of the plants come from North America, with a few species from Europe and Asia. With an aim of sustainable management, so that it can be maintained relatively easily and cheaply by the RHS staff, the area is not fertilised and since it was established has not been watered.


In November, the last asters add colour against the parchment tones of prairie grasses and browning seed heads have a beauty of their own as they add chocolate punctuation marks to the landscape. Torches of golden kniphofia, a favourite plant that James frequently uses as he finds them visually extraordinary, catch in the light, and fire-red switch grasses add flickering flame effects.


James is keen for people to wander through the meadows he has created and enjoys hearing their feedback.


I hope my meadows are exciting for people; a bit like Willy Wonka and the chocolate factory, he says. Most of my work is about trying to deliver, through understanding of design, ecology and horticultural, experiences that are sustainable but breathtaking to look at.


If you want to get ordinary people to engage with the natural world it helps if you can exaggerate their experiences a bit like watching David Attenborough wildlife documentaries.



  • RHS Garden Wisley, Woking GU23 6QB: 0845 260 9000 / rhs.org.uk

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