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Roots & Radicles 3: biodiverse shopping trolleys, beautiful car parks and Beth

In continuation of our Roots & Radicles event series, back in October the Young Propagators Society assembled at Beth Chatto’s Plants & Gardens. Our speakers were John Little, designer, author, green roof and brownfield expert and all-round visionary, and the Gardens’ own Head Gardener, Åsa Gregers-Warg. In addition we were treated to a ‘behind the scenes’ tour of the nursery and prop areas by David Ward, Garden and Nursery Director and also Trustee of the Beth Chatto Education Trust. We were also delighted to be joined by Beth’s granddaughter, Julia Boulton, who does sterling work as the Gardens’ Managing Director, and who across the day very kindly shared some of her own memories of the garden and of course of Beth herself.

Left to right: John Little, Åsa Gregers-Warg, and David Ward

We kicked things off with John’s talk in the beautiful Willow Room, accompanied by some truly excellent biscuits (thanks Dave). John’s enthusiasm is infectious, and listening to him speak is captivating because of how he knits together his wide-ranging expertise not only as a designer but also as an experienced gardener, wildlife expert, policy critic - I’d settle on ‘innovator’ as the best word to describe him, but ‘provocateur’ would not be far behind...

Having dedicated many years to maintenance gardening in East London, John began by noting the system changes that are needed to move us to a new paradigm, away from the tyranny of the ubiquitous strimmer (where 'maintenance' is equated to wantonly cutting back). He spoke passionately of the need to essentially invert funding models, committing the bulk of funds towards continued maintenance by skilled horticulturists rather than one-off cash allocations for ‘shiny’ new projects which are unlikely to have been co-created with the community. This was not the only resonance between John’s words and what Carole Wright and Richard Choksey explored at our previous Roots & Radicles, on community gardening: John also talked of how currently the nature of typical maintenance work does not encourage any engagement with residents of the estates managed, but that there are both horticultural and social rewards for fostering this relationship.

Here’s John giving an example of how, inspired by conversations with local people, he introduced a favourite plant for them:

John’s idea of making use of the existing structure of the railings is a perfect illustration of his resourcefulness, and he expanded on the role of physical structures in landscape design later in his talk.

Residents collecting grapevine (dolma) leaves - photo credit John Little

Questioning the status quo and seeing opportunities in unexpected places is something John proposed may be down to his not having followed a traditional education in horticulture - food for thought, though I suspect whatever environment John might have found himself in, he would always have had radical tendencies! Throughout the day it seemed so fitting to have these conversations in the embrace of Beth Chatto’s Gardens - after all, as Åsa illustrated in her own talk later, Beth herself repeatedly faced censure for her own joyful experiments, wildly before their time. I think particularly of the story of when Beth first entered RHS shows and was almost disqualified for showing ‘weeds’; now much-beloved plants in many a garden.

Verbascum in the Gravel Garden

Seeing the potential of the unappreciated was a running theme, as John gave the example of how - distracted by our obsession with ‘scraps of ancient woodland’ or meadow - we overlook the potential of new landscapes for supporting wildlife. He cites ex-dumping ground (of dredging waste) Canvey Wick, now one of the most biodiverse areas in the whole of the UK, noting that a full 20% of SSSIs are located on ex-sites of mineral extraction such as chalk pits.

Alternative substrates to soil is one of John’s areas of expertise (which reminded me very much of Tom Freeth telling us about 'pumice prop' at our very first Roots & Radicles at Chelsea Physic), and he brought along a cornucopia of samples he says all support strong and healthy plant growth, the most bonkers of which was probably the ceramic mix made of crushed up toilets and sinks:

Substrate samples - photo credit John Little

Substrate samples - photo credit John Little

What's inspiring about listening to John talk is his conviction that system change is possible if we first broaden our perspectives then set our minds to it. Here he waxes lyrical about the overlooked potential of road embankments, and describes how thanks to recent policy change, they could become rich new habitats for plant- and wildlife, all while saving costs:

As he points out, if highway authorities can do it, then so can gardeners - as of course some pioneers already are, such as Peter Korn.

Indeed, like all the best innovators, John's experiments begin at home, where he is continually trialling new media for plant growth which in turn create habitats for wildlife.

photo credit John Little

A recent feature he's created in his own garden are some 'piles of sand' (purchased from waste from the very same A13-widening project), now providing habitats to more than 20 species (at the last count) of solitary bee.

photo credit John Little
One of John's 'piles of sand' full of bee nesting sites (the holes in the sand) - photo credit John Little

He also referenced the Great Dixter Biodiversity Audit, noting that biodiversity is not only boosted by the year round buffet of flowering plants providing food, nor the (beneficial) disturbance to the landscape by gardening processes, but it is also the structural diversity provided by old barns and buildings which adds complexity and in turn supports biodiversity.

He returned to this idea with the example (supported by this study: 'Litter provides habitat for diverse animal communities in rivers') of discarded shopping trolleys in waterways as a fantastic habitat for all kinds of creatures, given many of the natural structural complexity such as fallen tree limbs or mixed water plant communities are often lacking. What if we capitalised on those findings and intentionally designed that structural diversity into the landscapes we create?

Here's more on John's vision inspired by shopping trolleys:

The idea of designing art for animals (like John's example of a sculpture which is intentionally a habitat) is such an intriguing one - it prompted me to think of Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg's new project at the Eden Project, 'Pollinator Pathway' which uses algorithmic design to create a garden optimised specifically for pollinators, both in layout and planting. Our next Roots & Radicles event (later this week on 5th March, in East Sussex - details here) will explore the links between gardening, art and creativity - so maybe this is something we'll have time to explore further then.

John's ideas definitely raise the question of authorship and responsibility: since we're unavoidably agents in the landscape - manipulating it, unbalancing it, disrupting it - can we make our influence on other life around us a positive one? Especially since we're already responsible for the destruction of many of the naturally occurring features which sustain life.

With that in mind, John rhapsodised on intentionally badly pruned trees and dead-hedges as examples of