Dear Readers, municipal plantings in parks and public areas used to be the same wherever you were in the country. There would be regular ranks of blue lobelia and red geraniums, edged with white alyssum. Sometimes, the bolder councils would inject some double-flowered marigolds and petunias, and, if they were really going for broke, they might throw in a few bronze-leaved cannas, with big blousy golden flowers. Sadly, none of these plants have much to offer bees and other pollinators. And if you pop down to Islington Green in London today, you will see exactly the kind of planting that I’m talking about.
This kind of planting stays in place for a few months, while bees and butterflies investigate and, disappointed, move on to something that will actually feed them. And then, one day, the plants will be pulled up and thrown in the compost, to be replaced with winter-flowering pansies and primroses. When summer returns, the whole ritual will happen all over again.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with this per se. Some containers of bedding plants add a certain joie de vivre to any garden, and these plants are hardy, long-flowering and low maintenance. The problem comes when city councils, in particular, miss the opportunity to do something a bit more pollinator-friendly. In London, where the gardens are small and the areas of concrete seem never-ending, bees regularly fall starving out of the sky. So on this bright July morning, I went to see what was being done to improve things.
My first stop was Whittington Park, on Holloway Road. My friend Penny tells me that Adolf Hitler is partly responsible for this park, because it is built on the remains of two whole streets that he bombed to bits during the Second World War. But it’s been Islington Council who have turned it into the rather remarkable spot that it is now.
On Holloway Road itself, there are two great swathes of perennial plants, most of them bee and butterfly-friendly.
The blue spikes of eryngium mix with grasses and sunflowers and crocosmia and daylilies. The mauve of Verbena bonariensis stands out against the terracotta-coloured wall of the shop next door.
And in the middle of all this is a four-foot tall model cat, covered in sedum. This is in honour of Dick Whittington’s cat. Dick was a real person, but has become the stuff of legend. No one knows how ‘real’ the cat was, but I choose to believe in his existence, because it makes me happy to think of man and cat having adventures together. It is said that Dick, as a very young man, fled his job as a scullion in the country and headed towards London , where the ‘streets were paved with gold’, along with his cat who was a renowned ratter. It is from close to here that Dick, lonely, exhausted and broke, is said to have been considering going back home when he heard the bells of London saying ‘Turn again, Dick Whittington, Lord Mayor of London’. And so he turned and, together with his faithful cat, headed into the Capital and made his name and his fortune and did, indeed, become Lord Mayor.
What is lovely about Whittington Park is that it is a fully-functioning community resource. There’s an outdoor gym and a football pitch. There’s a nursery and a lovely playground for children. There’s a pond, where some pond-dipping was going on, and a skateboard park.
And there’s also a fenced-off area of wildflowers, which was originally an RSPB experiment to encourage house sparrows. Today it’s much used by bees and hoverflies, and also by a variety of birds who eat the seeds of the thistles and docks. In short, there is something here for everyone, human or animal, and in a very small space too. It just goes to show that wildlife-friendly planting doesn’t have to mean that the whole place turns into a jungle of nettles and bindweed.
Onwards! I jump onto a bus, and then another bus, and finally I arrive at the Barbican. This was previously another site full of red salvia and pots of agapanthus – pretty but sterile. But a few weeks ago, I noticed that it had had a makeover, so I wanted to revisit. And what a transformation it is. All of the beds at the entrance to the complex have been turned into a gravel garden. There are red-hot pokers and scabious and gaura and bee-friendly plants of many types. And it’s working! I saw honeybees and bumblebees, hoverflies and butterflies. At the moment some areas look a bit bare, as the plants are young, but I have no doubt that it will end up looking like an enormous prairie. It blends in well with the ageing Brutalist concrete towers around it, and people were sitting amongst the flowers, eating their sandwiches and relaxing. It’s a bold move to change the planting like this: some people hate the informal look of this kind of bed, and think that it seems ‘weedy’ and unkempt. So kudos to whoever did the Barbican design for sticking to their guns and not taking the easy route.
There is a place, of course, for any kind of plant design. Furthermore, it is much better to have a formal garden than no garden at all. Insects don’t much care whether your plants are native or non-native, and in a city there’s little chance that you’re destroying a pristine habitat by sticking in a couple of lantana. But looking at the drifts of flowers in Whittington Park and at the Barbican, it seems to me that with a bit of imagination we create wonderful spaces, which work for all members of the community, including the ones who aren’t human. My worry is that, with the budget cuts to local councils, the chance for innovation and creativity is restricted, even though a bee-friendly planting doesn’t have to cost more than a standard one. There is nothing like being ‘up against it’ to put a brake on new ideas, because there is no margin for error. Fortunately, these two parks already exist, and will hopefully be a beacon for other councils and other areas. What a boon it would be for all the creatures that pass through them.