Getting amongst the flowers

20 August 2021
  • Whastsapp

Designer and professor Nigel Dunnett discusses why the creation of “grammable” colourful plantings schemes could possibly be one of the most serious things we could be doing to help tackle the world’s global challenges. Rachel Anderson reports. 

The Instagrammers amongst us would have noticed the many bluebell pictures that popped up in May as people snapped themselves amidst these pretty blue “carpets.” Certainly, these swathes of bluebells beat anything you could see in Carpetright and, in May last year, the sight of them put a much-needed spring in my step as I went for a walk to escape the home-schooling madness.  

These colourful seas of flowers that we are magnetically drawn to are what Nigel Dunnett, The University of Sheffield’s Professor of Planting and Design and Urban Horticulture, describes as a “superbloom.” They are, he notes, “an amazing natural phenomenon where whole landscapes change colour through flowers.” In some parts of the world, entire mountain ranges change colour thanks to these blooms.  

This urge for people to “get amongst the flowers” is really interesting, notes Nigel, because “it says something very, very deep and very profound about the need for people to have these amazing experiences in nature.”  

Alas, the only blooms I’ve encountered during the past few weeks have been the bloomin’ thousands of slugs that have wreaked havoc in both my garden and allotment. Perhaps I should have ventured into one of the many cities – such as London, Brighton or Sheffield – where Nigel has drawn inspiration from nature and designed urban superblooms. These colourful, naturalistic planting schemes can be experienced by people in everyday places –such as rooftops, walls, sidewalks, roads, parking lots, commercial developments, business parks, as well as parks and gardens. 

One of Nigel’s most renowned commissions has been for the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London for the 2012 Olympic Games. He explains: “The idea of the Olympic Park in London was [for it] to be completely different from any other type of urban park in the UK – normally big areas of lawn, groups of trees and small areas of flower beds.” 

“The intention was to switch that on its head and make it mostly meadows, wetlands and woodlands – with islands of lawns within that matrix – so that people were engulfed and immersed in this hugely natural experience. This integration of people in nature hadn’t been done before in a major urban greenspace.” 

His naturalistic plantings tend to be a cleverly-thought-out mix of bulbs and seeds within a matrix of perennials and grasses designed to seamlessly provide year-round colour.  

Nigel (author of Naturalistic Planting Design: The Essential Guide) declares that, in addition to their aesthetic appeal, such landscape designs can be used to create a “future nature” for all our cities to help tackle global challenges such as: 

  • climate change and extreme weather – cooling down overheated cities, drying out flooded cities and cleaning up polluted cities.  
  • increasing urbanisation and movement of people to cities 
  • loss of biodiversity, habitats and species. 

“A future-nature is about a new nature for the cities. An artful ecology, transformational green, combined with a superbloom emotional response to me gives a way forward for the future because it’s good for people, for the environment, for the planet, and we know it makes good economic sense on so many levels,” he says.  

With these important points in mind, he says that, as horticulturalists, “we have to absolutely be assertive – to stand proud for the ecological value of doing things that are beautiful for people in a naturalistic way.” 

Growers who supply the plants for these “future-nature” schemes obviously have a vital role to play in their creation. The popularity of show-stopping perennials, such as this year’s HTA National Plant Show gold-medal winning allium ‘Lavender Bubbles’ (by Fairweathers), are arguably on the rise in part thanks to the naturalistic planting trend.  

And, given what’s going on in the world right now, few could argue against the implementation of this “artful” ecology. And so, in my bluebell-loving (and slug hating) opinion, ornamentals growers (when considering which plants to raise in future) would be wise to keep these superblooms in mind. 

Nigel Dunnett was the guest speaker at a webinar entitled Future Nature + Superbloom held by Tony Spencer and The New Perennialist on June 15, 2021.