© Michael Kappeler/Photoshot
Welcome to the green Games — 250 hectares of landscape that is as sustainable and wildlife-friendly as it is jaw-droppingly beautiful. The London Olympic Park, the largest new open space in the capital for 150 years, has acres of woodlands and wetlands, wildflower meadows and global gardens, and has, without doubt, raised the bar of British horticulture and landscape design.
“There is always a huge focus on the buildings at the Olympics,” says Professor Nigel Dunnett, the park’s chief planting design and horticultural consultant with colleague Professor James Hitchmough, and the UK’s ecological expert on pictorial meadows and green roofs.
© Michael Kappeler/EPA
“But this time there is as much emphasis on the landscape as the buildings. Britain, after all, is the home of gardening. We wanted the London 2012 Olympics to showcase the best of British horticulture, as well as the best of world sport.”
What makes the Olympic Park different from any other urban park, aside from the scale, is the hugely successful mix of ecology and horticulture.
And the scale is staggering: more than 10 football pitches’ worth of annual and perennial flowering meadows; 4,000 semi-mature trees to provide shelter from wind and sun; more than 300,000 wetland plants, many grown in Norfolk and Wales or raised from cuttings and seeds collected from the park before construction began, all now planted on its riverbanks.
The London Olympic Park 2012 Gardens stretch for half a mile between the aquatics centre and the stadium and celebrate the centuries-old British passion for plants, with 60,000 plants and 60,000 bulbs from 250 different species across the world, divided into four temperate regions: Europe, Americas, Asia and the southern hemisphere.
The real challenge, says Dunnett, was to create a colourful, horticultural extravaganza — a sensational visitor attraction — that would also provide at least 50 hectares of native habitats.
© Paul Debois for Which? Gardening
“This was a strict condition laid down by the planners, within a biodiversity action plan. It’s a great idea in principle but the reality is harder. Often planting that is wild and natural is very green, and we needed lots of eye-catching colour and flowers.”
Thus the wildflower meadows, both perennial and annual, unusually have no grass but are flower-rich to give the best display. Gardeners, put your wildflower orders in now. On the shady slopes are a mix of meadow cranesbill, red clover, bloody cranesbill, great burnet and musk mallow; on the drier, sunnier slopes are a dreamy, fragrant blend of thyme, oregano, viper’s bugloss, wild carrot and calamint.
The lawns are species-rich with short-growing wildflowers which can compete with grass and are drought-tolerant, so that in a normal summer they will stay green when the grass goes brown.
The list of animal species for which new habitats have been created is long and impressive, ranging from fungus beetle and toadflax brocade moth to otter, grey heron and kingfisher.
The Olympic Gold Meadows, a glorious yellow and gold ribbon of flowers that runs around the stadium, comprises, says Dunnett, the largest area of direct-sown annual meadow in the UK, but is also easy to emulate on a small scale.
“We sowed this spring and the flowers will carry on till the frosts, providing a succession of colour. The open daisy heads will also attract pollinating insects.”
The show starts with Star of the Veldt, Calendula Orange King and Californian poppy, progressing to corn marigold Chrysanthemum segetum and, finally, tickseed Coreopsis tinctoria. “Cornflowers add specks of blue to highlight the yellow and gold,” says Dunnett.
“If you copy this in your garden, leave the flowers standing and by the following February or March they’ll be brittle and straw-like, so you can rake over the ground and re-sow, though some flowers will have self-seeded.”
Plantaholics will love the mixed perennials plantings in the 2012 gardens, which Dunnett and Hitchmough co-designed with rising star designer Sarah Price, and which introduce some newcomers that could become garden-centre stalwarts of the future. In the North America zone, for example, are two little-known gems from the prairies.
“Callirhoe bushii is a spectacular purple mallow that weaves its way around other plants, and flowers for months,” says Dunnett. “Echinacea paradoxa is a yellow coneflower that looks like a rudbeckia but flowers earlier and longer.”
The planting needs to hit its flowering peak at the end of July, not a high spot in the horticultural calendar, especially with the lacklustre summer thus far. “We’ve had to mow off the meadows and cut back perennials that would normally be finished, so that they regrow and are at their best for the opening ceremony. But many of the prairie plants have just started flowering. So it’s a mix of plants that flower naturally now, and management of plants that just won’t wait.”
The message Dunnett would like people to take home is simple but important: “Wildlife gardens aren’t full of nettles and an embarrassment. They can look beautiful as well as be sustainable, and bring in the bees and butterflies.”
Unlike most horticultural showcases, the planting has to last, and the Olympic Park become a regional park to delight future generations. “We didn’t want to do the usual pastiche of Victorian England. We’re saying: ‘Look, this is what the future holds — a whole new way of designing and managing urban green spaces.”
*There are still tickets available to some events at the London Olympics as well as the Paralympics. The park closes when the Paralympics end on September 9, and is set to reopen next year.