Olympic Dreams

Just like our top athletes in training, there's currently a touch of the Olympic dreams about the land surrounding the stadium being built for London 2012. There was also a dream-like quality to Sarah Price's presentation at the Palmstead workshop last month: she's part of the design team involved with the Olympic Park project and much of what she showed us was similar to the above picture from this month's (October 2010) Garden Design Journal. You can see more examples on the Olympics website (click on the set called Parklands) as well as a marvellous aerial shot of the wetland awaiting its transformation.

I'm really excited about this project. The Olympic Park is the largest public park built in Europe since Victorian times. It'll be 40 acres of diverse landscapes including a fantastic brand new wetland area as the River Lea has been released from its former channelised constraints.

It's also a project which is (unusually) bridging the gap between garden design and landscape architecture: Sarah is an award winning garden designer and I'm delighted Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough are involved as I've long been an admirer of their work in landscape ecology at Sheffield University. The main companies involved are LDA Design and Hargreaves Associates.

Sarah said the initial brief was along the lines of a botanic garden, where the planting would be by individual families. However, after much discussion a world plant community approach was agreed to include e.g. moist montane grassland, European meadows and the prairies of North America and South Africa. This approach also reflects the Olympic family coming together for the games. From this initial brainstorm a number of design concepts were also identified:
  • The British as a gardening people
  • Gardens as biodiversity hotspots
  • Plants from all over the world
  • The development of cultivated plants over the past 500 years
Much of the planting will be in strips of structural foliage layers with lots low foliage topped with plants with naked stems such as Echinacea so visitors can see through the planting. Part of Sarah's role was to visualise how these might look as shown in the above photograph. Lots of mood boards were put together too. From these visualisations spreadsheets for each community were assembled so that the plants and numbers required could be calculated. There's over 4,000 trees, 80,000 plants and 60,000 bulbs. Whilst the Games are for a specific time of year, the plants are designed to give year-round interest and will form part of their legacy.

Palmstead Nurseries, the workshop's hosts won the bid to supply the herbaceous plants and bulbs, so Nick Coslett was able to give us an insight from the commercial viewpoint. He admitted that the planting list includes a number of species and cultivars they're unfamiliar with and so they've forged a number of new partnerships during the tendering process.

Whilst Palmstead is a very large nursery, the sheer number of plants means they've had to sub-contract out some of their supply. For example West Kington Nurseries near me will be supplying some of the Gladiolus cultivars needed. I wonder whether the needs of the Olympics will have an effect on the availability of a number of plants to garden designers and garden centres and over the next year or so?

A little glimpse of the Olympic Gold meadows. on TwitpicWhat wasn't clear from the workshop was how much of the planting is in place, so I was pleased when Matthew Wilson said he was at the site earlier this week to record a series on how the build is going for Gardeners' Question Time for broadcast in about 3 weeks time. In the summer I saw this wonderful 'Gold Meadow' around the main stadium: a variation of the Pictorial Meadows some of you are already familiar with and which echoes what every athlete dreams of winning.

It was an experiment this year and Matthew tells me it will be repeated for the games in 2012. He also kindly provided the above picture of how the meadow's looking now via Twitpic. He also reports that 2,000 trees (around half) plus some of the wetland is there, but planting has yet to commence in the main gardens.

I was pleased to hear from Sarah about how the Games' impact has spilled out into the communities surrounding the Olympic Park. She's also been involved in a major revamp of Victoria Park in the East End, one of the first public parks ever built in the 1840s. I think this is a neat full circle between the first public park built for London and its latest one. There's also a Wiltshire Olympics connection as a local schoolgirl Hannah Clegg was a prize winner in last year's competition to design the 'Great British Garden'.

I've also asked whether there'll be volunteer opportunities to help with the planting up of the gardens. However, nearly three weeks on and I've yet to hear from the Olympic Delivery Authority. It would be great to be involved in some small way. I'll update you with any details as soon as I have them.

Update: The ODA never got back in touch after their standard 'we're dealing with your enquiry' reply. However, I've since learned from Matthew Wilson that access is to the site whilst under construction is strictly controlled, so there won't be any opportunities to volunteer in this way.


  1. This is super interesting and I will be pleased when you write further on the progress! Thank you.

    Wish we could access some of those wonderful British garden programs on our computer, but no...banned to those of us across the pond)))).

  2. I am looking forward to see this more than I am the Olympics!! We will definately have to spend some time there, maybe before or after the actual Games. If you find out anything about volunteering for planting please let me know as I would also love to be involved.

  3. yeah, the only option i have for watching u.k. gardening shows is to hope that someone posts same on youtube. hannah has quite an impressive sense of design for a young person. do you know if the planting diagrams will be published?

  4. A fascinating read VP, thank you. Looking forward to GQT now! :)

  5. That makes me feel a lot more confident about the "lasting legacy" promise re the Olympics. I had no idea the park was so huge, that's a lot of plants and a fabulous chance to showcase modern garden design and landscape architecture. Will look forward to seeing it develop, and then hopefully realised. I assume they will try and plant in time for there to be a certain "maturity" to at least some of the areas? Love the wetlands angle. I feel some vicarious civic pride!!

  6. PS I had a few problems with your "more examples" and "wtlands aerial views" links, as they seem to go to the getty images site and require you to log in. The Olympic site aerial view is great though.

  7. Gardeningbren - thanks - I'm pretty excited about it too. I've suggested to Gardens Illustrated that it'd be a good article for the magazine, so you should be able to see that in the US at least

    PG - I feel the same! Fingers crossed I get a positive reply :)

    Petoskystone - good question re the planting diagrams. I'm sure lots of people will want them once they've been to the Games.

    Nutty Gnome - more dreams as the pictures will be in words on GQT!

    Janet - that's just how I felt after Sarah's talk. And thanks for letting me know about the link problem - I've corrected it now, but have had to go 1 link back to make it work. Hopefully the instructions in the post on what to do next are clear enough for people to get to the right place once they've taken the link.


Your essential reads

Review: Riverford Recipe Box with guest chef Sarah Raven

How not to look after your Pilea peperomioides

Down to Earth with Monty Don

Ulting Wick: drier than Jerusalem? One of the Secret Gardens of East Anglia

Here comes the judge

#mygardenrightnow: there's still plenty going on!

Garden Bloggers' Blooms Day: Persicaria 'Fat Domino'

A clean break

#mygardenrightnow: the autumn edition

Are you looking at me?