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Rewilding London! Creating bio-diversity, texture & movement in the streets of Mayfair

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

We have been very fortunate this year to have been involved in several interesting projects including these extensive street boxes for a private home in Mayfar, close to Hyde Park. Our client wanted a maximalist country style and to bring scale, colour and softness to this formidable Beaux-Arts property. As this is very much 'our thing' (our mantra is never knowingly underplanted) we were recommended to the client - happily for us.

To get going we spent nearly two days clearing the 33 large street boxes which were choked with over-scaled Photinas, rampant ivy and Muehlenbeckias and (my absolute worst) Euonymus 'Green & Gold' along with a thousand plus faded faux flowers which have subsequently been donated to charity, thereby partially redeeming themselves!

Planting was very late (week 29) and I was pretty anxious about the availability of plants in the nurseries after a tricky cold spring, followed by the heatwave in June and a dreary, wet July. I'm fortunate to have a small network of local growers and so was able to patch together most of the varieties I was looking for and in the quantities we needed - nearly 1500 plants in total.

Having planted up many, many window boxes in my time, one always underestimates the number of plants needed as large boxes like these just soak up plants. Whilst I always have screeds of spreadsheets to organise everything, being a disciple of the Vita Sackville West school of planting which exorts gardeners to "Cram! Cram! Cram!", I never fail to have a panic attack the day before we start planting and dash around the nurseries crying "we don't have enough plants, what do you have?!" We rarely come home with leftovers!

I'm not quite sure how to describe our planting style but it's part naturalistic, part meadow, part prairie and part relaxed country mixed borders. We only use British-grown plants, mainly perennials, and as we know the provenance of all of them, the quality is good which counts for a lot. Although I do cram in as many plants as the fresh compost can safely sustain, I also like to leave gaps and spaces so that "the butterflies can fly around" - which may sound a bit twee but is in fact both an aesthetic thing of working with positive & negative spaces for form, and actual fact as we work with mainly pollinators.

Because we were planting in high summer and there is always some expectation of 'instant garden' I did include a few plants like Digitalis, flowering Origanum vulgare, Scabious and Achillea which I knew were pretty much on the edge of tipping over - but which did create maximum summer impact and immediately brought in the bees.

In addition to the stalwarts including Verbena bonariensis, Stipa arundinacea, Gaura, Lavanudula Hidcote and Nepeta - I mainly concentrated on using robust late flowering perennials such as Echinacea, Japanese Anemones, Salvias and Asters.

Knowing full well that the Digitalis would be the first to finish (and re-potted in our greenhouse till next season) I made sure to plant these right next to the Japanese Anemones which were still in tight bud and which start coming in to their own during August and September (but see the comment below on on some sexy heleniums).

Just as well we did that, as the first week after we planted was non-stop torrential rain - which although fabulous for getting the plants established, did wreck havoc on the lovely foxgloves : ( I also noticed that a rather nasty wind whipped down the road channeled by the surrounding high buildings, and so I made sure to stake the Verbenas and interplant with lots of Nepeta to provide internal support, much like a corset tucks everything in and provides some invisible scaffolding!

Our client wanted a muted palette but no white, so instead of going for the usual Autumn mix of heleniums, rudbeckias and helianthus - I used Echinacea 'Cheyenne Spirit' which are lovely rusty reds, burnt oranges and buttery golds instead of the brighter tones of the former. There are however some scrumptious heleniums like 'Bell Bar' and 'Amber' and Rudbeckia 'Cherry Brandy' which I love to plant in the autumn and which I may still be tempted to pop in at some point! I also used my (new) favourite achillea ' Walter Funcke' which is a handsome deep umber colour and goes well with the 'Cheyenne Spirits' and particulalry offsets the vivid blue of the Michaelmas daisy Aster x Monch. I'm already planning to shortly drive out to Beth Chatto to get some more as they are so divine in the autumn as spill over everything along with some impressive height, which we need in these eye-level boxes .

I rarely think too much about how I plant, as it comes pretty instinctively now but I work with a palette of colours and textures, movement and backgrounds/foregrounds and middlegrounds - and I plant in drifts and blocks, so as to set up a rhythmn and overall coherence which takes into account how the plants work both together and within their space.

There is always a basic planting plan and we do largely stick to it as this helps with the allocation and distribution of plants. Above pic is how I set out the general block per box for the planting crew to repeat, but I rarely do a copy/paste for every box as one finds that each plant is a bit different or falls differently or is a different size or shape, so its done mainly by eye. We get a framework in first of all the taller and more substantial plants first, then the middle plants and then the hero'' plants and fillers.

A significant factor in the choice of plants is how much they contribute to bio-diversity and you will see that we have some 'super-pollinators' in here like the Origanum and Verbena plus other bee-friendly varieties like Echinacea. The bees arrived almost as soon as we had planted, which was quite a magical feeling - and the boxes are now humming very nicely with big fat Bumblebees and lots of ladybirds. I've also noticed that the bees really like the Scabious and although we will deadhead assidously to maintain the longest possible flowering season, we will also leave the dried Achillea and Origanum seed heads for the birds - along with the Panicum virgatum 'Heavy Metal' which will be retained through the winter. Along with the anemones, achillea, echinaceas, nepeta and verbena, we will cut back both the stipa and the panicum at the end of winter to get some new green growth in the spring.

As our street boxes have to always look glamorous we will take this into account for our winter planting (week 46) as we will need to both preserve this food source as well as camouflage it as the plants start to get tattier and greyer as winter progresses. Winter planting will focus on getting in as many spring bulbs as we possibly can and creating a woodland feel with ferns, hellebores, primulas and early flowering bulbs like Cyclamen coum, snowdrops and crocus.

Our lovely young client has bravely been a style-setter in her choice of plants for her home and the response on the street as we planted was incredibly positive. Planting like this is half gardening and half flower arranging and requires quite a bit of maintenance to keep it looking good. There's also the question of its pedigree amongst all the surrounding petunias and begonias, so there is a real desire to keep looking healthy AND fabulous - which will see me happily doing regular trips into W1 to do some deadheading and Chelsea-chopping!

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