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Millions of people stop in their tracks to take photos of the world-leading flower displays in front of Buckingham Palace each year. We ask Mark Wasilewski, Park Manager at St James’s Park and The Green Park what inspires his designs, and how he believes The Royal Parks’ new super nursery will fuel innovation.

How do you set about designing a world-class display?

Someone once said to me that gardeners are like artists with the way they use colours, textures and palettes, and I think that’s right.

It’s all about the creativity but also it’s down to what artistic talent someone has - knowing what colour combination will go with what.

You can design displays thinking about your hues and about your textures but you can also do it with your varieties of plants - whether its new ones people haven’t been seen before or old-fashioned varieties where people say: ‘My goodness I haven’t seen that for years,’ and, ‘My mum and dad used to grow that!’.

Originally I’d put together a plan with colour pens and pencils to see how it would blend. Does my pink go into red and then into blue? Nowadays of course youngsters would do this by computer!

Someone once said to me that gardeners are like artists with the way they use colours, textures and palettes, and I think that’s right.

What inspires you?

One gets ideas and inspiration from the magazines one reads, from the gardens one visits, parks and the flower shows. While I think it’s good that we experiment and introduce new varieties it’s important we don’t lose the old varieties too - and retro is coming back into fashion.

We’re generally going for a much more informal style at The Royal Parks these days. We tend to mix plants and grasses more dangerously now. I’d call it a more picturesque style of gardening than was perhaps in vogue in 1970s and early 80s.

We’re not choosing a formal square of 250 marigolds for instance. We’re probably mixing the marigolds with four or five other plants – maybe something like Coleus or ‘Green Wizard’.

You’re tempted to stick to schemes you’ve done before and are very successful in bringing people joy. But then it’s good to add that edge and say ‘let’s experiment a little’.

And when you do experiment and it does come out well, you’ve immense satisfaction.

Once I used different shades of mauve and pink impatiens to create a border, and I put in purple palms and other plants to give it a dramatic contrast. I was nervous it would be over-the-top but the public loved it. It gave me huge fulfilment – it worked very well after all!

What is the advantage of having the super nursery on your doorstep?

Having our own nursery on site where we can grow our plants to order, rather than relying on a commercial nursery, gives us flexibility to make changes as we go along.

And we always need to keep some surplus plants in reserve to account for a couple of losses - whether the foxes or squirrels are digging them up – or even little old ladies!

We tell the nursery what months we’re planting which beds. But it’s never completely predictable. There are times when one variety hasn’t quite grown as expected – so can go back to the nursery and ask for a different delivery.

When you order from a commercial grower you can’t do that at all: All the plants are delivered in one batch.

With the nursery on our doorstep we can also shape the size of plants throughout the season. We may want a particular plant ‘pinched out’ to make it bushier, or we might want to grow it taller.

We can also plan for a crisis.  You do get plant diseases – Busy Lizzies have been very vulnerable to diseases UK wide, for example, so we can replace plants.  We sometimes even might have a chance to plant an additional bed. We can call the nursery to pick and mix from what’s available – it can be pot luck but my goodness, it can be really exciting when you put plants together and see what you can make happen.

How are you innovating in your displays?

People come to The Royal Parks to learn about horticulture, it’s so important we can show a variety of plants. But not necessarily the new seed-grown varieties driven by popularity and commerciality.

For example, a couple of years ago for the London Marathon we decided to decorate the winner’s medal podium on the Mall. For years it’s just been a bare podium. Well we’re in the middle of a park so why don’t we use some wonderful flowers that no one ever sees. Our apprentices grew a wonderful old-fashioned plant called Schizanthus – or ‘Poor Man’s Orchid’ - for the ceremonies. We thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to see this type of plant in The Royal Parks’ flower beds where they haven’t been seen for a number of years.

And the super nursery will help us do this sort of thing.

There’s a risk in not staying with a tried formula - but isn’t there a risk in everything you do?

How can we conserve our horticultural heritage for generations to come?

We can work directly with the growers to cultivate plants from cuttings of particular strains to keep these varieties in the parks.

It would be lovely to reintroduce old cutting varieties of geranium, like lady derby that you just don’t see any more: We used to do some lovely beds of this beautiful pink geranium in front of the cream-coloured colonnades joining the Queen’s House and the Maritime Museum below Greenwich Park.

Then there are geraniums like Caroline Schmidt or Golden Harry Hieover - some of the old lovely varieties we don’t want to lose from the parks. And of course you’ve got the scented leaf geraniums as well, such as Pelargonioum graveolum or Crispum variegatum. I think well, certainly I used to grow them under the pillars in the rose arches in The Regent’s Park  - so not only do you have the smell of the roses you also have the scent of the geraniums when your leg brushes them as you walk around.

It would be nice to grow some of our own standard fuchsias again. I know these might be a thing of the 60s and 70s but they still have their place today. And also the old begonia varieties. Other plants that we used to grow from cuttings were Calceolaria ‘Gains Yellow’ and different abutilonssuch as ‘Canary Bird’. I don’t think anyone at The Royal Parks does the same bedding display twice and I think it’s important we change.

There’s a risk in not staying with a tried formula - but isn’t there a risk in everything you do?

Each spring and summer I’ve gone out with my notepad to see how things have grown. Had the colour turned out as I had expected? Had I got the plant combinations right? Had I got all the tulips flowering at the same time?

But if our flower borders are being photographed by 100s of people every day you know you haven’t done a bad job have you!



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