The London Gardener #27

The Perambulator

“Learning to love long grass”

The London Gardener has run since 1995 and that means it has covered a unique period in garden history, the renaissance of public parks, made possible by the National Lottery, which announced its first grant to a public park that year. The Heritage Lottery Fund gave us the implausible duo of Lord Rothschild as the deus ex machina who made the strategic decision and defended it against the doubters, and the genius Dr Stewart Harding – now MBE, appointed to design a programme to disburse the bounty – who gleefully and meticulously spent £146m in three years.

But since 2010, The London Gardener has also witnessed the eclipse of that enormous investment by the unprecedented slashing of local authority budgets introduced in the name of austerity. Over a decade of relentless cuts, followed by the financial chaos wreaked by covid, left many parks back where they were in the 1980s. Public conveniences and playgrounds are again closed, and historic features reinstated only a few years ago are now once more boarded up or fenced off. Nearly a billion pounds was spent by the Lottery between 1995 and 2018 and much of that good work is now coming undone.

One of the noticeable features of parks during this decline is the increasing amount of unmown grass, or ‘relaxed mowing’ regimes as they are often termed. I have been thinking about that long grass. For years, I railed against it, urging that parks are for people and people must feel safe, which means well-maintained. That remains true. But times are changing; old certainties about the role of the state are unravelling and local authority capacity is dwindling.

So it’s time to ask, can parks continue to provide what, at their best, they have always provided? Or are we entering a new world where parks, or rather councils, can no longer provide for us in the way we have come to expect? Maybe the old idea that they were places made secure by the authority of the state is coming undone, regardless of any coherent plan. One lesson we are learning from the climate and ecological collapse, it is that governments are no longer willing or indeed able to do what is necessary to keep us safe.1 Maybe we have to start to adapt to that idea. And we can start with parks.

So, is it possible to love unmown grass? On the one hand, of course, yes. Is there anything finer than lying in long grass amid the wildflowers on a warm summer’s day, lulled by the buzz of bees and other insects as they browse? Inherently, long grass is a feast for the senses and the imagination. It is appealing too as a symbol of an ecosystem that is thriving, supporting a rich variety of life, including the human lying on it. From the mycelial activity in the soil, exchanging minerals for sugars with the plants above, the abundant micro and macro-forms of life in the soil, to the invertebrates and insects , all that miraculously entangled life.

There is generally a good level of public support for adapting amenity grassland to wildflower meadows. It seems almost instinctive among groups representing the interests of communities, children, education and mental health: like community orchards and ponds, wildflowers rarely fail to attract votes in any consultation about a park’s future planning. Viscerally, people know that we lack connection to the natural world. So, the ecological and social benefits are clear, aren’t they?

As councils and highway authorities seek savings, swathes of amenity grassland in parks, for a long time mown to 40mm and thus denuded of habitat and biodiversity value, are being left to a couple of mows per annum, allowing flowers and grasses to seed. But simply withdrawing maintenance does not result in biodiversity value. Long grass is not a simple win-win for cash-strapped councils: save money and improve biodiversity. Mowing twice a year instead of every fortnight say, may save on time and resources, but when it does come time to mow, long grass in public places can be a hazardous place to work: cans, bottles, plastics, excrement, sharps, all end up in the long grass; dropped, chucked and kicked there like a difficult problem.

If reduced mowing is to enhance biodiversity, active management rather than an absence of management is required: not really ‘relaxed’ at all. And it’s not just about stopping mowing, I was told recently by Graham Dillamore, head gardener at Hampton Court. You need to watch what is happening and vary your mowing accordingly; the right time varies each year; certain areas will need mowing at different times or heights; and clippings need to be removed. Long grass needs to be managed to control invasive plants like docks and thistles as well as the more vigorous ‘wild flowers’. Otherwise those coarser plants, admirable though their vigour may be, will out-compete other plants and biodiversity will reduce.

Thus, in Lancaster, the City Council’s new grassland management plan includes nine different ‘management palettes’ for different kinds of grassland, and subtle techniques such as under-planting using a cornfield annuals mix as a nurse cover for a perennial wild flower mix below. On top of that, the Council has implemented an extensive communications plan to ensure public understanding of what they are doing.

But, practicalities aside, long grass in a park is not the same as long grass on a farm: or rather it may be the same thing but have a different meaning. In a public park it is freighted with potential signals. Does it mean nature is being tended, or does it mean humans are being ignored? Does it mean conspicuous care or conspicuous indifference? What it signifies is of critical importance, and all too often the public is correct to read long grass, as indifference, a mere cost-saving, perfunctorily dressed up as a wildlife project. And that means people drifting away from parks because they no longer feel safe.

So maybe, as the old certainties unravel, we need to prepare for a bigger shift than reduced budgets. Maybe we have to accept not only that dwindling role for the state or the council but also a dwindling role for the very idea of control, and accept that we can no longer manage places in the way we used to believe. The last five years or so, as climate chaos and biodiversity collapse have seized public attention, mean people are ready for the subject.

For a generation, the acknowledged basis of good management was the 10-Year Management Plan – where are we now, where do we want to go and how do we get there. That was literally the formula for writing a park management plan. The last five years have consigned that formula, that old certainty to the dustbin.

Those five years have been a harsh, even traumatic, lesson for all of us in the west. We have been forced to learn from experience about the climate and species extinction. We have had to experience the hollowing out of civic life by lockdown, and we have had to learn how fragile our financial, food, transport and other systems really are. It has been a lesson in vulnerability and an end to dreams of mastery.

Maybe we now need to have some humility about the limits of what we know and about we can control. The National Trust can no longer promise to preserve places ‘for ever.’ We need to accept the end of infinite growth and acknowledge that we are now in fact in a period of decline, even of mourning. Decline, relinquishment, retreat, uncertainty: these are hard words for a manager to utter, but we need to allow them to be spoken and allow them to land in all of us.

Rather than ‘managing change’ – as conservation was long defined – change will increasingly manage us. We are not in control as we once were, and acknowledging that, and feeling it, is the bigger shift in consciousness now required. In thinking about management there is now a need for ‘a willingness to accept uncertain outcomes and messy change trajectories…..The management end point often will not be known, or indeed may change over time.’3 Maybe a management plan should be thought of less as a road map, and instead more as a tool for thinking about how we respond to the unexpected. We are in uncharted territory, and there are no maps for what lies ahead.

The final challenge is to accept that this is okay, and not a conservation disaster. Gardeners may be better able to deal with that than thinner skinned colleagues in building conservation. Change, as gardeners in particular have always known, is inevitable: the death of plants is part of the life of a garden, whether in the natural cycle of growth and decay or in the experience of dealing with sudden impacts like the hurricanes of 1987 and 1990 and the more frequent recent storms such as Storm Eunice which tore through gardens in the south-east in 2022.

But we can also learn from the study of ecology that systems change over time, go through phases of collapse and reorganisation as well as of growth, and the same applies to gardens. The Privy Garden at Hampton Court for example, far from being an oasis of tranquillity, has been repeatedly and drastically remodelled by successive monarchs. In his book on Hampton Court, Todd Longstaffe Gowan refers to it as a battlefield. These are hard conversations, emotionally as well as professionally, but we need to explore as Caitlin de Silvey says ‘’how processes like loss and decline, on one register, may also generate opportunities for revealing new values and enhancing significance….how apparent collapse may be an opening to creative recalibration.’

And if you look around, you can see this recalibration everywhere. When official structures break down, communities and individuals step up. It can be seen in the rise of guerrilla gardens and occupation gardens in New York during the collapse of its civic infrastructure in the 1970s but also in Detroit forty years later, where the recession of 2009 saw a huge number of mortgage foreclosures, resulting in abandoned houses and empty lots in African American neighbourhoods, and where there are now over 1400 community gardens and farms producing food for the local population.6

You can see it in Berlin and other German cities where the Gemeinschaftgarten is a vigorous urban phenomenon: community gardens focused again on food security, established with more or less official sanction and backing and often thriving with little security of tenure or funding. Their hold on Berliners’ imaginations might be ascribed to the economic chaos after reunification, but maybe also to some collective memory of the collapse of civic infrastructure after both World Wars.

And here in London, consider the enthusiastic repurposing of London parks as allotments during the Dig for Victory campaigns. Today, as councils increasingly are unable to maintain parks, we can see a similar response to the threat of collapse in the way that volunteers are making good the shortfall.

And so back to that long grass. As ever, what is happening in parks reflects what is happening in society more widely. We are witnessing a storm of external crises – climate, ecology, finance, health, food – and also the withdrawl of the state as care-taker. But great things are being achieved: there are still good dedicated people in councils and local businesses, while the willingness of communities to step up and fill the gaps has never been greater. I tell myself it is no good moaning about mowing. Celebrate instead what long grass means for the local ecosystems, and nurture the new growth that only appears as things fall apart.