Blooming Britain by Christine Dakin

October 18, 2013

in Articles, General Interest

Well, what do you think? Do you enjoy seeing our towns adorned like this? Or should we scrap it and find some better way to display our horticultural expertise?

Anne Wareham, editor 

Kenilworth town planting copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens


Christine Dakin:


You’ll remember the time when towns and cities are sprouting containers full of bright and colourful bedding plants. Hanging baskets, window boxes, giant concrete cylinders and brick built raised beds will be used to grow brash, short lived plants

Britain in Bloom by Christine Dakin for thinkingardens

Stainless steel window boxes ‘adorning’ metal railings

Many towns and villages welcome visitors by using oddly placed containers planted with bedding plants. Does this enhance the surroundings?

Britain in Bloom by Christine Dakin for thinkingardens

They will be mounted on lampposts, strung up to railings and plonked with no rhyme or reason to ‘enhance’ the look of the town. They require daily watering.

Britain in Bloom by Christine Dakin for thinkingardens

Might this be a pleasant place to sit? I’ve never seen the seat occupied

Local inhabitants are encouraged to enter into the spirit of beautifying their town by creating stunning front gardens.

Then, on a day in July, some local worthies will amble round the streets with clip-boards and make judgements. I got roped in one year and could gradually feel my spirits dwindling. It was such a grim experience but it was all done with great enthusiasm and self-importance by my fellow judges. Most front gardens consisted of a scrappy lawn with a thin ‘flower’ border around the edge. In general there was little attempt to make the space something special.

But lo! There were a few where the owners were clearly in a competitive frame of mind to the extent that the planting was done for the day of judgement and was orientated towards the road rather than for viewing from the house. Guess which gardens gained plenty of points? Since that time I’ve always been ‘unavailable due to other commitments’, I just couldn’t repeat the exercise.

Britain in Bloom by Christine Dakin for thinkingardens

Words fail me, but it’s not an unusual sight

Cash-strapped councils are withdrawing the funding in some areas, but, undeterred, local groups are fundraising to keep up the displays.

Our urban spaces do need greening up but wouldn’t it be better to plant trees and shrubs which would attract more insect life? Or add some sculptures or murals to sparkle up grey areas? And paint the ubiquitous railings in bright colours.

Christine Dakin

Portrait Christine Dakin copyright Christine Dakin for thinkingardens   Christine’s nursery website

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Arabella Sock November 15, 2013 at 2:00 pm

THis all reminds me of a spoof post I once made on the BBC Gardening Messageboards (now sadly defunct). I posted that I lived in a terraced house and my next-door neighbour had planted his front garden entirely with pink pom pom flowers and soggy petunias which clashed horribly with my tasteful gold and bronze planting scheme. How could I make him re-do his garden colour scheme?

Unfortunately several people failed to spot this as a joke (as is, sadly, invariably the way with my humour) rather than a piece of clever satire and things got a little over-heated.

The reality is that my elderly neighbour does plant up some rather gaudy half baskets and hangs them off our shared fence at the back. I do cringe a bit over them sometimes (mainly because of the marigolds in with the reds, pinks and purples) but I would never say anything to him but how bright and cheerful they are. He loves them and that is all that matters and it is great that at his age he still bothers and takes an interest.

annewareham November 15, 2013 at 4:51 pm

Well, you might wonder how far removed that is from the Tellytubby annual ‘meadows’…..

Linda Casper November 14, 2013 at 3:43 pm

Thank you Anne for creating such a lively debate on the topic. I would just like to add that taste is subjective – just think of some of the atrocities that have been labelled art!

annewareham November 14, 2013 at 4:44 pm

Thank you. People do tend to think that about taste, but my experience (see here: has been totally contrary to that.

There may be more or less educated taste? Would you respect a music critic’s opinion of a performance more than that of someone who has never been to a concert before, perhaps?

John Peel November 15, 2013 at 8:56 am

For music I’d agree. After all, the large number of critics working in the music industry essentially self-regulates it, so that only the ones with the most respected views end up with consistent exposure.

Gardening… probably a little less self-regulated. Allowing a number of critics to have a rather over-inflated view of their own opinions!

John Peel November 14, 2013 at 10:33 am

Hi Christine and Anne – I live in Brixton and the walk from the tube to my flat takes me through some really gloomy, uninspiring and very grey streets (not saying this is the same throughout Brixton!) and at this time of year when the sky is just as grey, it can sometimes be quite a depressing walk!

The other week, up against a grey fence I’d noticed somebody had randomly built a brick-planter and filled it with colourful plants. It’s not the most attractive planter that has ever been created (was even slightly wonky!) and the flowers may not have been planted by Alan Titchmarsh, but the sight of a bit of life and colour in this otherwise bleak corner of the street was quite uplifting, and frankly brightens up my twice daily commute.

Is there really anything wrong with that?

annewareham November 14, 2013 at 10:37 am

Wrong seems an odd word, but there are some of us that might have found it profoundly depressing. I think we may be allowed to express our opinions too.

Teddy London November 14, 2013 at 11:12 am

Yes of course everyone is entitled to their own views, but ‘profoundly depressing’ is surely a bit much?! Why do you have such a problem with everyday people trying to improve where they live with flowers? I expect whoever set up the planter did it off their own back and with their own money – I can’t see how anybody could find that offensive. Should people only be allowed to brighten up public places where they live if they’ve designed a chelsea garden before, or have an apprenticeship from kew? I just don’t get it, but perhaps our tastes aren’t as refined as yours.

annewareham November 14, 2013 at 11:28 am

Aesthetics, Teddy, yes. Ever disliked a piece of music? Or a television soap? A play, or a book maybe? A painting or work or art?

Teddy London November 14, 2013 at 11:53 am

My 8-year-old Dicky once painted me a picture of a beach scene which to be perfectly honest wasn’t to my taste. However, I stuck it up on my wall and now a bizarre but colourful image of what appears to be a yellow monster eating a blue horse greets visitors to my home. Before there was nothing but blank wall and a stain. Some people ignore the picture, many are fascinated by its strangeness, others question what it is but most just smile at it as they pass. It has never angered anyone and surely something is better than nothing?

annewareham November 14, 2013 at 11:59 am

Now you’re being silly. Can we stop this, please? The anger appears to have been addressed to Christine and has bordered on abuse.

John Peel November 14, 2013 at 12:30 pm

Just to get back to the point.

I’m a little unclear as to whether the main issue raised here is the use of what limited funds are available for the local community, or whether the issue is the quality of flower arrangements on display in public.

If the main issue is the former, then perhaps the focus should be on ways of increasing funding for these projects (if they merit it, which depends if the argument is for a complete write-off, or just nicer displays). Greenery, art sculptures etc. are all very well and good, but surely these are complements, rather than substitutes for flower displays.

One the other hand, if the issue is primarily the latter, then there’s nothing to argue, it’s simply a question of tastes. Although, I imagine the quality of the displays are probably well-correlated with the amount of funding available.

But, just to throw in my two cents (and not intending to draw links with Teddy’s comments above), I don’t think anyone can deny that these sorts of displays are a chance for people to give something to their local community (regardless of satisfying everyone’s tastes). I’m no expert in local community projects so I’m not sure if these displays are typically commissioned-out or instead rely largely on volunteers. But let’s remember, not everyone is creatively minded to the degree that they made a living out of gardening. Hence, if it’s volunteers, let’s bear a thought for them. Most likely they aren’t professional gardeners. Instead of trying to stamp out the poorer-quality projects (indeed, one might have been done by an 8-year old, another by a local pensioner…), why not try and contribute something ourselves to complement rather than replace. Moreover, how about being a little less critical and frankly, hurtful.

annewareham November 14, 2013 at 1:40 pm

I think the issue is taste, and I think anyone who puts their work out on display and up for a competition risks being hurt. Perhaps some of us come from a more robust generation.

Issues of taste are not simple or negligible, and people who wish to express their opinions about taste in relation to gardens and displays of plants will find a voice here, and probably nowhere else. (so usually, you have to look for it).

For the people who read and write for this site, taste is a serious issue, just as it is to people who take the other arts seriously. Criticism, positive and negative, matters.

John Peel November 14, 2013 at 1:53 pm

Thanks for the reply Anne.

My point was largely that those who are creating many of these eyesores, will likely also include some of the less robust members of society (regardless of whatever generation they came from).

This isn’t just under the category of art, it’s under the category of community projects. As such, the creators may not be so resilient to the same degree of criticism thrown at them.

Rosie Oberlander November 12, 2013 at 4:04 pm

I’m afraid I don’t recognise the Britain in Bloom campaign I know from your article at all. There is now so much more involved than plonking out a few bedding plants! Our local campaign has sustainability right at its heart – all of our planting beds are designed to be self sufficient once established and are planted up with perennials, shrubs and grasses that can cope with our low rainfall and coastal climate. We have a wildflower bed by the harbour which illustrates to gardeners the variety and colour that can come from local native wildflowers. In the town’s public park we have worked very closely with our local council to produce a succession of “gardens within a garden” demonstrating different planting styles – including a restored Edwardian rockery, a stumpery, an arid bed and a sub-tropical bed. None of these are brash or short-lived! The town has rich areas of wildflowers, grassland and woodland thriving through careful management. We have had visits from other Bloom groups eager to see the work we have done over the years and we learn from them too. The Bloom community is a great one to be a part of and very supportive.

You may very well not like hanging baskets, well that’s fine. But a lot of people do, and a coastal resort town such as mine that relies on tourism in large part for its prosperity will be more attractive to visitors if our bustling High Street has floral displays. I am proud that our volunteers have raised funds, supported by our local businesses, to provide baskets and planters which otherwise we would no longer have had, due to council cutbacks. However, in the interests of sustainability we have far fewer baskets than previously and concentrate planters in key areas where they have the most impact, as well as not being exclusively planted with annual bedding. In recent years in fact we have grown a fair number of vegetables and herbs in our containers, which this year tied in with the Britain in Bloom theme of Edible Britain. And yes we do encourage people to have pride in their front gardens, I can’t really see what is wrong with that!
We work closely with many local voluntary groups and the local nursery, primary and secondary schools so it is a community wide effort. A recent litter pick on our beach attracted 130 helpers! The Bloom initiative is all about community – we love our town and want to keep it the best it can be.

Linda Casper November 12, 2013 at 4:31 pm

Well said, Rosie!

Christine Dakin November 13, 2013 at 5:28 pm

I’m so pleased to hear that other parts of the country are moving the Britain in Bloom ethos beyond the petunias. It sounds like you are doing a fantastic job of enhancing your towns. But in this area its perhaps a little behind the times and there is a plethora of containers on railings which I don’t think I will ever like. Neither am I convinced that the brick built planters on the edge of towns and villages are attractive.

Ben Dark November 11, 2013 at 4:33 pm

Nothing wrong with a bit of colourful trash now and then, bedding is not there to “showcase our horticultural expertise” but to cheer people up. I like ribbons of wildflowers along roads and well thought out shrub borders as much as the next man, but I also like industrial estates all done up in begonias and wonky sunflowers, it works.

As for bits of lawn with thin ‘flower’ borders – that’s how the vast majority of Britain gardens! Not to your taste sure, not really to mine either, but not bad for that. I’m sure an interior design professional judging my flat would also say “there was little attempt to make the space something special”, and I’d be right pissed of because I like my magnolia walls and cheap replica pictures.

And thank heavens for enthusiastic worthies, please allow them a little self-importance, they’re doing something! You should join them, talk to the council; with your expertise they might let you advise them on a roundabout or two. You could cover it in bee friendly plants and grasses and maybe convert a clipboard holder or two.

I agree that there is huge scope to improve our urban and suburban landscapes, but there is room for a multitude of approaches. Don’t attack the Britain in Bloom guys, they’re on our side!

Mary James October 25, 2013 at 3:03 pm

Interesting to see all the comments above and read Christine’s article. I must admit I am not a fan of hanging baskets etc. but guess something is better than nothing and here up in the Lakes in a market town there was a lot of grumbling about the Britain in Bloom brigade trying to ‘brighten up the town’ especially as we were all ‘off-comers’! However slowly people are coming round and the planting is becoming more variable, inc. veggies etc. and we have even managed to get the Council to donate some land for allotments (prev. allotments having been built on) although there are still some who are making it difficult for access – so its all swings and roundabouts, preferably, in my humble opinion, with not too many annuals other than tulips!

Stephen Hackett October 25, 2013 at 9:39 am

Driving back from work yesterday I passed three council vans (tellingly labelled ‘highway maintenance’), and four or five workmen, ripping out bedding and replacing it with multi-coloured primulas on a roundabout. The roses were also all shorn-off at a regulation 12″ from the soil. It’s probably not their fault – I guess they have to dress like this on orders from above – but the workers’ uniform garb of high-vis jackets and trousers & hard hats did not exactly say ‘gardeners’ to me.

Is local authority gardening really to be treated on a par with filling potholes and mending streetlights?

Christine Dakin October 26, 2013 at 5:53 am

It looks like it doesn’t it? After all, anyone can do that kind of ‘gardening’.

Linda Casper October 24, 2013 at 10:44 pm

As there is less money available to councils, you are now seeing more sustainable planting, veg and herbs growing in tubs rather than the twee annuals, community allotments, school gardening clubs etc. Also the in Bloom groups do a fantastic job with litter and even dog fouling.

Damian Jenkinson October 23, 2013 at 2:37 pm

Hi Anne – I was just wondering if you received my comment earlier – would be great to get it uploaded? Cheers, Damian

annewareham October 23, 2013 at 10:40 pm

I went out for the day, Damian…..

Damian Jenkinson October 23, 2013 at 9:44 am

I’m slightly disappointed with the apparent lack of knowledge about the RHS Britain in Bloom campaign, as described in Christine’s article. I work for Wigan Council and coordinate all Bloom activities and am hugely passionate about the difference the campaign can make to people’s lives and can tell you honestly that the article is not representative of the campaign at all.

I have seen first-hand the huge benefits community horticulture can have on a city or neighbourhood. The RHS and regions and nations who participate encourage sustainable planting wherever possible, as opposed to expensive bedding displays, and offer bags of advice.

The theme this year was Edible Britain, and 1000 mini herb gardens were created on public spaces across Britain. Last year, the theme was Wild About Wildflowers and groups sowed meadows providing food for insects like bees and butterflies. As a result of these themes, here in Wigan we’re doing more sustainable planting, wildflowers and edibles than ever before!

The overarching aim of Britain in Bloom isn’t about prettifying places, it’s about improving areas, bringing people together and improving the environment. This is reflected in the judging criteria – only half of marks area awarded for horticultural achievement, the rest is for community participation and environmental responsibility – but even the horticultural achievement section considers sustainability and open green spaces (not just floral displays!)

Of course gardening can be very personal and what suits one person’s taste may not necessarily be shared by everyone – but the important thing about Britain in Bloom is that it empowers people to get together and care for their local environment, which has so many knock-on benefits for local people.

Last year, Wigan participated in the RHS Britain in Bloom finals and last week was the 2014 awards ceremony. You only have to look at the list of discretionary awards handed out to understand the current thinking behind the campaign

Another key element which has been missed in this article, is the impact that RHS Britain in Bloom volunteers are making to both the physical and socio-economic face of the country. According to the latest statistics, there are an estimated 300,000 volunteers in towns, villages and cities across the UK who look after nearly 2 million acres of public space (five times the area of London!) and they planted 20 million plants last year. They invest 1.2million hours into improving local areas saving the country millions of pounds.

I would love to invite Christine Dakin to come to Wigan and see some of our amazing local projects and meet our inspirational volunteers – perhaps I can show her round Shevington, an area of Wigan which has been transformed as a result of community gardening spreading like wild-fire. I am sure she would be inspired by the passion of our volunteers and what they have achieved. She’d see that Britain in Bloom isn’t just about troughs filled with flowers sitting around town centres, it is about civic pride and communities coming together to improve the look and feel of where they live for the benefit of us all.

Christine Dakin October 24, 2013 at 5:52 am

I ‘m pleased and delighted to hear that Wigan Council is forward thinking in its approach to community gardening. I would love to visit the town one day and see all your wonderful projects but I mostly work 7 days a week. However, surely you must acknowledge that there are many parts of the country where schemes such as those I highlighted are the norm.

Amy Murphy October 21, 2013 at 10:18 pm

Plantings like these always seem a waste of time and money. Who thinks these planting up? and who pays for them, and why? I think the money and effort that go into these aberrations would be better spent on creating and maintaining public perennial gardens, or ornamental grass gardens.

annewareham October 21, 2013 at 10:25 pm

You never know – this may happen and some councils clearly are thinking more imaginatively.

Susan Wright October 19, 2013 at 6:19 pm

Newport (Gwent) an unlovely place previously full of garish floral displays in an attempt to cheer the place up – floral pandas anyone? – has had a volte face and planted grasses and wild flowers en masse on verges, central reservations and roundabouts around the city and not only is the effect wonderful and uplifting, but the comment and interest provoked among people formerly indifferent to the efforts of the parks department, is overwhelmingly positive. The petunias are still there but so now is the taste for something much, much more interesting. Please congratulate the Newport parks department! Encourager les autres!

annewareham October 21, 2013 at 10:25 pm

I did congratulate them on the basis of your comment and they replied saying thank you and that the plantings have generally been very well received.

Stephen Hackett October 19, 2013 at 11:35 am

Oh, to wave goodbye to the ubiquitous hanging baskets, railing-top planters and monstrous ten-feet high planting towers – laden with petunias and verbenas – which adorn our streets each summer.
There is, of course, a place for classic municipal bedding planting – namely, in Victorian/Edwardian parks, of which we have some beautiful examples: although even this can be overstated. Victorian parks and gardens were just as diverse as our own, and municipal planting was but one approach.
But such planting does not constitute a solution for every part of the city. In the medieval city centre, subsequent development notwithstanding, the petunia towers just look out of place, garish and crashingly unimaginative. Let’s please get some more interesting, sustainable, sensitive and wildlife-friendly design in our streetscape.

Christine Dakin October 19, 2013 at 4:22 pm

Maybe we need a petunia virus haha. I do agree with your comment. Some plantings in parks and gardens seem somehow more appropriate, following a tradition but there is no history of using planters in the way they are used today.

Sara Venn October 19, 2013 at 7:12 am

This year Bristol has had a fair amount of the typical council planting that is so common and does nothing to bring in insects or cause any other reaction than any other riot of colour might. However, in many places, these beds have also been interplanted with red kale, beautiful lettuces and herbs which has made an interesting change and has added a different dimension as people have been encouraged to pick and eat them. There has also been the Urban Pollinators Project going on which is a project run by 4 universities, including Bristol, where road sides, swathes of parkland, school boundaries and more, have been planted with a mix of both annual and perennial meadows which have been beaitiful and will continue and become better and better as time goes on.
There is hope out there. We all just need to keep plugging away so that we can all have towns and cities that look like Totnes or even Todmorden!

Christine Dakin October 19, 2013 at 4:15 pm

Its good to hear reports of towns and cities which don’t produce the same old thing. (I don’t get out much!) With councils looking for ways to save money it would make sense to do more permanent planting.

Michael B. Gordon October 19, 2013 at 2:59 am

Here in Peterborough, New Hampshire we are making an effort to create public spaces with a high level of horticultural interest. It has been a slow and steady process. We use trees, shrubs, perennials and grasses, but there is nothing wrong with including annuals (they look great to perk up the end of the season in a mixed planting). We attempt to use them in the best ways possible. Hopefully we have had a measure of success here.

Catherine October 18, 2013 at 9:31 pm

It’s not just that longer-lasting more structural plants would be better, these …..hmmm…..what to call them………’annual installations’? are screamingly UGLY. Appalling. Depressing. Whoever hybridised the petunia has a lot to answer for. Maybe there’s a need for guerilla gardeners armed not with seed bombs, but with strimmers?

Christine Dakin October 19, 2013 at 6:13 am

Most people, judging by some responses I’ve had, just like to see ‘a nice bit of colour’. It is interesting that the garden media bangs on about attracting wildlife but these plantings do not encourage the birds and the bees. Sustainability is another much used word but it doesn’t apply to these throw-away plants, I’ve seen the tractor going round doing the daily watering. Any minute now we will have pansies ‘enhancing’ out streets, and so it goes on.

Sacha Hubbard October 18, 2013 at 2:27 pm
Christine Dakin October 19, 2013 at 6:17 am

At least it was so OTT that it kind of puts the petunias and trailing lobelia into perspective. I remember seeing a show garden at Westonbirt called The Fantasy Garden with only very colourful plastic flowers which was wonderfully kitsch.

James Golden October 18, 2013 at 11:40 am

How dismal. Trees and shrubs, yes. What about perennials and grasses, but selected, highly structural plants that can last through a season.

Charles Hawes October 28, 2013 at 5:20 pm

Hi James
The Fantasy Garden at Westonbirt was quite fun! Here’s a pic.

Christine Dakin November 4, 2013 at 4:44 pm

The fantasy garden was one of my all time favourites. What happened to those garden festivals?

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