Gardens: Edinburgh roads bloom thanks to designer

EDINBURGH City Council is following the advice of a planting designer to make its city bloom, finds Rosemary Free

The plants in situ at Mansfield Place. Picture: Contributed
The plants in situ at Mansfield Place. Picture: Contributed

If landscape and garden designer John Frater was to write a letter to Santa this Christmas, high on his list of wishes would be permission to improve municipal planting schemes on roundabouts in Edinburgh.

A large number of the bedding plants and shrubs would be replaced by a combination of perennial plants to provide a good display of colour throughout the summer and some larger areas would be planted from seed to give the look and feel of a meadow.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

“I wouldn’t suggest every roundabout be turned into floral meadows or perennial schemes,” he says. “A good variety is what I would think is best. But I do think that bedding plants just don’t make sense in this particular context at all. As well as being very energy intensive, they just don’t look that interesting.

“Often these sites are very exposed and bedding looks best when it is sheltered from the worst of the elements. But it is also a matter of scale – they are too small to be properly appreciated. Their only merit is colour, which is important, but the other elements of texture and form are completely lacking.”

Through his design and consultancy business, Plantforms, Frater focuses on planting design which matches plants to a site to create plant communities rather than just pretty pictures. He has already transformed several Edinburgh City Council-owned traffic islands, junctions and roundabouts with his innovative planting schemes.

But he is itching to get his hands on other projects, including the planting scheme around the pond in St Andrew Square, a border at the west end of Princes Street Gardens and some raised beds in Stockbridge.

His first council project came about when he was inspired to approach the city’s parks and gardens manager after taking part in a plant design course in Germany.

“We spent one day with a guy who does what I do,” he says. “He persuaded the council to give him one of the spaces on Kurfürstendamm, the main street in Berlin, and he planted it all up. He gave me the idea and when I got back I spoke to Alan Bell at the council. He’s been quite keen to promote perennials in and around the city. He was really supportive and after a bit of discussion I ended up with the traffic island near the roundabout at the bottom of Broughton Street.”

Some five years later, the island at Mansfield Place is home to plants such as irises, narcissus, crocuses and perennial foxgloves mixed in with wild grasses.

The council was so impressed it planted the roundabout at the bottom of Broughton Street with a similar mix of plants.

While a perennial planting scheme is not at its best in winter, Frater still feels it’s preferable to the alternative – winter bedding plants. “A perennial planting scheme looks better even though it dies down in winter,” he says. “You just leave the plants over winter. It’s a scruffy look but I think people will get used to that. It’s what is meant for that time of year.”

And come mid-February, when the plants start to flower, it brings what Frater describes as “a natural and relaxed feel to this corner of the inner city”. Overall, his planting design on the island has been welcomed by locals. “People would stop me when I was weeding to comment on it and compliment it,” he says. “Apparently they (the council) did get one or two grumbles from local people. It was a bit too wild for them, too many grasses.

“I think they are a bit cautious about that. It’s a big change from gaudy bedding plants but even in a city, even in a busy area, at that roundabout with all the traffic about, when I went up there in summer it was buzzing with bees and butterflies.”

Another new development in horticulture that Frater has been experimenting with is sowing naturalistic planting schemes in situ to create what he calls prairie meadows.

Working with the South Queensferry-based company Water Gems, Frater has planted up a trial meadow in Rosefield Park in Portobello and a roundabout at Lochend. “Planting with seed is the way forward in the long run because of lack of maintenance,” he says.

“That’s why the council is keen on it. It’s less maintenance than cutting grass and you get a meadow-like feel using prairie plants from America. There are a lot of familiar plants from the garden and a lot of colour in summer and autumn. Although they are American, native wildlife such as butterflies and bees love them. It dies out in winter. You leave it standing and cut it down in March and it comes away again.”

He says the Germans have taken to this type of planting “like ducks to water”.

“Most cities there have banned the use of herbicides so in Berlin, or anywhere in Germany, there are weeds popping up in cracks. People haven’t complained because there’s quite a strong lobby. That’s another reason for growing things from seed. You get such a dense cover beyond the second year there is no need for input in terms of chemicals.

“I would like to see that here. It would be great. I would like to see Edinburgh up there as one of the green cities in terms of both planting it up and environmentally. We’re lagging behind a lot of Europe.”

Most of Frater’s ideas have come from Germany where he travels every year with his German partner.

“They pioneer a lot of innovative planting techniques such as the random planting technique. Research over there has come up with a mixture of plants broken into different categories to end up with a reliable combination of plants that live happily together but give a good display throughout the summer.

“They know how many square metres they need, know the ratios, and can just drop the plants in in a certain order. There’s no plan in terms of a conventional planting scheme.”

He used this technique in springtime when he did a new planting scheme at the Rodney Street junction for the council and is planning to do the same for a second project at Wester Drylaw.

Frater is hopeful the council will wake up to the advantages of perennial planting schemes, but acknowledges it will take time. “It would be great to see more of it in Edinburgh but I think it will be a slow process. They have always used bedding plants, that’s what they are comfortable with. It’s going to take a while to change direction.”

• For more information about Plantforms visit: