Coastal towns rethink planting schemes

A variety of planting approaches are being implemented in seaside towns to keep tourists happy as cuts continue to bite

Eastbourne's tank enclosure: drought-tolerant trees and perennials give a mature Mediterranean feel. Image: Eastbourne Borough Council
Eastbourne's tank enclosure: drought-tolerant trees and perennials give a mature Mediterranean feel. Image: Eastbourne Borough Council

Traditional bedding schemes have long been a staple of seaside towns but have come under increasing pressure as local authority budget cuts have multiplied.

In response, parks and green-space managers are taking a variety of approaches - some switching wholesale to new types of planting - while others are doing what they can to protect at least some of their traditional gardens, which remain a key draw for visitors.

Nearly all though are getting creative with new planting schemes seen as more sustainable both financially and environmentally.

Weymouth in Dorset has seen drastic cutbacks on bedding. The local authority's parks department used to plant 230,000 bedding plants each year but has cut that by 40 per cent in five years, much of it in conspicuous spots by the esplanade.

The council now wants a further 20 per cent saving across the department, says open spaces manager Carl Dallison. He expects to keep just 10 per cent of the original bedding, saving £60,000 per year from his £500,000 parks and gardens budget.

The town's Green Flag-flying Greenhill Gardens still has traditional bedding and a flower clock. But the rest of the town now has "a mix of everything" with permanent planting for structure, form, foliage and colour.

"Our general feedback from friends and residents is that the world has changed a bit and they are looking towards added value such as wildlife and perennials," says Dallison. "We often hear municipal bedding displays described as boring."

Bournemouth head of parks Andy McDonald says the town has bucked the trend because its gardens are so important for tourism. Although the local authority's housing, parks and bereavement section has seen a 40 per cent cut over the past five years, taking £2m off its budget, a range of income-generation schemes has helped the department to break even.

However, the budget squeeze has forced efficiency savings and much of the bedding - including that on the town's 25 roundabouts - did not make the cut. Bournemouth now plants 300,000 bedding plants each year, down from 500,000.

"Bedding is quite a luxury," says McDonald. "But we've been putting back in other planting that will flower and give us a nice official display." The borough council's bedding is now concentrated in three show gardens at access routes to Bournemouth beachfront, including the famous Lower Gardens.

The council knows further downgrading the gardens would be a "false economy", McDonald adds. "When we ask why people come and visit us, reason one is the beach, reason two is the gardens, so you've got to accept it's part of the economics of Bournemouth. But you can't argue that on a roundabout at the backside of town."

Arun District Council parks manager Helen Wilson says bedding in the seaside towns of Bognor Regis and Littlehampton has halved since 2006, but with "minimal impact" on locals and visitors. A "subtle transition" has seen tall dot plants change to a central spine of architectural plants such as phormiums, palms and Cynara cardunculus, with flowering evergreens such as Cistus purpureus and Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve'. Herbaceous layers include crocosmia, kniphofia and Verbena bonariensis.

"The beds are completed with an edge of annual bedding including plenty of bulbs for spring. Key beds have been maintained as 100 per cent traditional bedding while others have been reshaped to add interest but reducing plant numbers," Wilson explains. "Hybrid" beds have been very popular, particularly in Marine Park Gardens, where 513sq m of annual bedding was reduced to 285sq m.

"Only a very small number have been turfed over all together and, where they have been, adjacent displays have been beefed up," she adds. The addition of meadows means the district is "more floriferous than ever".

Gareth Williams, senior specialist adviser covering Eastbourne Borough Council's parks, saw substantial budget cuts in 2012. But bedding has been shrinking for 15 years, at first for sustainability reasons but more recently to cut costs. Seasonal bedding was reduced by 86 per cent in about a decade, replaced by palms, ground cover roses and flowering perennials.

Although there were complaints at first, the town now has a mature Mediterranean feel along the seafront, and the borough council says it receives compliments on the planting schemes.

"Interesting plants used include Phoenix canariensis, Chamaerops humilis, Brahea armata and Butia capitata, with aloe overwintering for over a decade in our Long Borders opposite Wilmington Square," says Williams.

However, the Carpet Gardens - about 14 per cent of the original seafront planting - still have bedding displays in spring and summer.

Concerns about expense are not new, Williams points out. The 1891 highways and drainage committee considered reducing the number of Carpet Gardens beds due to expense. But then, as now, they were considered "too iconic to tamper with".

Eastbourne model - Lowering the need for watering plants

Long before today's budget cuts, Eastbourne Borough Council was cutting back on bedding to boost sustainability, swapping high-maintenance planting with palms and perennials that have lower water needs.

A number of areas are maintained as natural habitat and not watered at all. Where there are planted areas, soil is mulched with woodchip or pea shingle to conserve moisture and ground cover plants are often used. Around seasonal bedding, bulky organic matter is added to retain moisture.

Essential watering is done in the early mornings to avoid evaporation and it is directed to the roots. Grass is allowed to yellow naturally then recover to a lush green in autumn.

The main bedding site, the Carpet Gardens, is sown with So Green grass seed mix that retains its green colour longer in drought, but still naturally yellows. The ornamental fountains are no longer in use.

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