Nigel Dunnett set to create international woodland meadow at Trentham Gardens

'The visitor will be overwhelmed at the sight of amazing drifts of perennials and bulbs,' says meadow pioneer Nigel Dunnett.

Woodland meadow: contrasted beside lakeside walk and gardens - image: Nigel Dunnett/Joanna Yan
Woodland meadow: contrasted beside lakeside walk and gardens - image: Nigel Dunnett/Joanna Yan

Pictorial meadow pioneer Nigel Dunnett is creating an international woodland meadow - thought to be the first of its kind in Britain - at Trentham Gardens.

Dunnett, who co-designed the Olympic Park's flower meadows, will overlay and complement the Capability Brown-designed estate, following work to uncover Brown's layout by Trentham gardeners and agencies. This will link in with the Capability Brown tercentary festival in 2016.

After removing what head of gardens and estate Michael Walker called "inappropriate woodland planting" and opening up the Brown layout so it can be better appreciated by visitors, extensive gardens will be built around the perimeter of the existing lake.

The new woodland garden under shade will be contrasted beside a lakeside walk and gardens under open, sunny conditions replacing mown grass.

In its place will be colourful and dramatic naturalistic perennial plantings, with a highly designed, meadow-like character to complement Trentham's existing Piet Oudolf gardens. The third aspect will be temporary colourful meadow installations in areas cleared of rhododendron and weedy infill trees.

These gardens will link with the two existing new garden areas that have been implemented over the past 10 years by Piet Oudolf and Tom Stuart-Smith - all of which fit within the framework of Brown's landscape and parkland.

Dunnett, professor of planting design and vegetation technology at the University of Sheffield's landscape department, is working closely on the project with his department colleague, landscape historian Dr Sally O'Halleran.

"The concept is great," he said. "With Piet and Tom Stuart Smith and then myself it's almost an evolution in planting styles."

Dunnett added that most garden restoration is about "freezing it in a particular historical moment" whereas this project is a forward-looking approach that still keeps the overall character of the Brown parkland.

"Historical gardens were pioneering things of their time. They were very modern and contemporary. I don't see why it's not possible to take that approach rather than go backwards."

The woodland garden is "personally very exciting" for Dunnett, who said woodland gardens are ripe for a new approach. "Typically the great Victorian woodland gardens are plant collections, often dominated by shrubs such as rhododendrons, and with very patchy planting of one or two of everything scattered around," he added.

"The approach I will be taking is to take inspiration from the very beautiful and dramatic woodland wild flower displays from around the world, as well as our own, so that the visitor will be overwhelmed at the sight of amazing drifts of perennials and bulbs. We will be working with ferns and grasses but also shrubs and small trees within the overall framework of mature oak woodland."

Walker said the timing with the festival is perfect. "It's one of the most exciting things I've done in my career," he added.

"It's really modern. Something I've learnt from the National Trust is to understand the significance of the garden and the estate's past but bring it to life. It's hugely contemporary and but honours Capabilty Brown."

Landscape cost - Trees and plants removed

Opening up the landscape has cost around £100,000 to remove Rhododendron ponticum and £200,000 for tree removal.

Most of the tree removal has been covered by the sale of wood by foresters.

Work will start with the first of the large temporary meadows this spring, and also establishing a set of trials and experiments in the next few weeks looking at the establishment of the different woodland plant species with which the team wants to work.

Gardeners will seed an area of around 10,000sq m before the end of March.

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