Behind the scenes of a London park

Written by Oliver Miller, LGN Committee Member and Head Gardener working in London

A park in the city is a bit like a watering hole in the desert. They are both vital resources in their environments, indispensable to almost anything within walking distance. They are also both places where a huge diversity of life comes together.

Just take a moment to consider the range of interests that a city park serves during a single day… from dog walkers, to cyclists, to all sorts of sports players, artists, food growers, after-school kids, pre-work commuters, BBQ lovers, ravers and party makers, plant and garden lovers, lovers of wildlife, the wildlife itself, the list goes on.

The success of the park requires the coordinated efforts of a highly dedicated team of people, a task whose magnitude is not to be underestimated, but perhaps often is. Let’s use Burgess Park as an example, a 200-acre park in south London. Unique in the capital on this scale for being created post-WWII in a residential area hit by extensive bombing damage.

100’s of 1000’s of people live within a 5 minute walk of the park, representing a hugely diverse demographic of cultures, nationalities and income brackets. Every year, 2 million pairs of feet and bicycle wheels befall this space.

Until receiving a surge of funding and attention in the last few years, Burgess Park was considered by many locals to be an uninspiring and unsafe space to visit, even during the day. Southwark Council works closely with a team of 12 full time gardeners who look after the gardens and grounds. The gardeners are from Quadron Services Ltd, a company who specialise in caring for our green spaces.

As the park is open all day and night, every day and night, and attracts all sorts of people and all sorts of activity, the gardeners must be able to operate equally well at both ends of the ‘spectrum of refinement’.

From litter or poo-picking large areas of the park every morning for up to three hours, to planting-out intricate design schemes of herbaceous perennials in the afternoon. In the last few years several new gardens have been created at Burgess Park, like the formal “knot” garden, several acres of ornamental meadows and the planting of tens of thousands of bulbs along the old canal walkway.

The garden team’s diverse duties go on, from propagating plant cuttings in the poly-tunnels, to monitoring homelessness issues in the copses. Or else mowing, strimming and repairing the wear and tear of acre upon acre of lawn. Otherwise, managing teams of corporate or local volunteers, including those working Community Payback hours. Or else, carefully pruning traditional varieties of shrub rose in the English garden, or monitoring wildlife populations in the nature conservation areas.

Wearing these different caps in such quick succession with equal enthusiasm throughout the course of a day is not a trick that can be pulled off easily. It takes a special sort of gardening team to care for a space with such diverse demands directed towards it.

The gardeners must constantly interact with the park’s medley of users, managing the continual flow of their needs and activities, redirecting or harnessing the flow where necessary. They are gaining feedback from the park’s users, but where successful they are also raising their expectations through a series of accumulative steps over a matter of months and years, encouraging people to use the space ever more positively and for the good of all.

If one park user decides to ride their bike through a lovingly planted ornamental bed, it automatically falls on the park gardener to return it to standard without any hint of defeat. Day after day, by the time that most Londoners have awoken, the park has been made sparkling clean, safe to use and ready to showcase its colourful planting by the early-to-rise green guardians of our capital. This is resilient, aspirational hard work on behalf of the community at its finest.

If you should decide to visit any London park like Burgess Park on a sunny summer’s day, then you too will find the workings of a modern day, all-inclusive, user-friendly, urban oasis of all our finest hopes and dreams.

Now that’s a watering hole to get excited about.