Oct 13, 2010

Odd Man Out: James Hitchmough

A meadow in the City of Sheffield

Odd Man Out
Professor James Hitchmough
Department of Landscape
University of Sheffield

"Fertility is the enemy,
Infertility is the friend."

James Hitchmough likes to think about things differently.  And these things are not limited to horticulture.  His world view includes how people interact, their social context, cultural norms and the role of green space in their lives.

"What is meaningful to people 
is what is familiar, comfortable...
I try to build on that vernacular."

I had a chance to meet James in Sheffield and talk about his research into meadow communities.  I talked to James about his education and how he got interested in urban space and horticulture.
"I am interested in making connections

" I was lucky to be in  horticulture school at a time when some individuals were beginning to see things differently.  The British were slow to get into the growing connection between wildlife and ecology.  The Germans, Dutch and Scandinavians were dealing wtih these questions as early as the 1920's. 
"Complexity in time and space
is what drives biodiversity."

I started thinking about how to balance the competing interests - how urban areas could meet the needs of people and of wildlife.  We needed to let go of some things and take on some new things.  I wanted to remake the landscape. 
"I make stuff that
looks like weeds"

I moved to Australia for 10 years.  Australian public parks were based on the British model... including the rainfall and temperatures of Great Britain.  We needed to remake this landscape for the Australian climate.  We needed plants that would tolerate drier and hotter conditions.  We collected seed and begin to create grassland communities with lots of flowers.  In a sense we manipulated people by making color the key to their acceptance of an unfamiliar landscape.

"We interview people to find out how their values change as the vegetation changes."

In Britain people expect parks to be interesting and colorful Spring through late Summer.  We know that our native flora will not flower in late summer.  We have used North American asters, which flower late in the season and are a bonus for native invertebrates.  

In Britain we have had plant explorers bringing back plants from all over the world.  Many of these plants have naturalized in Britain.  We need native and exotic species to create a dynamic biodiversity in our gardens. 

At Wisley, Piet Oudolf, and Tom Stuart Smith have both designed gardens, close to the the wildflower meadow created by James.  I asked James to describe the differences in terms of design.  

Both Smith and Piet have different plant palettes.  But both work with repeating blocks which stitch the garden together.  In Piet's case, the edges of garden dribble into one another. 

In my meadow, every plant has a different neighbor on all sides.

"In wildness is the preservation
of the world"
Henry David Thoreau

The Dynamic Landscape: 
Design, Ecology and Management of Naturalistic Urban Plant
            by Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough