Contemporary Planting In Cambridge

by Ursula Williams

When you think of Cambridge, you  do not immediately think of cutting-edge contemporary planting. In all likelihood the first thing you might think of in association with the ancient and dignified atmosphere of my home City, is a certain conservative and unwavering sort of gardening, perhaps exemplified by this image.

However, this impression of unadventurous gardening in Cambridge would be quite misguided.  Yes, there are many old-fashioned gardens around the City and its environs, but, over the fourteen years I have lived here, I have noticed a subtle and gradual shift to a more modern sensibility.

A very significant leader of this new emphasis has been the wonderful Cambridge University Botanic Gardens.  Although founded way back in 1846 by Charles Darwin’s mentor Professor John Steven Henslow, it has moved gracefully with the times, without abandoning its scientific and educational foundations. Adventurous and memorable contemporary planting combinations abound

The small walled ‘Dry garden’ has never been artificially watered, and also has a very contemporary City garden feel and look.

The Maze for children also has that favourite designer grass,  Anemanthele lessoniana,  as its only ingredient, and for good reason as it is not only beautiful but also as tough as old boots and can withstand being trampled on by hordes of eager children in the race for the centre seat!

But the arrival of the Sainsburys’ Building (to house a new café and the Garden’s scientific laboratories and collections) has had the most impact on the image of the gardens, because the plantings all around the new award-winning building were created by Christopher Bradley-Hole and Brita von Schoenaich in 2011. A new café with stylish Mediterranean style terrace and table-top trained limes (Tilis henryana) always looks wonderfully crisp and inviting whatever the weather, and the limes have a gorgeous scent in September.

Dramatic Yew bluffs were created to link the new Café terrace with the old Cory Lodge lawn, with trendy corten-steel ramp sides protecting the exit paths.

The beds adjacent to each bluff are imaginatively planted with a contemporary matrix of grasses and perennials that are quite stunning.  The ‘shade mix’ for residing under established trees includes Carex, Geranium, Hellebores, Japanese anemones and Camassia, whilst  the ‘sun mix’ for the open beds includes catmint, tulips, Stipa gigantea, Pennisetum, Aquilegia and bearded Iris.

The private staff garden courtyard behind the new building (not open to the public, but visible from the Café) features stylish seating, mature Olive trees and lovely circles of covered water with tiny imbedded coloured lights around the inner rim.

An equally impressive contemporary planting vision can be seen just outside Cambridge at the Wellcome Institute’s Genome Campus, near Hinxton.  Here the esteemed designer Robert Myers has been given the task of planting up the enormous site which includes many futuristic buildings – the resulting planting and landscaping is adventurous and satisfying – especially the teardrop shaped beds and massed swathes of grasses and perennials in a very contemporary style.

Even the visitor car park is beautifully planted – with massed box balls to one side, (under-planting  silver birches), and on the other side masses of peonies and mixed shrubs planted in swathes, which lift the whole campus entrance out of the ordinary even to the most casual visitor.

Back in the centre of Cambridge more recent plantings have been in the same stylish new vein. At Queens’ College a beautiful new entrance and Porters’ lodge, has led on to stunning new plantings.

At Clare College Court some really stunning planting is worthy of a Chelsea Flower Show garden in its elegant, crisp simplicity, with beautifully maintained box spheres and imaginative perennials.