Wildlife gardens and education at Tatton Park RHS Show 2017

Jan Miller
After my visit and Blog this year on the RHS Chelsea Show, and Marc Carlton’s to the Hampton Court show, where we both were pleasantly surprised by how much more wildlife gardening was evident in them than in previous years, I was in great hopes for Tatton Park too.

The first thing I saw excited me with new ideas – two art students, Clare Knox-Bentham and Jane McFadyen, from the Manchester Metropolitan university were drawing all over these new flat-sheet re-inforced glass  greenhouses with washable marker pens. What a brilliant idea to get kids involved! They could draw all the wildlife they hope to see in  their school garden, for example, and what food and shelter they need.
Much encouraged I progressed to the show gardens, where I am afraid I was disappointed from a wildlife point of view.

Most of the large gardens, and the back-to-back urban designs seemed to fall back on the old hard landscaping and exotic plants to make immediate impact, but were mostly sterile for wildlife. But how a few tweaks would enliven them!

Anca Panait, originally from Romania, having recently completed a Masters in Landscape Design at Edinburgh university, is passionate about capturing the beauty of the natural environment in her designs. Her ‘Prospect and Refuge’ garden in the Young Designers category, is ‘a multi-functional outdoor room with sunken central area (complete with computer station and sofa seating with fire-pit) surrounded by lush and calming perennials to encourage a dialogue between nature and people’ says the guide. Woodland and tall planting provide a refuge from city noise and pollution.

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The drawings don’t cut down that much on the light entering, and they could still be growing their vegetable seedlings on inside – ‘yes’ added Jane, ‘And they could draw a scale rule up the side to measure the weekly plant-growth against’ – gosh that got me going with lots more ideas!

I have so often been told by teachers that they don’t have time for ‘nature study’ because they have to meet targets on numeracy and literacy, that I am always keen to show them how we can incorporate these basic skills into fun activities like gardening. They could get the kids adding their own plant’s height to a graph on the wall – and using washable markers means each lesson and who gets a go each time can be different. And we know how much more children really learn when they interact and have fun.

And then I saw the Bus stops! This was another great collaboration between the RHS and another sponsor. This time ‘Transport for Greater Manchester’ had provided the bus stop shelters and the RHS a competition for designers to put out a brief- given £500, to do something original with plants for them.

Five successful applicants made a range of great ideas come to life. Frazer Letman and Geddy Meguyer designed and built this very colourful interior using the living wall type of planting pockets and watering system (supplied from a rain-water tank). They agreed with me that some theft of plants might occur! And that more insects might use more suitable plants if they had been allowed to use the roof (as has been done in other countries), but still a nice idea.
‘Growing Oldham’ used the edible theme to provide veggies and food, including a community fridge powered by solar panels on the roof. I have often wanted to give my veg garden gluts to a food bank, but told they will only take dried and tinned food because of the shelf-life problem. Community fridges mean anyone can put something fresh in and anyone can take something out for free. Pollinators need to be attracted by flowers to produce the outside veggies and fruit around the bus stop.
Anca Panait (www.ancapanaitstudio.com ) in front of her ‘Prospect and Refuge’ garden

I asked Anca if she had included plants to attract butterflies around the seating area, and she was surprised at the question- she had not thought of that! But that could easily be done. It would be lovely to sit in the well, partly hidden by the plants, and have butterflies and birds flitting around you. But then what about the weather in Britain for an open workspace? Well you could easily put an awning or temporary opening roof on legs over that area she said. Nice to be able to exchange ideas with designers!

The RHS made a big display about butterflies with a large geodesic dome filled with glorious fluttering tropical butterflies, and equally exuberant tropical planting. Outside they had a couple of small wildflower meadows for our native butterflies (on which there were none, even on the bright, hot sunny day I was there), with panel suggesting plants to use, under their banner ‘Perfect for Pollinators’. But I felt the difference between the completely alien tropical species and the need to conserve our native insects was not well made.

An over-ripe fruit table would be a good addition to our outdoor butterfly gardens too.
Use of coir ‘bunds’ to contain the beds includes being able to spray them for humidity – nice idea for our conservatories too or hardstanding raised beds?

WLGF member Nicky Reilly, who designed the outdoor butterfly garden around the NHM butterfly house, using my book for planting ideas, told me these coir logs are available from https://www.wildcareshop.com

The only show garden I saw a lot of pollinators on was another one in the Young Designers category; called ‘Business and Pleasure’ by Jake Curley. Again taking the idea of an outside working space, but stuffed with late season bee and butterfly attractants like Echinops ritro, Echinaceas, Verbena bonariensis, marjorams and Eupatoriums. It was very pretty and drought tolerant too.

‘Business and Pleasure’ by Jake Curley (www.jakecurley.com)

But getting to the real wildlife gardening were the schools! I have written before on great ideas in school garden competition at previous shows (see my Blog on www.7wells.co.uk ) and Tatton never disappoints in this category. Sadly not all the other shows have this, and I wish they would. Often the schools take a theme from a children’s favourite book or story, and this year we had Harry Potter, a number inspired by The Animals of Farthing Wood, plus the Wind-in the Willows, Hansel and Gretel, and of course Roald Dahl’s stories.  


‘Badger’ from the Animals of Farthing Wood by Gately Primary school included a worm farm as well as the ubiquitous bug hotel.

Many of the children had been involved by making things for the garden when indoors out of recycled plastic bottles, milk cartons, tin cans and found natural materials. Very creative and bursting with ideas we can copy ourselves, and with our own child-charges. Most incorporated some vegetable plants as well as pollinator flowers, so many parts of the curriculum could be covered over the months of design and construction, learning about wildlife habitats and life cycles.

'Fox’ from Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl, Walmsley CE school was very brightly coloured and included lots of bird feeders and bug houses on poles made from tin cans and milk cartons....
...and a butterfly and bee feeding station in an old tyre!

The Pied Piper of Hamelin Garden by Glazebury C of E Primary school had a spectacular river made out of blue-painted plastic bottle ends, and rats made out of pine cones and pipe-cleaners in it. They also had wind-chimes made out of bottle-ends from which hung plastic flutes!

They also had made use of large cans on a pole for various feeders or nestboxes, and a giant rat made out of a black dustbin which doubled as a bug and hedgehog home!

I could go on writing and sharing a lot more photos, but I’m afraid I have gone on too long for a Blog. The Tatton Show has become THE show that encourages young people to get involved in gardening, and a lot of that includes wildlife watching as a way of making it more fun.

Of course many of the show gardens were very cleverly designed and beautiful, as you will have seen on the BBC coverage, and I do not mean to denigrate any of them by leaving them out; but please remember this Blog is just one person’s impression of the wildlife and educational potential of the show.

If you would like to ask about, comment on or see more of any of these gardens do contact me at Jan@7wells.org