Features: July 13th, 2011

Budget vs. blooms

Can we justify continuing to spend public money on floral displays in today’s times of austerity? John Williamson of Amberol examines the role of community displays and looks at ways that they can be maintained at a minimal cost.

Local government is having a hard time with unprecedented cuts to services and personnel across a range of areas. But what about those services deemed to be non essential such as communal landscaping? Can expenditure on these areas continue during a time when budgets are being so tightly squeezed? And should it? One of the problems that councils are faced with is to decide what to cut, so before the floral displays that bring some much needed beauty to our urban environments become a thing of the past, let’s look at the issues. Why is communal landscaping so important and what can we do to make it more cost effective?

Changing the face of Britain

Events such as Britain in Bloom have done much to change the face of both our rural and urban landscapes by encouraging community involvement and celebrating the transformation that floral displays can achieve in even the most deprived areas.

One striking example where horticulture has made a positive difference to the quality of people’s lives can be found in Greater Manchester on the city’s Central Estate. With help from their housing trust, residents on the estate brought in 250 self watering containers and baskets, planted up with flowers. Within two months, the number of residents involved in the project had grown from 3 to 60, with a community planting day raising the profile of the project still further. Self watering containers were specifically chosen for ease of maintenance, which was an important issue if the scheme was to be sustained long term.

The flower beds that appeared along the balconies and walkways of the low rise flat blocks transformed the estate for both residents and outsiders. Not only did the estate look more attractive, but the whole project fostered a greater community spirit than ever before according to one long term resident, whilst crimes rates and incidences of anti social behaviour decreased – true flower power in action.

Having an impact on the local economy

But floral displays aren’t just about making somewhere look pretty – they also have a significant economic value as councils and parks departments are aware. Tim Oakes is Operations Manager of Birmingham Parks and Nurseries Department which won a gold award in the Large City category for the Heart of England in Bloom last year. He explains the difference that communal landscaping makes to Britain’s second city. “We supply floral enhancement to several business improvement districts within the city. They all report that footfall increases when the area ‘feels good’. In this way we feel that floral displays are critical to the city.”

This sentiment is echoed by Caroline Elmhirst, Nottingham in Bloom Partnership Manager. “Floral displays help communicate the whole cultural ‘offer’ that Nottingham can provide to its visitors, tourists and workers, by creating an attractive, pleasing environment which people want to visit.”

Making the right choices

So, with the importance of community horticulture widely supported, how can council departments reduce costs in line with other departments? Firstly it’s important to choose the right plants: they need to be both hardy and easy to care for. Terry Bane, Horticultural and Funding Officer for Norwich Council explains how he chooses what to plant. “Obviously the most cost effective plants are those that last the season and don’t need replacing. It’s all about using high quality, healthy plants, suitable compost and planning a good maintenance programme, including nutrition and pest and disease awareness and control. In Norwich, we tend to use most of the summer trailing and upright favourites, such as begonias, bidens, geraniums (hybrids, ornamental foliage named varieties and ivy leaved types), as well as helichrysum, lysimachia, petunias and plectranthus. Although begonias and petunias are not the easiest to maintain, we find that these and the other varieties perform well and last throughout the season. For that reason, despite the beauty of the flower, I rarely use lobelia as it burns out quickly; instead we often use scaveolia as this plant provides attractive late flowers in either blue or pink; they are also quite fleshy plants, so tolerate the sun beating down on them. We also sometimes use marigolds as fill in plants until the others develop.”

Minimising maintenance

The second issue to address is that of maintenance. No matter how hardy a plant is, it will need regular care, particularly during extreme weather conditions. One way of cutting back on maintence costs is to use self watering containers. Many councils, including Norwich, Nottingham and Birmingham use these specialised planters which both reduce the need for regular watering, and also eradicate the possibility of over watering. The self watering planters produced by Amberol work by having a built in water reservoir with a series of capillaries to ‘suck’ up the water which is then evenly dispersed via an expander pad. This makes it impossible to overwater, and, because the water is stored below the soil, it doesn’t evaporate, no matter what the weather conditions are.

“With the use of the Amberol self watering system, we manage with two visits a week by our watering crews in most summers,” explains Birmingham’s Tim Oakes. “This would compare to daily visits required for other non reservoir types of containers.” Norwich’s Terry Bane concurs. “The self watering containers help us save significant amounts of water and time in terms of repeat visits. Ultimately the site itself is crucial i.e. are the containers and beds in full sun, shade or a wind tunnel? It’s imperative to listen to the staff who know the sites and get them involved with helping choose the best plants for the right location.”

Look to business

Whilst public money is in short supply, there is also an additional source of revenue which can help fund the displays. Not only do residents benefit from an aesthetically pleasing environment, but so do the businesses located there. Sponsorship of beds and planters is a well established practice in most authorities but is an area that perhaps needs to be pursued more systematically and persistently as the public purse strings tighten. As Terry explains “Floral displays make a real difference to the city – it is a tangible way of saying that we care about our environment and the people who live here. I also believe that flowers, parks and open spaces attract visitors to Norwich. In economic terms, many organisations use floral displays as a way to promote their business, adopting sponsorship displays near to their premises that help fund and sustain the displays.”

So, community landscaping may not be as ‘non essential’ as it first appears. Whilst it cannot be compared to hospitals and schools in terms of importance, it does have a significant impact upon people’s quality of life, particularly in our more urban or socially deprived areas. The challenge that faces councils and landscapers now is how to maintain these displays in the face of reduced funding. However, as I have outlined here, there are viable solutions to the problem and ways of keeping costs down which may actually improve environmental awareness, budget management and general practice in the long term.

About the author

John Williamson is the Marketing Manager at Amberol, a family run company which supply a range of planters, self watering containers bins and benches to local authorities, schools and businesses. Amberol aim to create products that will facilitate a cleaner, greener environment. For more information about Amberol’s products visit www.amberol.co.uk or call 01773 830 930.