Features: March 2nd, 2012

John Williamson of horticultural suppliers Amberol has advice for local authorities taking part in this year’s Britain in Bloom competition.

The eyes of the world will be firmly focused on the UK in 2012 with the arrival of the Olympics, as well as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee historic celebrations, so it is particularly important that our public areas look their best. Britain in Bloom has played a fundamental part in developing more attractive communal landscapes, transforming city centres, towns and villages, bringing people together to restore pride in their neighbourhoods.

Local authority involvement varies hugely: in some places it is volunteer driven, whilst other entries are almost exclusively local government led. Undoubtedly having council support makes a huge difference. Local authority staff are well placed to communicate with diverse sections of the community and may have helpful connections as well as better buying power. Councils also have access to valuable expertise amongst their staff and can help with funding bids. The ultimate aim should be for volunteers, local government and community organisations to work together.

Of course, not every entrant can win gold, but having a clear understanding of what the competition is about and what the judges are looking for will certainly help. Any entry needs to be planned with the key judging criteria in mind; horticultural achievement, environmental responsibility and community participation.

Assembling a team
One of the main aims of Britain in Bloom is to create long term community improvement involving as wide a section of the community as possible, from the Women’s Institute to schools and playgroups. It is important for In Bloom groups to be seen as inclusive, welcoming new members and ideas as well as opening up to local businesses, charities and volunteers by issuing regular appeals.

Judges also look for active participation from young people, marking high on the involvement of future generations. Try contacting educational establishments or delegating personnel to go into schools and colleges and talk to students about what is happening in their area and how they can be involved.

Down to business

Britain in Bloom has significant benefits for businesses as well as residents and visitors. Areas with successful initiatives often have improved footfall and tangible commercial advantages, so communicate these advantages to businesses by outlining the benefits of the scheme and sharing plans for development. Businesses can become immune to requests for money, but appeals for help in different forms in addition to sponsorship may yield results. Businesses can also be encouraged to do their bit by paying attention to the areas around them including shop frontages, car parks or communal areas.

Hold the front page

Make full use of links with regional newspapers, radio and TV. If your organisation has a press office, keep them informed of events so they can brief the local media. Remember to take photos and record videos; not only will they provide proof of your journey, but journalists will be more inclined to run your story alongside good visuals. Local papers can help to keep residents updated, run appeals for volunteers and sponsorship as well as raising the bid’s profile. You can also entice businesses to get involved with the prospect of some positive PR.

Don’t forget the free communication channels available. Set up a Britain in Bloom Facebook page, You Tube channel or Twitter account to spread the word. A blog can include a regular newsletter to let people know of the developments in their area. Not only will good press coverage help communication, but it can gain points when it comes to judging.

Get planting

Obviously, the actual horticulture itself is the most important part of the bid, so planting needs to be given careful consideration. As a council you will almost certainly have a pool of horticultural expertise amongst your personnel so get the department involved early on. The degree of their involvement will vary depending upon the level of commitment from the authority but at the very least they will be able to advise volunteers on choice of plants, location, maintenance issues etc. Ideally, there should be close collaboration between any volunteers and the relevant council staff so that public displays in parks, shopping areas, public gardens and communal spaces complement the entry.

Displays should be visually interesting, so vary the size of beds, plants according to location and purpose. Be inventive in the selection of plants and designs; consider using containers to add variety and depth to displays. Amberol’s promenade planters can enhance walkways and building frontages whilst floral fountain planters can create stunning displays. Hanging baskets and window boxes will draw the eye upwards and add another level to displays. The horticulture section also includes the recognition of ‘wild’ areas so don’t omit them: they can be every bit as beautiful as elaborate flower beds and may complement both the natural and built environment beautifully.

Bear budget in mind

Money is an issue in these cash strapped times; a fact that judges recognise, so throwing money at your entry won’t necessarily earn extra marks. Jeff Bates, Vice Chair of the Britain in Bloom judges’ panel has practical advice for budget conscious authorities. “Don’t do what you do less well, do less of it. For example, you could put fewer plants in a bedding display by spacing plants further apart but it lowers the quality. Far better to permanently plant a bed or two, or even grass one or two less prominent sites and maintain the quality of those that you continue to do. Be positive – it’s an opportunity to re-think how horticulture is provided to best meet current local needs.”

Nature and nurture

A structured maintenance programme for watering, feeding, deadheading, pruning, nutrition and pest control is essential – and should be clearly documented. Consider choosing the self watering planters that Amberol supply to ensure less maintenance and a more ecologically friendly bid. Similarly, the most cost effective plants last the season, so it’s worthwhile investing in high quality, healthy plants and suitable compost. When it comes to picking plants, consider those that will naturally thrive in the environment; a plant local to the country / region will be looked on favourably when judging.

As we all know, there are currently significant pressures on local government purse strings, and whilst initiatives such as Britain in Bloom may seem non essential in the current economic climate, there is also a strong case to be made for ensuring that where we live, work and visit is a pleasant place to be. Local authorities can and should influence this for the better. As Jeff Bates, who sees the impact of the competition first hand, comments. “Britain in Bloom develops community involvement, makes places greener and cleaner, involves all ages and sections within communities, encourages visitors, brings people together who may otherwise never meet or speak – there is no better community campaign.” So perhaps the question should not be can an authority afford to get involved – but can they afford not to?

John Williamson is the marketing manager at Amberol. Established in 1969, Amberol is a family run company which makes and supplies a range of horticultural products including planters, self watering containers, benches and talking rubbish bins.