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Sara-Jane & Alica at Virens Studio

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Planting Projects with Big Impact: Inspired Horticulture

Dec 23, 2020

This year has been a challenging one to say the least. As someone that takes inspiration from horticulture, history, art and travel I've been lucky to find some exceptional planting schemes from around the world that have kept me looking forward to a time when we can all venture back out into the world. Here are four of my favourites so far.

Grey to Green Sheffield -Nigel Dunnett
Grey to Green Sheffield (Nigel Dunnett)

Grey to Green - Sheffield, England (2014-present)

When I first came across pictures of this project, I was in awe. It's everything that I would like to achieve as a designer myself. It is beautiful and diverse in its planting, it addresses many of the issues that I'm really interested in and it meets the needs of its users, human, plant and wildlife. Nigel Dunnett's signature is all over it.


Grey to Green started when a 1.6km long section of a main road in Sheffield city centre was reduced from four lanes to two. It presented a unique opportunity to combat a number of familiar issues like surface water reduction, water treatment and pollution control. It also speaks to increasing biodiversity, adding wildlife corridors and urban cooling. All the while boosting the overall health and economic benefits for the surrounding area and its residents.

The hardscape features a widened pedestrian walkway, public art installations and added seating. Plus an interlinked sustainable urban drainage system (SUDS). It consists of a series of individual cells that contain, slow and direct water flow through the area (hopefully preventing future flooding). Each planting depression has an open bottom for infiltration and a soil mix that promotes drainage (70% crushed local sandstone, 20% compost, 10% sandy silt loam). Small dams at decreasing heights allow for overflow creating a cascade down the length of the street.

Designed by Nigel Dunnett and Zac Tudor, the plantings are a carefully curated matrix of perennials suited to the specific conditions as either rain gardens or bio swales. There's a wet mix for the sections where water is expected to concentrate and sit and a dry one for areas higher up. The material is hugely diverse, with quick growing/flowering species to fill space immediately as well as others that will come on over time.

grey to green

During establishment, the plants are protected from foot traffic by temporary fencing running the length of the beds. Maintenance is minimal, requiring only occasional weeding (crushed stone mulch helps) and litter picking as needed. Seasonal cutback will be accomplished in two parts; a first pass in December to keep things tidy (leaving seed heads and stems for wildlife), and a final chop back in February just before the flush of new spring growth.


Plants include: Eupatorium cannabinum ‘Flore Pleno’, Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Album’, Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’,Kniphofia triangularis, Echinacea pallida, Calamintha ‘Blue Cloud’, Gaura lindheimeri, ris sibirica ‘Tropic Night’, Luzula nivea, Amsonia tabernaemontana var salicifolia, Polemonium caerulea, Allium ‘Mount Everest’, Gladiolus byzantinus, Euphorbia polychroma Rudbeckia fulgida var deamii, Gaura lindheimeri, Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Album’, Deschampsia cespitosa Saponaria ‘Max Frei’, Achillea filipendulina ‘Coronation Gold’, Calamintha nepeta ‘Blue Cloud’, Echinops ‘Veitch’s Blue’, Helicotrichon sempervirens and more.

The entire project will be split into phases. The first was completed 2016 with the second now under construction and more to come in the future.

Le jardin secret
Le Jardin Secret - Morocco

Le Jardin Secret - Marrakech, Morocco (2008-2016)

The restoration of a 400 year old site, Le Jardin Secret is something a designer dreams of. A marriage of historic and modern craftsmanship in the heart of an ancient city.

In another era, this riads sheer size with its private water source, hammam and 17m tall tower spoke of its owners statice. Today it celebrates both the modern vitality and history of the Moroccan culture. After a meticulous restoration of the buildings (think rammed earth walls, handmade tiles, inlaid cedar and carved stucco decoration) and of course the gardens, it is an architectural gem now open to the public.

planting project
garden inspiration

The complex has not one but two unique courtyards each with distinct planting schemes by Tom Stuart-Smith.

The smaller courtyard called for a lot of creativity in it's construction as there were few indications of the original features. Here, an Exotic garden (of Eden) theme flourishes. Vibrantly coloured walls and a modern pavilion has been built as a backdrop to the planting design on what few foundations remained. Pink brick paths and irregularly shaped beds signal the contrast between the two courtyards. This area is Stuart-Smiths ode to biodiversity, full of drought-tolerant species from semi-arid areas all over the world. It highlights bold textures, dramatic shapes and year round colour. This is a garden that celebrates the joy of the present.


Plants and trees include: Jacaranda (Delonix regia), Bottle tree , silk floss tree (Ceiba speciosa), Pachypodium lamerei, Aloe striata, Euphorbia tirucalli, Puya mirabilis, Thevetia peruviana, Bulbine latifolia, Kleinia neriifolia, Furcraea macdougalii, Jasminum azoricum, Yucca rostrata, Salvia canariensis, Pennisetum villosum, Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’, Ruellia simplex ‘Chi Chi’, Kalanchoe beharensis and more.

Le jardin secret

The second, larger courtyard has been restored to its 18th century glory. It centres on all of the essential elements found in paradise gardens: water, shade, enclosure and a cruciform division of space. To match this feeling, all of the plants in this garden can be found in the Koran. There's also an ingenious and ancient irrigation system where water flows from a central spring through a series of rills, pools and channels. It trickles along jewel-tone tiled paths that are set above the planting area and then when needed, strategically feeds the plant material. A selection of shady palms and fruit trees are underplanted by highly fragrant perennials, rosemary hedges and dreamy grasses. The tall earthen walls provide refuge from the neighbouring souk. This is a garden that pays homage to tradition.


Plants and trees include: fig, olive, date palm, pomegranate, orange, lemon, Argan, rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), Moroccan lavender, grasses (Stipa tenuissima), Tulbaghia (society garlic) and more

Delos at Sissinghurst
Delos at Sissinghurst (Dan Pearson)

Delos at Sissinghurst - Kent, England (2018-2020 official opening 2021)

Famous for its unique and forward thinking gardens, Sissinghurst is visited by some 200,000 people a year. They flock to see Vita and Harold's iconic plantings born of their desire to create beauty through thoughtful design. This year, Dan Pearson, the National Trust and a team of experts and craftspeople have sought to 'reconstruct' a portion of the gardens that never were.

Back in 1935, the couple built a Mediterranean style garden inspired by a trip to Delos, Greece. They used the stones from ruins found on the castle grounds and imported plants to echo the Greek landscape that they loved. However, from the onset the difference in soil composition, weather conditions and light exposure caused the garden to struggle and it eventually became more of a woodland type planting. Even the original stones were removed in the late 1960's.

In 2018 it was decided that Delos should get a second chance at Sissinghurst and so the task was set. The assembled team used a combination of archival research and modern horticultural techniques to try and create the garden that Vita and Harold had originally intended.

The woodland material was removed and a series of walls were crafted in three styles, some for terracing plus formal dressed walls and rustic walls. A soil mix of 50% gravel, 25% crushed brick and 25% lean topsoil was added to meet the needs of the Mediterranean plant material (low nutrient with free drainage).


Plants include: Achillea crithmifolia, Tanacetum densum, Thymus capitates, Santolina and many more.

dry garden

Due to open in July of 2020 the official ribbon cutting will now take place in the Spring of 2021 but the gardens are currently open to the public by appointment. And it seems like the response is just what Vita and Harold would have relished. Delos' departure from the substantially more lush design often connected to Sissinghurst is causing a lot of discussion (much as I would think, the White garden would have at its inception). It's all the things that make a planting great; connected to its past and mother nature while also evoking feeling by engaging all the senses.

Rotterdam facade gardens *photo belongs to Plantenasiel Rotterdam
Rotterdam facade gardens - Plantenasiel Rotterdam

Rotterdam Facade Garden Initiative - Rotterdam, Netherlands (2020)

This is a city initiative that we can get behind! The City of Rotterdam has published a series of instructions for creating street gardens. Not just reclaiming or planting up disused spaces like hell strips and empty lots but actually removing sidewalk pavers (where safe) to create new green space, on city property. In fact the city council has decided that as long as you follow some simple rules you don't even need to ask permission to build your own sidewalk garden.

I love this sense of DIY, not just being subversive with a seed bomb or two or a touch of guerrilla gardening but taking the initiative and creating and maintaining new garden space to benefit entire neighbourhoods, one building facade at a time.

The how to, can be found by residents online in 5 simple steps

Tile out

Leaving at least 1.8m of space, remove 1 1/2 sidewalk tiles (pavers) stand them upright to edge the bed. Scoop out 30cm of sand, the length of one tile and file the space with garden soil.

Green it in

Add plants! a diverse mix of tough pollinator friendly perennials are encouraged (no large trees or shrubs please). They even provide lists of possible combinations.

Plants include: Hollyhock, Lupin, Nepeta, Santolina, Panicum, Crocus, Sedum, Stipa, Salvia, Geum, Lavander, Astilbe and more.

Tips for maintenance

Basic maintenance is suggested, simple things like trim as needed, remove branches that might create an obstacle and avoid too much clean up to help out beneficial insects.

Brighten up the sidewalk

Extra space can be filled with containers, seating and decoration to add to the joy.

Work together on a greener street

Lastly, the city wants to encourage its citizens to interact and become engaged in the program. Getting neighbours and friends involved will hopefully lead to more green streets all over Rotterdam!

There's so much passion and love out there for naturalistic planting design that functions on all kinds of levels. Thanks to all the amazing plants people out there creating and inspiring us.


-Sara-Jane and Alicia at Virens Studio

Virens is a studio located in Vancouver, Canada that specializes in ecological planting design, urban greening consultation and hort writing.   Please get in touch so that we can help you bring some green into your city! and don't forget to follow us @virensstudio on Instagram.


© Virens Studio 2023 (all photos are used for demonstration purposes and do not necessarily belong to us.)


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