London 2012, a gardening experience

Time moves so quickly but memories can keep things vivid, and it already happened one year ago. Each day that passes my mind returns to this exciting period of my life…

After moving to London, I saw an advertisement that was ‘looking for a horticulturist for an interesting project’, a vague description for a job. Curious, I applied and was called for an interview and during our meeting the prospective employer was still very vague about the job, giving away some details but not enough.  Only after I got the job did I learn that it was for the horticulturist position for the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony.  The company, Filmscapes, regularly designs and installs gardens for television and film and we were to create the first scene for the Opening Ceremony, called ‘Green and Pleasant Land’ based on the rural countryside of England. Due to a strict confidentiality agreement, it was all to be kept a secret.

Artificial turf

The sets we created included both hard materials and real plants, which some had been growing on at the company nursery. Early stages included making the hard set, which entailed cutting, distressing and painting artificial turf so it would look like real grass, creating crop boards of dried wheat and poppies, and covering bare apple trees with fake foliage and apples. Soon we moved on site to the stadium, and that is when the full responsibility of my job, which included care, maintenance, and IPM of all live plant material, was felt.

Olympic Stadium stage

Although the stadium was still a construction zone, there were a number of tasks that we needed to tackle immediately.

Olympic Tor being created

There was a huge mountain, the Tor, which had a fiberglass shell as its base and we covered this shell completely with  meadow turf from top to bottom. There was only an inch of soil with a thin capillary mat underneath to “help” hold moisture.  This covering was completed a few months early so the meadow turf had time to grow and fill out creating a seamless natural look. The wildflowers, such as oxeye daisy and Lotus corniculatus, were to be established and in bloom by Opening Ceremony time.

Wildflower verge at Olympic Stadium

Next installation was a wildflower verge that encircled the whole edge and sides of the stage. The plants were attached in sheets as small seedlings directly to wood planks sloped to 45 degrees; the soil was less than 1/3 of an inch underneath the wildflowers.  Maintaining them required a fair amount of attention due to water runoff and the heat until the flower canopy closed and created more shade for the roots The microclimate of the stadium was terrible, as it  was always hot, dry and breezeless.

Aerial shot

Installation of stage

Vegetable practice sets

There were a plethora of other plants which included vegetables, hedgerows made from tree saplings, more turf and wildflower meadow that was all to be used on stage.

watering the nursery

We had a nursery just outside the stadium due to the necessity of duplicate plants that were involved in the scene changes. These duplicates were necessary because the nursery held the plants that wouldn’t be damaged by the rehearsals that needed to take place with the cast.

There were many challenges that I didn’t anticipate, such as limited or no access to my water sources during the constant rehearsals. Begging and pleading with stage and crew directors did nothing and I began to wonder if they understood that plants are living things and do not wait for a drink of water but would quickly turn brown and crispy.   There were mishaps too such as forgetting to disengage the automatic irrigation on the Tor one evening and getting a key speaker getting soaked while practicing his speech.

watering the Tor

The work was hard and strenuous and the days were long, including some 18 hours days. Watering took up a huge part of these days, whether it was by hand, use of sprinklers, and the automatic watering system that we used sometimes on the Tor in the evenings. Each day, as I wheeled heavy hoses across the stadium stage, I realized what an incredible opportunity this task was, not even taking a second for granted.  Every day was a pleasure to see and hear how much all of the workers inside the stadium appreciated this beautiful and colorful display of blooms over the course of the time.

The last two weeks were the most difficult, with expectations and tensions running high. An unwelcome heat wave in London kept me watering  sometimes 11 hours straight and I began to feel like there was never enough time or water to get it all taken care of.  With the pressure building up at that point and almost at breaking point, I would take a deep breath, think of the athletes, and soldier on, thinking of how I could handle these tasks rather than think of the pressure of it being for the Olympics.

A few hours before the public was to be let in to the stadium, and then televised for the world to see, we were doing frantic last minute touches. I was able to look around, see all the plants were green and looking fantastic, and I realized I had successfully completed my job.

I also had the chance to be in the Opening Ceremony in ‘Green and Pleasant’ where I helped a colleague fell an oak tree on stage.

     While in full costume that night, in a stadium of 80,000 people, I sat down on stage in the ‘orchard’ we made, with the fake apples, and as I took it all in, I proceeded to eat a real apple I had stashed in my pocket.  I was exhausted, delirious, and overtired but giggled to myself that I was sitting on stage in front of the Royal Box, and a packed stadium, at the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony. I couldn’t stop smiling, and a year later I still can’t and I would do it all again in a second…

My keepsake of our Poppies and dried wheat