Who's Frank?: An east London community project is making a horticultural hullabaloo of unsung heroes

Seemingly arbitrary names have been springing up in flowerbeds across east London. Except there's nothing random at all about artist Joshua Sofaer's dazzling community project, says Emma Townshend
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The Independent Online

"So, who is Frank Whipple?" asks yet another puzzled passer-by in Bethnal Green's Victoria Park Gardens in east London, and the gardeners exchange wry smiles over the elaborate flowerbed that spells out his name. Bethnal Green is a hotbed of old-fashioned Britishness these days: the youngest, hippest WI in Britain holds its knitting and sewing meetings there, as "the Shoreditch Sisters"; and now, carpet-bedding is making a comeback in the borough, thanks to the impetus provided by local art project Create.

Carpet-bedding is one of those old British art forms practised now in only a few places. There are still spectacular displays in seaside towns such as Penzance in Cornwall, and Kew Gardens has run to a little carpet-bedded extravagance this summer to celebrate its 250th anniversary. But in reality, the cost of creating these tightly planted, heavily maintained displays is beyond most local councils these days.

So when artist Joshua Sofaer proposed huge carpet-beds of flowers to spell out names chosen by the local community, Create was happy to award him its inaugural prize. Funding has been provided by the project's sponsor, Bank of America, in five boroughs from Greenwich to Waltham Forest, to honour unsung local heroes; as Sofaer explains, "people who would never be celebrated like this any other way". Whipple is one of these, a 101-year-old Millwall supporter who is still an active carer for his own disabled daughter.

And while we are in the park taking pictures, another of Sofaer's "names" actually walks past; an easy candidate for Hackney's most glamorous granny, this is the gorgeous, friendly Fatima Roberts, who works with vulnerable homeless women and was nominated by a work colleague. "When I read what had been written about me," Roberts explains, "I was totally choked up. I was so elated, so honoured."

The plants alone for Sofaer's project run into thousands of pounds, and then there's the laborious cutting, trimming and planting that goes into producing the blocks of colour that light up the park today. Even Tower Hamlets' area manager Michael Hime is pitching in, with black plastic bags tied round the knees of his jeans to stop too much mud getting on them.

But the effect is spectacular and crowd-stopping. Everyone passing, from packs of schoolchildren to old ladies, wants to know who Frank Whipple is. Sofaer's project comes to life, just as he intended, as the gardeners patiently answer their questions. As one of the horticulturalists, Simon Willems, sighs: "If we'd closed the park while we were putting in the plants, we'd have done it in half the time."

Joshua Sofaer's 'Rooted in the Earth' project ( www.rootedintheearth.co.uk) will be on display in parks across London from 13 July

A beginner's guide: How to make your bed

Keep the plants short for legibility

Trim to 5cm high before planting. Plant so that foliage is touching, to create an instant effect. Plants mustn't be allowed to flower, and need a weekly trim.

Use sedums and sempervirums

Slow-growing but pricey. Tower Hamlets uses Pyrethrum "Golden Moss" for lime-green foliage and Echeveria glauca (above) for a bluey-green touch. For its scarlet infill, they went for Alternanthera "Bright Red". (Try www.kernock.co.uk).

Scale is everything

Conspicuous displays were the designer bags of yesteryear. Victorians reckoned 20,000 plants for a baronet, 30,000 for a Duke and 40,000 for a Rothschild.