Monday, 1 August 2016

The secret world of banking

Walking along the Strand in London you might wonder what goes on behind the doors of the famous Coutts Bank.  A few lucky Open Garden Squares Weekend ticket holders had the chance to find out when their names came up in the draw for an exclusive visit.  I hurried along to join them at the start of the weekend and we were stunned to find out what happens on the roof above the bank.

Executive Chef Peter Fiori and his Head Chef Toby gave very freely of their time that Saturday morning to showcase the bank's secret. They led us up to the roof where we had a personal tour of the bank's astounding kitchen garden. Coutts Skyline Garden is there to serve the restaurant at the bank. Conceived by Peter Fiori, and with the invaluable help of the late Richard Vine, his horticultural consultant, we were led along a series of narrow walkways.

Looking down, London's double decker buses passed along the Strand, and the views of Charing Cross and its neighbouring buildings were framed with flowers and vegetables.

The purple flowers of potatoes were out. The gardeners and their helpers from the Clink Charity at HMP High Down, are proud to supply a wide variety of heritage and traditional potatoes for the restaurant at Coutts.  Over 100 kilos of potatoes are grown here each year. Amazing what you can achieve when you turn an idea into reality. The bank's clients get a very delicious and organic meal when they receive an invitation to dine - not an invite to be refused if you love good food and sustainability.

Although the walkways are narrow and squeezed in between the roof and the street boundary, they were just big enough to enable a disabled visitor to join the group as we walked along more than 300 metres of raised beds, with the first strawberries of the year sprouting at our ankles.

Every vegetable was meticulously labelled and the display was such that I wanted to rush back to my veg patch to emulate some of the very pretty salad varieties grown. 

Up above fruit was ripening, and the peas were climbing.  

The society garlic shown here was just one of a dazzling array of unusual vegetables and herbs up on the roof. I spotted pepino melons, Turkish and Persian cucumbers, pinwheel and cocozelle courgettes, strawberry spinach, blackcurrant sage, tangerine sage with red flowers and sea kale with white ones.

And as we walked along, jaws dropping at every new plant we saw, we were also treated to some of the recipes and tricks of the chefs - who make their own lovage oil from the tall lovage herb grown here, and are liberal in their use of flowers from all their plants, including the sea kale, to adorn their dishes. There's an edible flower for all seasons at Coutts.

The different aspects of the garden have led to the creation of four zones, a fruit garden, country garden, kitchen garden and meadow garden.  There is white tea, lemongrass, Vietnamese coriander and edible violet. They didn't give up trying to grow wasabi, and although it wasn't easy to do, they succeeded, as well as growing the Szechuan pepper you see below.

Inside, we passed through a magnificent boardroom, whose walls were adorned with wallpaper brought back by the UK's first ambassador to China. As small worlds so abound, we took in our stride the fact that one of the members of the tour was a relative of said ambassador. 

I imagined reclining in an armchair like this, with a tantalising view of the garden, after a meal in the dining area.  

You can find out more about the garden by watching episode 12 of this year's Gardeners' World or checking the Facebook page of Coutts Skyline Garden, just in case you're not one of the lucky names drawn out of the hat for the tour next year.  Facebook gives a good update on developments on the roof above the bank. 

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Blackbirds nesting in the jasmine

There were blackbirds nesting in the jasmine when I visited the bijou Highgate Day Centre garden.  I heard one swooping in and saw the jasmine shiver as its wings fluttered through the leaves, but, alas, didn't manage to capture the moment on film however still I stood - such is often the way with the best things in life.

Blackbirds nest in this garden every June, usually in the jasmine on the opposite wall - maybe they want a good spot to watch the volunteers making their final preparations for the garden opening - but this year they had to be flexible on nest location.  Scaffolding covered their usual choice - an unfriendly chancer had snuck in at night and made off with the roof lead,  but they ignored the very attractive bird box which the Centre users had thoughtfully provided for them and chose another jasmine instead. 

The tiny courtyard garden has been transformed by Ben Ledden, the gardener,  and those who have volunteered to help him.  Benches that looked past their sell-by date have been reclaimed, cleaned and painted lime green and magenta and they are weighed down with the propagated plants the volunteers have successfully learned to grow.  The jasmine has been transmogrified many times over and sold in cuttings to adorn neighbouring gardens in Camden. 

Ben and his merry band of volunteers were proud to show off their hard work and effort for their 2016 opening.  Ben is admiringly described as 'our Monty Don', and he is the orchestrator of the garden's development, constantly planning new funding sources and plantings.  Two gardening sessions take place each week and the tranquility of the garden is enjoyed by all the users, many of whom can be found enjoying a cup of tea here and a calm moment of reflection. A woodland planting of ferns, hostas and Fatsia japonica is the newest arrangement, under the jasmine.

A yellow climbing rose is at its best in June and is complemented by a lilac blue clematis - perfect companions, alongside oriental poppies, hostas and globe thistles. 

And here is a close-up.  Maybe June and July roses are always my favourite of all those that adorn gardens in summer.  

Highgate Day Centre offers a range of services for local people with severe mental health issues. Funded by Camden Council and the NHS, the range of activities they have kept going during these difficult times of austerity cuts is impressive.  Ben aims to develop a group of mentors to help new service users in the future. On Open Garden Squares Weekend, there was an art studio offering a botanical art workshop, part of a trend of gardens opening offering extra activities for visitors.

And on my visit, I was given this lovely sketch to take home with me. 

Along a narrow, shaded passageway off the courtyard, an insect hotel has been built near a small pond.

The pond is in need of rejuvenating and reclaiming from the bamboo which continually threatens to engulf it, and the Centre has applied for a grant from the Metropolitan Parks and Gardens Association as part of its next stage of development.  We wish it well.

Over the past two years, Ben has successfully led a team which has taken on an unpromising, tiny space and created a beautiful sanctuary.  An impressive achievement for the whole community! 

Saturday, 4 June 2016

A garden too big for its boots

"My garden is too big for its boots" declared Edward Augustus Bowles who lived at, designed and planted Myddelton House Gardens in Enfield (1865 to 1954). He was right about its size. Spanning eight acres in all, these gardens are seriously historic and impressive. I came for what I thought was just a morning visit and ended up spending a very pleasant whole day there, entranced by the tales told by the gardeners, and the variety of horticultural treats round every corner.

The gardens are the life's work of Edward Bowles, known to his friends as Gussie.  His legacy includes snowdrops, violas, crocuses and colchicums with the Bowles name a familiar one in the titles of countless plants, e.g Viola Bowles Black.  He was a significant member of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) of his day,  chairing its scientific committee and active in its work right up to his death.  One of his famous creations, the Eremurus bed, includes foxtail lillies, eucomis, ornamental grasses, sedums and dianthus, but parts of the garden now suffer from the self-seeded few-flowered garlic, said to be more invasive than wild garlic - there's lots here to keep the gardeners busy.

The glorious wisteria, whose bare branches you can see below, was grown by ‘Gussie’ from seed and now climbs high into a tree, smothering it in blue every May. The ostrich sculptures in wire have replaced the original lead ostriches which used to adorn this bridge, under which the New River ran.

The garden is at its very best in spring, although the imaginative gardening team led by their very able Head Gardener, James Hall, have planned for more summer colour this year, gardening in the style of Bowles – experimental and creative. Tulips were one of Bowles's many passions and the bulbs were usually out in profusion for his birthday in the Tulip Terrace, where he invited local boys and others in the Enfield community for a birthday tulip tea party every year.

Irises get special treatment at Myddelton House Gardens.  Many prize-winning specimens can be seen in their full beauty here.

The greenhouses are striking features, with peaches in one, espalier trained onto bamboo, their buds ready to fruit when I visited.   It was in one of the hot houses that I met one of the garden's ‘Heebeegeebies’ working on potting up Lotus maculatus plants.  Heebeegeebies (derived from HBGBS, Historic and Botanic Garden Bursary Scheme, run by English Heritage) are trainee gardeners, who have been part of the gardening team here for six or seven years.  They specialise during their two-year traineeship in different aspects of horticulture and Myddleton House Gardens is rightly very proud of them.

Bowles built a famous rockery, which is currently being restored, with the aim of re-introducing a water stream through the rocks.  After his death in 1954, the garden was kept alive, but some areas, like the rockery, became a bit overrun. Interestingly, the Royal Free Hospital and the London School of Pharmacy, who took over the garden, introduced pharmacological plants, and a pharmacognosy area remains to this day, although ownership of the garden has now passed to the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority. The National Lottery has given large grants of recent years, which have helped improve the grounds immensely.

Unusual and exotic plants abound, including the purple toothwort, a parasite which doesn't photosynthesise.  There is also an area dubbed by Bowles as the ‘Lunatic Asylum’, where he put any odd species he came across including some, like the twisted hazel, which have since become more commonplace in gardens. He also grew Japanese knotweed, which mercifully hasn't self seeded everywhere, unlike other imports Bowles brought home.

A beautiful replica of an Alpine meadow, full of plants from Bowles' travels abroad, has beehives, snowdrops, scillia, cow parsley and a three-cornered leek. Bowles enjoyed travelling throughout Europe seeking out new plants for the garden, reaching out as far afield as Egypt. 

Here is the three cornered leek up close, with its triangular shaped stem.

There is so much more to tell and discover about Bowles and his garden. There's a kitchen garden, with produce on sale, a lake, a rose bed and pergola and lots more.   I enjoyed reading The Crocus King, written by one of the gardeners, Bryan Hewitt, in honour of the man.  It's on sale near the excellent cafĂ© on site. If you visit on Open Garden Squares Weekend (only just over a fortnight away now!) on June 18th or 19th, you may be lucky enough to join Bryan or one of the Heegeebeebies on one of the tours of the gardens.

Bowles was a charming eccentric, partially sighted as a child, who had a genuine love of philanthropy as well as botany and botanical drawing. His care of underprivileged children, known as the Bowles Boys (girls, unfortunately, didn't get a look-in) was as important to him as horticulture. The variety and extent of his labours in the garden are evident in the beauty and enormity of what he created. Often to be found on all fours weeding, he once said "I come out here sometimes and do an hour's weeding and when I finish I think I've spoilt it all".

Information on visiting Myddelton House Gardens on Open Garden Squares Weekend »

Monday, 2 May 2016

Plants to dye for

Walking down to the bottom of Mare Street in Hackney, you could be forgiven if you missed the slip of land which is Cordwainers Garden. It's tucked down the side of what used to be Cordwainers College building and is a treasure trove of plants used for dyeing cloth, on land reclaimed in 2010 by nearby residents from the brambles that threatened to engulf it.

This garment was made from plants grown here, and across a wide network of community gardens, schools, city farms, park groups, housing estates, local residents, individuals and the London College of Fashion.

I was amazed to see and learn about the range of colours you can make from plants.  Madder is a favourite staple for dyeing but they also use dahlia, avocado, carrot tops, tansy, woad, chamomile, sweet woodruff, marigold, nettles, rudbeckia and soapwort - to name a selection of plants used in the dyeing process and grown here.

They have made bunting of the different colours, and it shows the beauty of the delicate tones of colour, and how they all complement one another, as you can see above.  

To make the garment, flax, as in the picture below, was grown. It took 70 square metres of land to produce enough flax. 

Then it was harvested.

And stored.

Before being spun into thread and then woven and dyed, mainly using madder, alongside the different natural hues of the flax from the different places where it was grown.

There's nothing daunting about the dyeing process the way it is presented by Cordwainers Garden.  It can be done simply at the table on the plot.

And people can take delight in the results the same day - as you can see below.

Cordwainers has been growing dye plants for over five years, and has run classes to spread knowledge about the process.  The volunteers at the garden have also created a small garden for medicinal herbs and plants, tend 17 small vegetable plots, and manage to fit beehives and a pond into a wild corner.

As if this wasn't enough to occupy them, they are constantly out and about in their community, taking exciting and innovative projects to residents, such as making herbal tea bags, lip balms and willow crowns.  Earlier this year they led a group along Mare Street to record the variety of weeds in an urban street.

From time to time they get a little help in their endeavours - from 'The Good Gym', Barclays, Aviva and Standard Chartered.  Their efforts have not gone unnoticed, visits from royalty and Joe Swift of Gardeners' World fame have helped to spread the word about their excellent community work.

They are promoting good health through awareness of diet, and will be devoting one of their vegetable beds to South East Asian plants, reflecting the food eaten by the people of Vietnamese origin in the vicinity.

So, on Open Garden Squares Weekend, take a wander down Mare Street and look for the signs for the University of the Arts, and the garden behind the wire fence hoarding. I don't think you'll be disappointed.  Last year this was how you could spot it.

You can find out more about the garden on the following link to its blog

Monday, 4 April 2016

Gardeners who make our souls blossom

It was a sunny day in March that Kevin Powell, the Head Gardener of Park Crescent and Park Square Gardens, let me into his secret gardens, which border Regents Park.  The skies were blue but March winds bit into your face and you longed for some warm soil under your feet.   

This is a garden where trees take pride of place within a layout designed by John Nash.  The famous, semicircular, Nash terrace of houses borders the south of the gardens on the other side from Regent's Park and it was for the residents of the terrace and nearby houses, that the gardens were originally created.

Unique to these gardens is a connecting tunnel, called the Nusemaids' Tunnel, which burrows under the busy Marylebone Road.  Nursemaids from the houses did indeed steer their prams down the gentle slopes to the tunnel.

The tunnel is so designed and its approaches accordingly planted, that from ground level, looking across the gardens, it is cleverly concealed so that you wouldn't know it existed.

But it is a very beautiful tunnel. So lovely and, more to the point, so centrally located that it attracted the attentions of the board of the Metropolitan Line, who tried to demolish it.  They were stopped by the matter being taken to Parliament, and a further underground tunnel had to be dug under the Nursemaid's tunnel for the railway.  

The banks on one side of the tunnel approach were covered with an unusual periwinkle with curved petals. 

The gardens are beautifully maintained by the Crown Estate Paving Commission, which was set up in 1824 for this purpose, and, come June they should look a bit like the photo below

There will be lots of inspiring plant borders to view as you wander along ancient brick-lined paths laid out just as they were planned in 1817.  Some have acanthus at the back bordered by catmint at the front, others have agapanthus, globe thistles, echinops, fennel, bee balm, and achillea, to name but a few. And the simple formality of several small rose beds, all immaculately pruned, should also be glorious in June. 

Behind the scenes, in one of the sheds, I also got a glimpse of what the residents might get up to in the summer months on the secret lawns - a spot of croquet or chess, anyone?

At this time of year camellias were starting to bloom and there were several to admire like this one as well as daphnes and other winter-scented plants.

Kevin and his team of nine gardeners look after all the mature trees, including a beautiful Tulip tree, and try to maintain the traditional lay out of the space.  They are conscious of the historic urban environment in which the park sits, with the BT Tower popping up from one viewpoint, and the Nash Terrace from another.  Along many of the restored iron railings, the hedges have been replanted to give space to each individual shrub and a degree of flow and informality, creating an evergreen screen, rather than formal, clipped hedging, to preserve the privacy of the gardens. 

Around each tree the gardeners have cleared the grass and put down a wood mulch, a technique which benefits the trees and also creates interest across the lawns. Some of these 'tree circles' have been planted with crocuses and it was here that I spotted my first bee of the year.

As I bent down to look at the bee, one of the gardeners was passing and he remarked that the crocuses had come into bloom that morning.  He and the whole team take a sincere interest in their work and really value opening the gardens for Open Garden Squares Weekend, as this is the one time a year when they  can showcase the fruits of their labour to the wider public. Go along this June, enjoy what you see, and give the gardeners a bit of well-deserved praise.

As Marcel Proust said - " Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.