Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Valuing the Volunteers

This was the active scene which greeted me when I visited the Stave Hill Ecological Park in Rotherhithe - volunteers performing a variety of essential roles under the guidance of Rebeka Clark, their magical multi-tasking site manager, just as they do every day.  She has calculated that there are 4500 volunteer visits here each year, and I was seriously impressed at the scale of their presence in the woods, in the vegetable garden and at the Urban Ecology Office of the Conservation Volunteers located here. 

The Ecological Park is run by the Conservation Volunteers (TCV) under TCV Urban Ecology, a national organisation with a small handful of permanent sites.  This one is one of the jewels in their crown, created as part of the redevelopment of the Rotherhithe area in the mid 1980s. This was Surrey Docks, which had degenerated from a large, working London dock into an area of neglect, with rubbish dumped into the tanks which used to store timber for the capital.  Nature is now protected as a mosaic of grassland, woodland, scrub and wetland habitats. One of the curious contrasts of this area is that, from Canada Water station, you walk through long avenues of brick-paved streets and pavements before the nature site reveals itself and the seemingly interminable bricks disappear. It's a forgotten but newish area of London, which makes the discovery of the Park all the more special.  And the views from the enormous mound which makes Stave Hill itself are a new way of seeing Canary Wharf and London's river and skyline.

Volunteers really are at the heart of the park. The website features them prominently and promotes their involvement as as a fun and life-affirming activity.  They help with the large five-acre grassland site and the smaller half-acre compound garden, where there is always a welcome cup of tea and a biscuit for the helpers. The last fourteen years have seen a visitor centre built, a multi-purpose space which doubles as a classroom, and - in keeping with the park's philosophy of using reclaimed or repurposed materials wherever possible - this centre is proud to have given a home to paving slabs from Trafalgar Square.

The central compound has different focal points.  This is a Tea pea, a replica of which will go to a local primary school.  It has been planted with strawberries, horseradish, mange-tout, beetroot and herbs.

And this is the Creature Feature, a series of insect houses, which I thought reflected the external high-rise environment.  The aim is to change the primacy of bees for nature conservation, emphasising the role of ladybirds and lacewings.  Not that they neglect bees - in fact the beehives they used to have in an adjoining field, are expected to return soon, once the field's habitat has been enhanced for them. Around the Creature Feature the plantings are an attractive mixture of pinks, Verbena bonariensis, crow garlic, rose garlic, teasels and crocosmia. 

Over in the vegetable plot, cucamelons, currants, raspberries and cherry tomatoes make happy bedfellows. Pumpkins and onions thrived here this year, with an ingenious system of using a bicycle to pump waste water around the plot. Paul has been its volunteer guardian for many years and he proudly showed off his Jerusalem artichokes and a common chaser dragon fly which flew by and settled on a stalk.

Claire showed me around the compound.  She is one of 28 Natural Network trainees funded through a grant from the Heritage lottery and is seen here in the woodland area, where a fern garden has a section for lilies of the valley and wild strawberries line some of the paths. There are projects galore which she helps Rebeka to coordinate such as a gentlemen's convenience, which will use urine to interact with straw and make compost, a fox box and a sound room being planned from bales of straw.


Exchange students from Spain created this structure, planting herbs and saxifrages in plastic water bottles.

Workers from Price Waterhouse Coopers were being trained by Rebeka on my visit - learning how to use a saw to make noggins (squares of wood) for trellises they were building - cleverly designed to provide homes for yet more insects.  Here they are taking a break from their work for a quick selfie in front of the Creature Feature.  You can see here too the length and size of the Creature Feature - planned to accommodate a visit from a class of schoolchildren so they can all peer inside at the same time and observe insect behaviour. There was so much diverse volunteer activity going on - from the supervision of power scythe training to the assembly of a green roof - all coordinated by a very dedicated site manager and her team of amazing volunteers.

It's a very happy Ecological Park to visit - which takes you through an area not often frequented by tourists, or even Londoners. Put it in your diary for next June and you won't be disappointed.

Friday, 7 October 2016

The Constant Gardener

Stephen Crisp has been Head Gardener at Winfield House since 1987. As Winfield House is the Official Residence of the Ambassador of the United States of America to the Court of St.James's, he's seen a lot of presidents and prime ministers come and go - and ambassadors too.  When he started, Margaret Thatcher was best friends with Ronald Reagan. Since then there have been ten ambassadors and it is Stephen who has been the constant gardener throughout this time, shaping and developing the garden in keeping with its different needs, status, and setting - and the results blew me away.

The entrance to Winfield House is through some modest iron gates on the Inner Circle of Regent's Park.  Once through security, I was met by eglantine pink roses at the lodge house, skirting the front of the formal knot-type topiary on the wall and blowing gently in the wind.

The garden is exceedingly big - twelve and a half acres in all and the second largest private garden in London after Buckingham Palace. The garden has to be there for the private needs of the Ambassador's family, visits of official guests, and garden parties and BBQs.   All managed by Stephen and two other gardeners. Here they have been rather innovative with what was a traditional pyracantha hedge, pruning it into a cloud hedge.   

There are formal parts to the garden where Stephen has tried to move away from using roses - with some success.  The heleniums and dahlias he has chosen here, alongside pittosporum hedges, tall grasses and verbena bonariensis worked well.  In another part of the garden he replaced some climbing roses with hornbeam to equally good effect.

But roses have not entirely disappeared and still steal the show when they are at their best.
Stephen and his team guard their time and use it to good effect - important if only three of you are managing twelve and a half acres.  Central to his gardening philosophy is the tenet of leaving no bare earth, to minimise the need for weeding. Leaves are swept onto beds in the autumn and wood clippings are shredded and used liberally as cover - in addition to compost.  He also believes that the work you do in January is as important as that in July.

Winfield House and the whole estate was developed by Barbara Hutton, the Woolworth heiress. Formerly Hertford Villa, and then St Dunstan's Villa, she bought the house in 1936 as a home for her new son, where he would be safe and secure.  No expense was spared in the renovation, and for a brief time parties were hosted here on a grand scale.  But, with war looming and her marriage failing, she returned to America in 1939.  She came back to the house with her new husband, Cary Grant, after the war but the building had fallen into disrepair and she gave it to the American government for a dollar.  This statue is of Barbara Hutton. 

Near the front of the house roses have also been replaced with hollyhocks, teasels, euphorbia, aquilegia and phormium. They give height to the border and mostly support themselves without any staking.  All the annuals in the garden are grown on site - with the help of some very impressive greenhouses, where we were treated to a tasting of some early sungold cherry tomatoes.

This is known as the gold border, on the right of the main house, with a beautiful yellow and green herbaceous border.  The garden furniture was repainted dark green and the white plastic pots given a Farrow and Ball make-over. Elsewhere plants in the herbaceous borders include phlomis, yellow tree peonies, Begonia grandis subsp. evansiana, Californian tree poppies and geraniums.

The little gate is a cute touch at the edge of this wild area and brings a smile to visitors' faces. Nearby I saw a fox skipping across the grass.  Walking on, the sweep of the land with its natural grass and wild flower planting before Winfield House is superb. You could forget entirely that you were in central London.

Grasses are a strong feature of the garden.  As well as delighting in the open meadow areas, many of the 150 new trees that have been planted are surrounded by large wild grass circles, complementing the deciduous Eurasian hardwoods and exotic ornamentals that have been chosen.

Last year Michelle Obama planted a pear tree in the garden, which stands out as one of the few fruit trees you see.  As she leaves office as First Lady and a new president appoints another ambassador for London, Stephen Crisp will be here to welcome them into their new garden and to continue to keep it so beautifully well tended. 

Friday, 9 September 2016

Everlasting Flowers and Meadows

The first time I saw an installation by Rebecca Louise Law, I stood, staring upwards for ages, transfixed by its beauty.  This time her artwork was the first exhibit in the newly established City Centre of the City of London, and it was just as captivating the second time. 

She had created this art installation, entitled 'The City Garden' by collecting flowers and natural materials from across the public gardens and spaces in the City of London. Sponsored by the London Wall Place Partnership, they were hung, using copper wire, across the ceiling of the reception hall of the centre.  They aren't, unfortunately, completely everlasting - this was an art installation of limited duration - but as they hung in their dried state, they reminded me of everlasting flowers like helichrysum and echinops.  And they were one of two gems I saw in the City on Open Garden Squares weekend last June.

Just a  short distance away, the second treat awaited me in the recently planted Beech Gardens in the Barbican, where its designer, Nigel Dunnett was due to come to talk about his new creation. He arrived at the City Centre and we snaked off in ones and twos in his wake to discover the new gardens, escorted by volunteers from the Friends of City Gardens.

Professor Nigel Dunnett, to give him his full title, is the Professor of Planting Design and Horticulture at Sheffield University.  He will go down in history as one of the creators of the meadow-type plantings, which stole the nation's heart at the 2012 London Olympics.  As he said to us, he considered the plants in the Olympic Park to be its best legacy - the plants, not just the buildings, were the stars of the show. 

Nigel recounted to us his childhood love of gardening.  His parents were keen gardeners, which always helps, and he grew up in a world of traditional English gardens, devouring seed catalogues for bedtime reading.  Aged 11, he joined a local garden club, and after the lure of seed catalogues he discovered the now famous paperback book by Christopher Lloyd, The Well Tempered Garden, which opened his eyes.  Living in a village in Kent, he found a teacher who took him on nature walks, where he learned the common names of wild flowers and discovered the joyous, uplifting and happy feelings of being in a woodland environment.  In a woodland you are part of the whole experience, the scent, the smell, and the waft of the breeze. 

Nigel works according to two main principles - the art form, tuned to nature; and a belief in creating healthy cities and liveable places. Here is a pic of him planting Beech Gardens, where he used a framework of woody plants and shrubs, with perennials and annual coming up through and by their growth. He loves the simplicity of wild flower meadows, which often have only two or three plants flowering at one time, but is clear that in his work he does not seek to copy or ape a wild flower meadow but to create something akin but new. 

This plan was his concept for the gardens.  He has now travelled across the world, taking in wild flower meadows in China grazed by yaks, and brought back his findings to help cities as they struggle with climate change - using the experiences of wet meadow land to design plantings capable of sustaining floods and water run-off, reducing road widths, designing storm water cascades, and planting flowers and grasses which are loved by urban dwellers. Loved so much, that the workers at the John Lewis HQ took to eating their packed lunches on the edge of his creation on a roundabout. His work in Sheffield, at the John Lewis HQ and the Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace are examples of the diversity of his work.

Nigel sells his seed mixes through his company, appropriately named Pictorial Meadows, and the picture above shows one of his more recent creations. In Trentham Gardens in Stoke on Trent there is even a garden railway running through one of the meadows. 


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!