Cloistered away next to the historic Priory Church of St John, this fragrant garden is part of the Museum of the Order of St John, which tells the 900 year-old story of the Knights of St John. As members of an Order of the church, the Knights also had medical and military roles, setting up hospitals in the Holy Land and Europe, while fighting in defence of Christendom. Today, the modern Order of St John is best known for establishing the St John Ambulance.
The garden’s planting scheme was devised by London-based designer Alison Wear, to fit in around the existing hard-landscaping, and is packed with references to the Order’s long peregrination around Europe, with silver-leaved Mediterranean sun-seekers like Phlomis fruticosa (Jerusalem sage) and medicinal herbs such as Hypericum calycinum (St John’s Wort), Lychnis chalcedonica (Maltese or Jerusalem cross), and a white rose, Rosa ‘St John’. Aromatic herbs such as wormwood, thyme, oregano, fennel and lavender, further recall the Knights' medical endeavours, while creating a soothingly aromatic environment for the visitor.
Working within the constraints of the layout, Alison designed for colour and texture rather than harmony or sophistication, using citrus and olive trees in strategically placed tubs to break up the formal setting. Winter interest is provided by aromatic evergreens such as Daphne odora, bay and box. When it came to planting in April 2011, Alison found that the soil was "nothing but dust", so an ‘enormous amount’ of compost and manure was applied to the narrow beds. The strategy is working and with museum staff undertaking to water the fledgling plants in the absence of an irrigation system, the garden already appears remarkably well-established.
Museum of the Order of St John
St John’s Gate, St John’s Lane, EC1M 4DA
www.museumstjohn.org.uk T: 020 7324 4005
Admission free (small donation suggested for tours)
Alison Wear Garden Design
At Campbell Gordon Way in Dollis Hill, the power of gardening to improve the environment and bring people together is tangible, transforming a multi-cultural estate where residents didn’t really know each other into a friendly and floriferous community.
Construction worker Bernard Fitzpatrick is the driving force behind the metamorphosis, despite have only taken up gardening five years ago when the recession hit and he had a couple of spare days a week. “It was either golf or gardening” he says, “and I thought golf sounded boring”. Bernard started off in his own garden, but his neighbours liked what he was doing so much they wanted to achieve the same results in their own plots. Bernard helped them out with planting and things snowballed from there – within a year the estate had won a Brent ‘Green Zone’ award. Since then they have gone from strength to strength, scooping more prestigious awards each year. In 2014 they received a five star Outstanding ‘It’s your Neighbourhood’ award from the RHS and London in Bloom, an achievement repeated in 2015; Bernard has personally been recognised for his hard work with a Brent Community Champions Award.
Over the summer months, Bernard and his team of 30 or so volunteers are busy organising planting weekends and keeping up with the essential aftercare regime of watering, weeding and feeding. “From the end of May to the end of October, everyone comes out in force,” says Bernard, “and when the results of London in Bloom are announced in September, we throw a community party with fireworks.”
Plants are sourced from the local Homebase, with colourful choices such as petunias, pansies and marigolds being particular favourites. Residents tend their own numbered veg patches, another innovation introduced by Bernard, whose gardening committee has also instituted its own in-house awards for categories such as best veg patch and best balcony display.
Bernard’s great success, though, has been in getting children on the estate involved – “it was easy, they love it!” he says. Sporting their own hi-vis jackets, ‘Uncle Bernie’s little helpers’ enthusiastically get stuck in with all the tidying and gardening tasks, and have been kitted out with suitably scaled-down gardening equipment, sourced from Tesco’s. It’s not all hard work though, Bernard makes sure there are fun seasonal treats to enjoy too, such as an annual Easter egg hunt and trick-or-treating in October.
The awards keep everyone motivated, but for Bernard the best thing about community gardening is getting to know his neighbours he wouldn’t otherwise have met. “We’re a very multi-cultural community, with lots of different nationalities and religions, and gardening has brought us together”.
There’s more to the City than fat cat bankers and shiny office blocks. Built up as it is, the Square Mile is also home to a quirky collection of gardens, planted highways, churchyards and burial grounds.
Although most of the gardens themselves are post WWII creations, history is unavoidable in London’s most ancient quarter, with sites incorporating everything from Roman remains to plague pits alongside the latest in contemporary architecture.
Most of the City’s 200 open spaces are managed by the Corporation of London, with biodiversity high on the agenda. Wildlife friendly initiatives include insect hotels, bird and bat boxes, green roofs, nectar rich planting, and the use of pheromone traps instead of chemical pesticides. It’s a strategy that seems to be working because in recent years the City has become a habitat for rare species such as the Peregrine Falcon and is a stronghold for the country's Black Redstart population. The Barbican Estate is home to a healthy population of the once common but now endangered house sparrow while strategically placed log piles have been created in gardens such as Finsbury Circus, in the hope of enticing stag beetles into the City.
City gardens flourish in the face of considerable adversity. The air is polluted and the soil is poor, compacted and of limited depth – beneath its scanty surface runs a Swiss cheese labyrinth of communications cables, power lines, sewers, railway lines, cellars and basements, not to mention burial sites and archaeological remains. Although there’s a toasty microclimate that favours exotic species, some native plants resent the generally dry conditions, while the City’s tall buildings create destructive wind tunnels and vortexes. One third of the City has been redeveloped in the past 30 years, and this relentless change causes its own problems too, particularly for trees, which need time to mature and which are susceptible to damage or removal by reckless contractors.
But its not all doom and gloom; over the past three decades the number of green spaces in the City has increased tenfold as all new building developments have to show an environmental gain. It also helps that the City’s open spaces are protected by their own Acts of Parliament and that over £1.5 million a year is lavished on their upkeep. A walk around the City quickly confirms that its well-used and much-loved gardens are as much a part of its identity as chalk stripe suits, and telephone number salaries.
Tucked away behind the Geffrye Museum this aptly named garden is a hive of activity. A community garden-cum-horticultural project, St Mary’s takes a truly inclusive approach to gardening, aiming to provide a resource for the whole community. This includes the running of accredited horticultural courses for local residents, youth training and therapeutic gardening sessions for those with physical disabilities, terminal illness or mental health issues. Clients, students and volunteers all help to maintain the garden, which local key holders can use at weekends.
A series of interlinking garden areas have been created on the tardis-like 0.7 acre site and, as the whole space is managed on organic principles, it’s also something of a wildlife sanctuary as well. Birds, newts and hairy-footed flower bees have all made a home here. The woodland garden features wildlife-friendly drifts of cow parsley and jack-in-the-hedge, wood piles for mini-beasts, as well as a cluster of bee hives. The bees are managed by the Golden Company – a social enterprise teaching beekeeping skills to young people. A children’s bug trail winds through the woodland, and the branches of the trees above reverberate with bird song – a real tonic in this built-up part of London. Other senses are stimulated in the herb and sensory garden, whose raised areas and level paths have been constructed with accessibility in mind, and which bring delicious herbal aromas within sniffing distance. The garden’s bees make full use of the flowers here and in the herbaceous and shrub borders, in return producing honey that is sold at the Golden Company stall at Borough Market and is highly sought after.
Raised beds are also a feature of the veg growing area where neat metre square beds ensure easy access to crops for those with mobility difficulties. A new well-being zone is currently being developed; funded by Ecominds, the garden is being built with the participation of people with direct experience of mental distress, and will create a garden for the whole community to enjoy.
The large, fully accessibly greenhouse is the propagation hub of the garden, generating plants for the garden and supplying St Mary’s thriving plant sales area. This is a great place to source reasonably priced organically grown produce such as salads, tomatoes and beans as well as herbs (either freshly cut or in a pot), seasonal bedding plants and house plants. The shop also sells seeds gathered from the garden, own-made compost and comfrey plant food. The home-made preserves are also really popular and make it almost impossible to leave this place empty handed.
St Mary’s Secret Garden
50 Pearson Street, E2 8EL
T: 020 7739 2965
Open: Monday-Friday 09.00-17.00
Best known as the museum of the home, the Geffrye has another, rather less well-publicised string to its bow. Its evocative collection of period rooms – housed in a gracious early 18th-century almshouse – is complemented by a suite of historic gardens and an abundantly stocked herb garden, tucked away behind the museum.
With outside space at a premium these historic gardens are necessarily compact but offer a succinct ‘edited highlights’ tour of the English urban back garden through the centuries. Developed in 1998, the garden rooms – like their interior counterparts – focus on middle-class taste and although not recreating any individual gardens, care has been taken to ensure planting choices and relationships are historically accurate. In a further symmetry, whilst the museum’s furniture collection reflects this part of London’s association with the furniture industry, the gardens and herb garden reference the market gardens and nurseries for which this area was also once renowned.
A 16th-century knot garden is the first in the sequence – its sinuous knots are described by grey-leaved Santolina chamaecyparissus and wall germander (Teucrium chamaedrys), and its intricate design derived from Renaissance decorative arts. With our modern interest in growing vegetables, deep bed growing and herbs, the Late Elizabethan garden looks reassuringly familiar with its sturdy raised wooden beds, planted with useful flora – aromatic herbs for culinary, medicinal and cosmetic purposes and 'pretties' such as peonies, cowslips and roses.
Showing off your prize specimens was the name of the game for mid-to-late Georgian gardeners – the town garden recreated here is simple but decorative, reflecting the garden’s increasing role as an ‘outside room’. Three circular box-edged beds are planted with a central box ball and a few choice seasonal specimens such as candytuft (Iberis sempervirens) and Fritillaria imperialis – unlike modern gardeners, the Georgians were not dismayed by the sight of bare earth between their plants. An auricula theatre is another opportunity for the display of rare and valued plants – May is the ideal time to inspect these orderly blooms grandstanding in their specially constructed playhouse.
The Victorians, however, liked nothing more than densely planted carpet bedding – preferably using the brightest colours available. The mid-19th century garden evoked at the Geffrye has an annual bedding display which has recently included a ‘pelargonium pyramid’ – an early take on today’s mania for ‘vertical planting’. A small-but-perfectly-formed glasshouse – the kind gardeners then and now would kill for – completes this picture of cosy domesticity. Containing African violets, pelargoniums and ferns, its contents reflect the Victorians’ enthusiasms for tender and exotic plants.
Relaxed and cottagey are the key words for the Edwardian garden – a pastoral rejection of the formality of the preceding era. Visitors in May can inhale the intense perfume of the blowsy purple wisteria on the Lutyenesque brick-pillared pergola, those in June can admire its companion, a climbing rose, in bloom (the latter a favoured nesting place for resident blue tits). The border here features the likes of Geranium x magnificum, Bergenia, Aquilegia, and a lovely Rose ‘Irene Watts’ and Peony ‘Baroness Schroeder’.
Returning back through the enfilade of period garden rooms, one comes to the Herb Garden – the most established of the Geffrye gardens, having been planted in 1992. This walled space – once derelict land adjacent to the museum – is a traditionally arranged herb garden, centred around a specially commissioned bronze fountain by Kate Malone. Now beautifully mature, the garden contains over 170 different herbs with a variety of different applications from the medicinal to the cosmetic.
Nectar-rich plants such as anise hyssop, golden rod and sage attract visiting bees and there is also a section devoted to dye plants such as rose madder and lady’s bedstraw. With the 21st century’s new-found enthusiasm for herbal medicine, the red warning labels flagging up poisonous herbs such as monkshood are a useful warning to novice herbalists that nature’s larder should be exploited with caution.
Overlooked by Hoxton station, the garden cannot claim to be the quietest in town. But the new East London Line station has benefited the museum with visitor numbers increasing thanks to nosy travellers having their curiosity piqued as they look down on the Geffrye gardens from the elevated railway platforms. The diverse plant life and a chemical-free regime, means that the Geffrye garden is a popular destination too for local wildlife – including butterflies, foxes and assorted bird species, from tiny darting wrens to starlings bathing themselves with joyful abandon in the herb garden fountain. Blackfly are less welcome visitors but numbers are managed using a spray solution of Ecover washing up liquid. The gardeners here (two full-time, plus several volunteers) also have to cope with soil that is typically heavy London clay. An annual mulching of around 20 tons of farmyard manure, delivered in the depths of winter, helps ramp up the organic content.
The historic gardens are open 1 April-31 October but the museum’s spacious front garden can be enjoyed year-round. It has recently been renovated to bring its appearance more in line with its days as an almshouse – and its lawns and mature trees are a green space much valued by locals and visitors.
The Geffrye Museum
136 Kingsland Road, E2 8EA
www.geffrye-museum.org.uk T: 020 7739 9893
Gardens open: 1 April-31 Oct during museum hours
Museum open: Tues-Sat 10.00-17.00,
Sun & Bank Hols 12.00-17.00
Overseen by a buzzy, beanbag strewn café that’s popular with all age groups, the Curve Garden is a welcome green hiatus in this ultra-urban part of town. The garden was created in 2010, on the derelict site of the old Eastern Curve railway line, and where goods trains once trundled, wildlife friendly trees and hedgerows now flourish. Copses of homely natives such as wild cherry and hazel, alder and birch create a calm and cosy ambience, and even when the trees are bare in early spring, copious plantings of spring daffodils, hellebores and grape hyacinths ensure the presence of cheery colour.
Café tables, many of them sustainably made from reclaimed wood and recycled pallets, are dotted among the raised beds where fruit, vegetables and herbs are grown by local residents. At the far end of the garden, there’s a slightly more open space which serves as a low-key children’s play area.
The funky timber pavilion that houses the café (designed by the architectural collective Exyzt) also provides a rainproof focal point for community events, workshops and gatherings. The conservatory style Pineapple House with wood-burning stove hosts year-round nature-inspired design workshops, many of whose creations are displayed throughout the garden. The Eastern Curve Gardeners get together on Saturday afternoons to look after the plants before enjoying herb-topped fresh pizzas baked in the community built clay oven. Run as a social enterprise, and open to all, this friendly neighbourhood garden is a lovingly nurtured space that in turn nurtures the community it serves.
Dalston Eastern Curve Garden
13 Dalston Lane, E8 3DF
Open Mon-Thurs 11.00-19.00, Tues till 23.00
Since he first began blogging about his illicit gardening activities in 2004, Richard Reynolds has almost single-handedly turned the underground business of being a guerrilla gardener into a high-profile occupation.
Recently voted the 24th most influential gardener in Britain, Reynolds (aka @Richard_001) has taken the Duchess of Cornwall on a tour of guerrilla gardens in London, designed a GG themed installation in Selfridges, and had his book On Guerrilla Gardening translated into French, German and Korean.
Reynolds defines guerrilla gardening as gardening land without permission – this is usually public land but in some cases more adventurous guerrilla gardeners have trespassed onto private land to wield their hoes. Reynolds undertook his first covert mission in the neglected flower beds outside Peronnet House, the residential block in Elephant & Castle where he lives. He recalls, "I thought, right, I’m going to sort this out: I don’t want to complain about it, I want to have the fun of doing it myself." With gardening in his DNA – both his mother and grandmother are avid gardeners – Reynolds was unfazed by the challenges of unauthorised urban gardening. Once embarked on cultivation of obviously neglected land, he found the powers-that-be were usually happy to turn a blind eye. Indeed, on occasion, they have even been known to take the credit for the hard, often nocturnal, work put in by Richard and his fellow guerrillas.
As more troops have rallied to ‘fight the filth with forks and flowers’, Richard’s forthright approach to his obsessive hobby has evolved into something that might even be termed ‘responsible guerrilla gardening’. Careful now not to overcommit himself too far from home, he ensures local guerrillas are in place to care for new gardens being created, since well-maintained plots are less likely to be a target for vandals and litter.
Frustrated by the ‘professionalisation’ of gardening as seen on TV, Reynolds has harnessed the informality of social networking media to encourage would-be guerrillas to "just get stuck in – learn from your mistakes and if something dies, try something else". His snappy website has become the global hub of the guerrilla gardening movement from where Reynolds launched 'Pimp your Pavement', a campaign to liven up London’s sidewalks through the power of plants.
Consistent aftercare aside, cheap, practical plant choices are essential to successful guerrilla campaigns, and Richard recommends easy, gently invasive annuals such as calendula, nigella and Californian poppies that provide lots of colour over a long season. Sunflowers are another GG favourite and the focus of International Sunflower Guerrilla Gardening Day, held every May Day. Richard’s own preferred guerrilla plant is fragrant, evergreen lavender and it features in his favourite stealth garden, the ‘lavender field’ near Lambeth North tube – "it’s the largest one I look after and the most spectacular. It’s the best place to garden because of the conversations I have with passers-by. They are so happy with it, particularly when the lavender is in full bloom and covered in bumble bees. You can smell it before you see it!"