Geffrye Museum Garden

Posted on November 04, 2016 by Metro Blog

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   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
Admission free

this in an excerpt from our forthcoming book:
the London Garden Book A-Z
by Abigail Willis

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