Clifton Nurseries

Posted on October 26, 2016 by Metro Blog

Whether you’re commissioning a bespoke garden for your house or just after a pot of basil for your kitchen windowsill, Clifton Nurseries have got all the angles covered.  

Hidden behind the blandly elegant white stucco houses of Little Venice, the nursery is a haven for horticultural shoppers, offering a comprehensive portfolio of services – from irrigation systems to ‘Assisted DIY’ garden maintenance, flower arrangements and even a plant storage facility (for when you’ve got the builders in).  And it’s no johnny-come-lately either, tracing its origins as a ‘nursery ground’ as far back as 1851; its enterprising owner in the late 1800s did a roaring trade hiring plants out to London’s hotels, theatres and, later, film studios.  However by the late 1970s Clifton was facing an uncertain future until Lord Jacob Rothschild bought the nursery in 1979.  Since then the nurseries’ historic premises have been graced by an award-winning shop building (designed by Jeremy Dixon) and a new Palm House, built in the spirit of a predecessor on the site.  In recent years the nursery’s horticultural expertise has also been awarded five Gold Medals from Chelsea Flower Show .

For all the impressive architecture, this is still a great place to buy plants – the Palm House is home to an eclectic stock of indoor plants including fragrant gardenia, jungly palms and ferns, cacti and carnivorous plants as well as some flamboyant imitation blooms.  Outside, the main plant display area caters for city gardeners with grasses and evergreens, topiary, seasonal herbaceous plants, bulbs and herbs.  If they don’t have what you’re looking for, the nursery can order it for you and also offer advice on the right plant for the right place.  

In summer the glass-topped arcade that extends out from the palm house shelters a colourful mass of bedding plants, including deluxe hanging baskets, and is also home to a luxuriant grape vine, whose edible fruits dangle temptingly at harvest time.  For those in search of containers, there’s a comprehensive selection of pots from sturdy frost-proof salt-glazed ceramics to classic wooden Versailles planters and trendy zinc tubs.  Lifestyle needs are further addressed in the shop, which deals with the furnishings, cushions and candles side of gardening, as well as nitty-gritty gardeners’ fare like composts, tomato feed, tools and seeds.  An on-site café with outside seating completes the set up.

5A Clifton Villas, Little Venice, W9 2PH   T: 020 7289 6851
Open: Mon-Sat 9.00-18.00 (Apr-Oct),
Mon-Sat 8.30 to 17.30 (Nov-Mar),
every Sun (except Easter) 11.00-17.00


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

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Vertical Garden – Athenaeum

Posted on October 26, 2016 by Metro Blog

The Athenaeum, 116 Piccadilly, W1J 6BJ T: 020 799 3464

Land. They’re not making any more of it, or so we’re told, and in cities even less so – which can make finding a decent garden a challenging proposition. A small, shaded backyard, a long thin strip or a balcony are the most that many would-be urban gardeners can hope for and such unyielding sites often demand a radical approach in order to succeed. A vertical garden could well be the answer, according to garden designer Daniel Bell. He should know, since he is the man responsible for the magnificent ‘living wall’ at the Athenaeum Hotel on Piccadilly, as well as numerous others across London, Europe and further afield.

The Athneaeum’s vertical garden has been delighting hotel guests and passers-by since 2009, when Daniel and his team installed the Patrick Blanc design, and they return four times a year to keep the ten-storey high wallscape in trim. Routine maintenance jobs include weeding out excess volunteers – “we allow wild flowers to stay for a while as we don’t want it to look too manicured”, Daniel explains. Pollution from the busy roadside is another issue, requiring occasional replacements of plants such as choisya which die off after a couple of years or so, while on the other end of the scale less sensitive souls like solanum need to be kept in check.

Pruning follows the same seasonal patterns as in horizontal horticulture but other routine tasks like mulching are irrelevant, as are many of the usual tools – “secateurs, kitchen scissors and a staple gun are pretty much all we need up here”, says Daniel, “it’s a low-maintenance garden really, if you consider how much time a comparably sized flower border would require.”

Gardening ten-storeys above pavement level in central London however requires a bit of forward planning – and a head for heights. The former is simply a matter of logistics and making sure new plants arrive at the same time as the cherry picker; the latter is more of problem for Daniel, who suffers from vertigo. Luckily his passion for plants trumps any misgivings he may have about aerial gardening – “provided I just keep looking at the plants, I’m OK. I get by!”

For Daniel, plants are one of the main attractions of gardening vertically. “It’s such an interesting way of working,” he enthuses, “It’s really opened me up to plants I hadn’t used before as a designer. Things like Stephanandra incisa, and Iris confusa. Plus you can put a garden absolutely anywhere and that’s really fun!” Daniel proves that last point both at his previous home in Sweden, where he installed a vertical garden inside the dining room walls, and in his latest commissions, which include an underground car park in north London, and a roof garden on the 25th floor of the new Trump Towers in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.

It’s the versatility of vertical gardening that makes it so relevant to urban sites – low light levels aren’t a problem since there are many shade-loving plants to choose from (Daniel mentions ferns and pachysandra as just two examples), and lack of cultivatable land isn’t an issue since plants are grown hydroponically. London’s warm microclimate opens up the choice of plants even further: “it’s practically tropical compared to Sweden!” notes Daniel, who likes to use as many different plants as he can. One of his favourite subjects for vertical planting are fuschias: “they are fabulous. In London gardens they can start flowering in April, May and they will go right through with only a short dormant period. And you can eat the flowers as well!”

For those wanting to have a go at vertical gardening, Daniel suggests starting with a small project, planting lavender. He recommends using a simple double-layered felt, made into pockets (this is where the staple gun comes in handy). Carefully pick off all the compost from the plant and make sure the roots touch the felt at all times. “Don’t be tempted to use any soil at all”, warns Daniel, “keep the felt moist and the plant will root into the felt, no problem.” Feed with a liquid food every so often. It is also easy to raise seeds and strike cuttings in the felt, so developing a vertical garden need not be an expensive proposition. For inspiration, simply hop on a number 38, 22, 19 or 14 bus between Hyde Park Corner and Piccadilly Circus, nip up to the top deck and hope that you get stuck in traffic just outside number 116 … you’ll have a ringside view of the finest vertical garden in London.


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

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Medicinal Garden (RCP)

Posted on October 14, 2016 by Metro Blog

Royal College of Physicians
St Andrew’s Place, NW1 4LE
With its origins stretching back to the reign of Henry VIII, the Royal College of Physicians is the oldest medical college in England.  Housed in suitably distinguished quarters – an elegant, Grade I-listed Modernist slab by Sir Denys Lasdun and a collection of adjacent white stucco Regency houses – this venerable institution also has a well-endowed garden.
Although a garden has been in place here since 1965, it was replanted with a medicinal theme in 2005.  Its seven distinct zones offer a fascinating rummage through the global medicine cabinet, from the ‘muthi’ plants of traditional South African medicine to the herbal remedies used by native North Americans, as well as modern plant-derived drugs like Tamiflu and Taxol (the former from the star anise shrub, the latter from yew).

Laid out primarily as an ornamental garden, rather than the beds in the geometric order you might expect from a traditional physic garden, the College garden nevertheless packs in the medically relevant specimens and contains over 1,000 different plants, all clearly labelled.  The Arid Zone beds feature medicinal plants from dry climates such as yellow flowered Senna corymbosa (the source of the purgative Senakot) and the architectural Aloe vera, whose soothing juice can be used as a treatment for burns.  In the Far Eastern bed the Chinese fan palm, Livistona chinensis is another elegant plant that is used as herbal medicine by the Chinese and valued in western medicine as a tumour inhibitor.  

At the front of the college, the World Medicine beds feature a selection of medically valued plants from around the globe, including apparently humble specimens like Vinca major, the blue-flowered greater periwinkle, which turns out to have a medical application reducing blood pressure.  Over in the European and Mediterranean beds one can find the blues-beating Hypericum perforatum (known to many as St John’s Wort), and plants from the Classical world such as the sedative Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), and the pomegranate (Punica granata).  The pomegranate tree is frequently featured in classical mythology and widely revered for its medicinal properties; its fruit appears on the College’s coat of arms.  Not all the plants are entirely beneficial to human health – the leaves of the cycads in the Arid Zone beds cause Parkinson’s and dementia if eaten, while the toxic alkaloid derived from Monkshood (Aconitum carmichaelii) has a deadly application when used as an arrow poison.

As well as showcasing medical plants, the garden is also liberally stocked with plants whose names honour famous physicians, including mythological ones such as Paeon, doctor to the ancient Greek gods, whose name lives on in the peony.  Pedanius Dioscorides, the first century Greek author of De Materia Medica, a medical encyclopedia that was used as a reference until the middle ages, is immortalised in Acanthus dioscoridis.  Appropriately, many of the illustrious doctors memorialised in plant names were also pioneering botanists: the Lobelia is named for the botanist Mathias de L’Obel, who was also James I’s physician while Nicholas Monardes, the Sevillian physician-cum-botanist, gave his name to Monarda, or bergamot.  Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, is honoured here by a magnificent plane tree, Platanus orientalis subsp. Insularis which dominates the main lawn.  This flourishing specimen is supposedly a descendant of the very plane tree under which Hippocrates taught his students on the island of Cos.

The eight parterre gardens in front of the Regency terraced houses of St Andrew’s Place take their cue from the Pharmacopoeia Londonensis, a medical book published by the RCP in 1618.  The Pharmacopoeia laid the foundations for the Culpeper’s famous Herbal of 1652 (originally published as The English Physician) and cemented London’s role as the centre of plant-based medicine.  Each of the gardens contains plants authorised for use by the Pharmacopoeia – some, like roses and marigolds, were valued for the medicinal properties of their flowers, others for their bark, seeds, roots or fruit.  The gardens are planted accordingly, thus House 5 (the Pepys Garden) contains plants such as sedum and yarrow whose leaves were used medically, while House 3 contains plants like peony, marshmallow and angelica whose roots had a medical application.  This appealing octet of gardens shows that charm and utility can be achieved in the urban front garden, as well as harking back to the College’s Tudor days, when it rented a garden by its premises in the City for the purpose of growing medical herbs.

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

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Battersea Flower Station

Posted on September 29, 2016 by Metro Blog


16 Winders Road, SW11 3HE
(entrance next to 318 Battersea Park Road)
T: 020 7978 4253
Mon-Thurs 9.00-17.00, Fri until 19.00
Sat 9.30-18.00, Sun 11.00-17.00

This charming, independent local garden centre set up shop in 2012, and has been welcomed by locals and not-so locals (as well as the national press) with wide-open arms.  Even if you’re not immediately in the market for any of its wares, the Battersea Flower Station is the most delightful place to visit for an inspirational mooch.

This verdant strip of land is discretely set in a wooded snicket beside the railway and between Battersea Park Road and Winders Road, where once barrows from Battersea market were stored. The Flower Station was the brainchild of Lisa McCormack, Scott Melville, and John Schofield who quit their jobs (in marketing, logistics and large chain garden centres respectively) to realise their dream of creating a place of beauty that had real value to the local community. 

Drawing on her previous life in advertising, Lisa had come up with the Flower Station’s brilliantly punning name before they had even found premises, and says of the trio’s endeavour, “people talk about the death of the high street, and there’s no doubt independent retailing is a challenge, but we’re so proud of what we do here. It’s all about offering people something above and beyond just a product - we live or die by our customer services ethos. Locals have thanked us for making Battersea feel like a village again.”

Beneath the shade of the sycamore trees, Battersea Flower Station sells not just flowers (there’s a resident florist), but all kinds of trees, plants, houseplants and shrubs, as well as stylish and useful gardening paraphernalia in the well-stocked garden shop, including a good range of pots, large and small.  Its tin shed carries tempting garden gifts and the friendly staff can advise on what plant goes where (essential information when planning tricky London gardens, balconies and window sills).  Customer care is high on the BFS’s list of priorities, and always evolving in response to feedback – they offer local delivery, a window box planting service and came up with the brilliant wheeze of selling compost by the scoop for those small scale gardeners who don’t need and can’t store a great big sack of compost.  All Battersea Flower Station products are locally sourced, and the staff are all Wandsworthians too. Utterly captivating.


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

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The Antiquarian Book Fair 26th-28th May

Posted on May 26, 2016 by Andrew Kershman

Olympia Exhibition Centre, W14 8UX

.One of the world's largest antiquarian book fairs opens its doors today 26th May and runs until 28th (  The fair hosts over 160 dealers and antiquarian bookshops exhibiting from across the world including major London names such as Sophie Schneideman, Bernard Quaritch and Thomas Heneage.  As well as fabulous displays of rare books, the event also hosts a wide range of seminars and activities covering recondite aspects of the antiquarian book world to more practical advice about how to start book collecting.  

Here are just a few of the photos taken at last year's event which are featured in the new edition of Book Lovers' London.  If you visit the event look out for the book which is on sale at the reception for £1 off the usual price.


The photos used in this blog are taken from:
Book Lovers' London
by Andrew Kershman

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Travelling Through

Posted on May 02, 2016 by Andrew Kershman

31 Lower Marsh Street Waterloo


Open: 9.30-18.30 Mon-Fri, 11-17.00 Sat

Tucked away on Lower Marsh Street, just behind Waterloo station, can be found London's newest independent bookshop – Travelling Through. Emma and her small team opened Travelling Through in October 2014 and have already won an enthusiastic following among locals and those regularly passing through on their way to of from Waterloo.

The passing nature of the clientele is also reflected in the shop's ethos with an emphasis upon travel and culture and it's broad stock arranged under country of origin rather than genre. The stock is relatively small but well chosen with particular strenghs being world fiction and poetry, travel writing, biography and even a select number of books and maps about London.

The basement of the store has been turned into a cosy café surving delicious home-made cakes and savouries and great coffee and is also a venue for small exhibitions, book launches, readings and a monthly book club.

Travelling Through is a real pleasure to visit and a welcome and original addition to London's book scene. If you're in the busy terminus of Waterloo, it's worth taking time out to visit. Take a look at their website for event details and future exhibitions.

For reviews of all London's Bookshops, libraries, book fairs and much more, the new edition of Book Lovers' London is available in shops and from our website.

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South London Botanical Institute

Posted on April 20, 2016 by Metro Blog

The SLBI is an organization in the best British tradition: altruistic, egalitarian and just a little eccentric. Founded over 100 years ago by A O Hume, a retired Indian Civil Servant, the SLBI is dedicated to encouraging and enabling local people to study botany.


The Institute’s rather formal nomenclature, with its whiff of worthy Edwardian self-improvement, is misleading. The organisation is in fact notably inclusive and friendly, and is open to professional and amateur botanists or indeed anyone with an interest in learning about plants. The well-used education room brims with specimens being scrutinised by after schools science clubs. Annual membership currently stands at £18, for which members get the run of the institute’s facilities, including its well-stocked library and microscope room, a varied programme of lectures by distinguished botanists, social events and field trips (excluding travel costs and entrance fees). Members can also get involved with research projects such as the long-running survey of St Leonard’s churchyard in Streatham – the findings of which will feed into the London Flora currently being prepared. Courses in botanical illustration are run twice yearly and there is often a plant themed art exhibition to admire in the upstairs meeting room. At the heart of the Institute’s resources is the Herbarium, a historic collection of over 100,000 dried plant, lichen, algae and fungi specimens, diligently mounted on card, annotated, and stored in the original black iron cabinets designed by AO Hume. Many specimens are over 100 years old and are an invaluable resource for botanists today. Consisting of several herbaria, the collection, with typical SLBI idiosyncrasy, contains a particularly strong record of Shetland Isles flora. A HLF funded project has recently got underway to conserve the herbarium and bring it into the digital age, making it accessible to all; the project should complete in 2018.


The SLBI is still based in its original home in Tulse Hill, the magnificent mature Ginkgo biloba in the front drive perhaps the first hint to the unsuspecting passerby that this is no ordinary Victorian house on Norwood Road. For, in addition to its other resources, the SLBI has the perfect aid to plant study in the shape of its own botanic back garden. Measuring just 24 x 16 metres, it is billed as ‘London’s smallest botanic garden’ but size appears to be no object to its ambition and its neatly labelled beds contain over 500 species. The garden was a feature of the SLBI from its inception, when it was described at a ‘living museum of strange visitors’. Today, although none of the original ‘strangers’ have survived, the garden is packed with interesting specimens from home and abroad, exploring a lively selection of botanic themes.

Visits to the garden get off to a bloodthirsty start in the greenhouse, whose collection of carnivorous plants provides a grisly source of fascination particularly for younger visitors. The Australasian bed showcases the extraordinary range of plant life from down under, including 18th-century introductions by the plant hunter Joseph Banks such as Sophora tetraptera (New Zealand Kowhai), and Callistemon citrinus (bottlebrush). Closer to home the ‘weed garden’ flies the flag for British native plants – its label is ironic since these plants used to be regarded as weeds. Over in the Dry Border, Mediterranean plants take centre stage with grey leaved toughies like Stachys byzantina (lamb’s ears) and Phlomis italica specially adapted to reduce evaporation, and succulents such as Sedum populifolium which have their own in-house water supply in their fleshy stems. Fragrant plants like rosemary, lavender and sage are also drought resistant but other scented plants are given their own border. This includes Iris ‘Florentina’ – whose violet scented roots are used in the perfume trade – and its foul smelling relative, Iris foetidissima. Medicinal plants strut their stuff in two borders, one of which is themed around Gerard’s Herball of 1596, the other exploring pharmaceutical and medicinal plant remedies. By way of counterpoint, poisonous plants in the garden include deadly nightshade, aconite and poison ivy. Over by the pond there’s a bed dedicated to monocots, an important division of the plant kingdom whose subjects are defined as having only one seed leaf (cotyledon). Monocots include grasses, bamboos and palms, sedges and architectural plants such as Cordyline australis, as well as native flowers like Iris pseudacorus (yellow flag iris) and later summer flowering South African plants like Eucomis bicolor. The garden is also home to London’s first moss trail, a collection of twelve different mosses and liverworts whose common names alone make you want to track them down: Bird’s-claw beard moss (Barbula unguiculata) and Swan’s neck thyme moss (Mnium hornum).

Formally laid out and packing a lot of plants into its modest urban footprint, the garden is tended by part-time gardener Sarah Davey, and an assistant, together with volunteer help from members. This verdant plot is a popular venue for plant sales and events such as the Open Garden Squares Weekend and the Chelsea Fringe. SLBI events are famous for the excellence of their cakes; members can also enjoy the garden with a glass of wine on summer ‘twilight’ openings.

Having celebrated its centenary in 2010, the SLBI has embarked on its second century with renewed vigour; its mission to inspire interest in plants and to reconnect Londoners to the natural world. Current president, (former Natural History Museum botanist) Roy Vickery, dismisses the idea that you have to go far out of London to discover plants; his mantra is ‘rediscover the local’ and according to him, cosmopolitan London is just the place to do that. Enthusiastic about the future of the SLBI, Roy sums up its charms by describing it as a place where ‘you can be yourself and you don’t have to pretend to be cleverer than you are’. It is nothing short of a south London treasure.

 South London Botanical Institute
323 Norwood Road, SE24
T: 020 8674 5787
Open: Thurs 10.00-16.00,
other times by appointment


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

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