Lament for a lost garden


In a previous blog post (An abundance of courgettes) I have named my favourite place in London as the Museum of Garden History in Lambeth. On a two-day trip to London this week a visit to the garden was on my agenda, even in February this garden has a good show of spring bulbs and other delights.


John Rocque, Map of London, 1746

There was a church on the site of St Mary-at-Lambeth since 1042, the medieval stone church was erected in 1377. It was deconsecrated and closed in 1972 and was due for demolition until John and Rosemary Nicholson put together a business plan for its survival.[1] They were interested in the two royal gardeners and plant hunters, John Tradescant, father and son, both buried at St Mary’s. The tomb of William Bligh, captain of HMS Bounty is also in the churchyard. Their project involved restoring the church and churchyard and establishing a museum of garden history, the Tradescant Trust was created and the museum opened in 1977. Years of fundraising and volunteer help secured the building, acquired the Victorian school next door, and established the garden.

The knot garden sited within the old brick wall was sheltered and intimate, an oasis of calm. Miniature fruit trees and climbing roses lived in the shelter of the wall, brick paths were installed and stone benches encouraged visitors to sit and enjoy. Wildlife abounded. Plant fairs were held in the garden to raise funds. A small café had homemade cakes for hungry visitors. A permanent exhibition of historic garden tools could be viewed within the church building, with artefacts and documents relating to the Tradescants. Among the museum’s treasures is Gertrude Jekyll’s desk. Temporary exhibitions on gardening themes were held from time to time.

A programme of refurbishment has been ongoing for many years thanks to UK Lottery funding. On my last visit good progress was being made on restoring the church and I noticed from their website that a new café was opened. On our arrival we saw that it was now possible to climb the church tower. We climbed the 131 steps to see views of the River Thames and Westminster on the far side of the river. I hoped to get an overview of the garden from this height, but I could not see it.


Imagine my astonishment when we descended the tower and made our way to the garden, to find that it was gone. The new build, café and learning centre, had replaced my beloved knot garden, that place of quiet and peace was no more. I cannot imagine a museum of garden history without it its central beating heart, its living soul. Now a small courtyard space has some planting and a few potted plants are in evidence outside the café, but for me the magic is gone.


For someone who never knew or loved the walled knot garden this museum offers much of interest and the extent of the passion and commitment that has brought it to a viable visitor attraction cannot be underestimated. St Mary’s Gardens outside the museum is a nice little park maintained by Lambeth Parks and Greenspaces and is a good place to sit.

















[1] For a good account of the project see Founding the Museum of Garden History, compiled by Elizabeth Fleming (London, Museum of Garden History, 2006).


New beginnings

A garden is so forgiving: each year we can start anew whatever the failings of last year. Sometimes the failings are mine: plants in the wrong place, poor choice of plants or colours, bad combinations, unsuitable vegetables that are too tender for our climate or too large or slow growing for my vegetable beds. Sometimes the failings are connected with weather: drought (very seldom), too much rain, high winds, a late severe frost. But each year brings new hope, new successes and new failures.

The structure remains the same, but in extreme circumstances this can be changed too. One winter we had to move all our small apple trees as they were getting constantly broken from next door’s football, the crunch came, literally, when a whole branch laden with unripe apples was cracked off. The apples are now happy in another part of the garden, and our neighbours are grown up and no longer play football.

This time of year is particularly good for rethinking the garden. Most days it’s too cold or wet to do much work apart from some necessary pruning, weeding or moss removal. Bulbs and seeds fill the garden centres and magazines and thoughts of warm sunny days come unbidden. I like to plan on paper, but the resulting scheme usually needs to be tweaked when faced with the practical conditions.

I sow seed quite early in the hope of getting early crops. Sometimes this is an advantage like last year (2017) when the best of the fine dry weather came in early summer and my early tomatoes ripened well, while the late ones were green and lacking in flavour. Other years it can be a mistake as the early seedlings and small plants need to be potted on while the weather is still bad and all windowsills are overflowing. This year my first crop of tomato seedlings are almost ready to be potted on.

Every late January and February sees the dressing table in my bedroom covered with chitting potatoes, not an edifying sight but the room is cool and bright and very suitable for the task. I only plant first earlies to avoid blight later in the summer, then I plant the chitted potatoes on or near St Patrick’s Day depending on the weather.

More than anything at this time of year new growth is all around us, buds swelling and green shoots emerging, they seem unstoppable. Snowdrops and hellebores have been in flower for weeks now, heathers are looking amazing in full flower and daffodils are just beginning. The witch hazel is nearly finished but others are getting ready to burst into leaf and flower. This new life makes it easier to endure the still dark, cold and wet conditions and bitter winds.


Pet days

A pet day is a day of unseasonable warmth and brightness during the winter months. Usually it is a single day, but on rare occasions you can have two together. A pet day is welcomed by everyone, it allows people to anticipate an end to winter, even if it’s only November. It gets people out of doors and encourages strangers to greet each other with friendliness. The birds too start making plans for spring.


Its very isolation makes the day so precious and you can have rain or even snow the next day. Last year we had a beautiful day on 19th March, dry, warm and sunny, with spring flowers and blossom bursting forth, by 21st they were all covered in snow.

This year we had two pet days in early January (8th and 9th), we had frosty nights, but the days dawned bright and dry and completely calm, it was noticeably warm in the afternoon. The conditions make you want to start sowing plants and seeds and preparing for summer, but this is an illusion so it’s best not to be tempted. When you feel the earth it’s clear that it’s far too cold to nurture any tender plant. So instead, it’s a good time to assess the garden, see where the gaps are and where changes might be made for next year, but predominately to enjoy the day, get out and walk if possible and drink in the sunshine. I open up the sheds and other places where plants are stored for the winter and give them the benefit of the day and to remind them of what’s to come.

Beautiful sunrises and sunsets are also a feature of early spring, often heralding a pet day, or even a prolonged calm mild spell. These conditions brighten up the winter and give hope for a return to light.


Irish garden bird survey


BirdWatch Ireland runs an annual survey of garden birds to monitor the number and variety of birds visiting our gardens. The current survey runs from the start of December 2017 to the end of February 2018. The countryside has undergone great change in the last few decades and native habitats are diminishing. Gardens now perform an important role in maintaining stocks of different species of birds. The first part of the survey involves a description of the garden: its size and location, and whether feeding stations are provided.

The main survey is quite simple, the largest number of a particular species observed in each one week period is recorded. A list of the most likely bird species is provided with some blank spaces for other species observed. The survey only records the number of birds seen together at any one time to avoid duplication. The results of the surveys are compiled and can be viewed online. A table of the Top 20 birds in Irish gardens is produced from the figures. The robin has topped the table for the last several years, followed closely by the blackbird, appearing in almost 100% of gardens.

Completing the survey is a highlight of the winter months. With the vegetation down it is easier to spot the different visitors to the bird table, however counting them is quite a challenge. Sparrows appear in the largest numbers in our garden followed by tits (great tits, blue tits, coal tits and long tailed tits) and finches (chaffinches, goldfinches, greenfinches and bullfinches). The tits are among my favourite birds, they are always impeccably turned out, looking smart and well dressed no matter what the season. They are intelligent too, they will cautiously examine any new feeding feature and quickly figure out how it works. They will often swoop into the bucket of grain to grab some seeds before they are served up.

We have two robins at present, they do not seem to be a mating pair as they are often involved in aggressive behaviour. Blackbirds are daily visitors, they like to feast on chopped apples which are bruised or no longer perfect and are not good for human consumption. When the weather gets very cold and frosty they get some chopped up grapes as well. One song thrush visits most days, he picks around under the shrubs. We have two wrens, one very light in colour, they live around the compost bins and do not bother with the bird table. We have seen the lovely gold crests, sometimes one or two together, but they are rare visitors.

Our collar doves come in to peck at the food dropped on the ground and to sit contemplating the world on the wall or on the branches of our trees. We have one visiting jackdaw who feeds on the food dropped from the bird table. He is welcome on his own, but when a group arrives it always means trouble: they squabble and fight, knock over the feeders and frighten away all the smaller birds. We have very few starlings so far this year. We usually have two or three regular visitors to the feeders, and from time to time a large group who start at one end of the grass and carefully cover the entire space searching for worms and grubs, and then fly off.

For the last number of years our garden is on the radar of a sparrowhawk. He swoops in every few weeks and sometimes he makes a catch. I feel no guilt about frightening him away, I know he needs to eat and feed a family, but our birds are sitting targets and easy prey.

Borrowed landscape


The concept of borrowed landscape conjures up the idea of large estates and country demesnes, rolling hills or high peaks, distant water or dense woodland. This was the original meaning, but on a smaller scale our gardens can benefit from local views and neighbouring planting schemes.

Shortly after we moved to our new garden in 2006 and for a number of years afterwards, the field behind our house was used for several months each spring and early summer to keep young foals and their mothers. This was not surprising as Kildare is horse country, the home of stud farms, including the Irish National Stud at Tully, and race tracks at the Curragh, Naas and Punchestown. But this was like our own personal paddock. This field is hedged with black and whitethorn trees and is a blaze of frothy white and cream in the spring and early summer.

Our street is planted with silver birch trees and they give a lovely backdrop to the gardens and mark the changing of the seasons. They all lean in the same direction due to the prevailing wind from the west. They show delicate leaf buds in spring followed by small rustling leaves in summer, delicate yellow autumn colour and stark shapes in winter with the silver bark glowing. They look particularly good in snow.


Our neighbours grow shrubs and trees that give us great pleasure. Our neighbour across the road has a magnificent Magnolia Soulangeana taller than his house, with lovely pink tulip shaped blossom, we enjoy its flowering as much as if it grew in our garden. Our next door neighbours have had a succession of lovely shrubs which border our garden. They had a gorgeous tall Mountain Ash at the bottom of the garden, it was a different variety to ours and had redder berries, we got the full benefit of its spring and autumn displays. Sadly it is now gone but we still get seedlings sprouting up where its berries have germinated. On our joining boundary they had a Cordyline palm and a most beautiful Viburnum with blossom of large snowy white balls. Both succumbed during the severe weather in 2010.

Nearby and giving its name to our area is a ruined windmill. Only the base now remains but it still has its date plaque over the doorway: John Grattan / An: Dom: 1738.

Woodland tangle

Nearly twelve years of enthusiastic planting has turned a tabula rasa (the blank space of our back garden) into a woodland thicket. It’s time to reclaim the space, or to lose it in a tangle of vegetation. Lack of light at ground level and woodland conditions are changing the character of the area. I have fallen into the most common of gardener’s errors: planting too many specimens and underestimating the growth habit of trees and shrubs. I love most of the planting in this section, but it needs to be thinned out and not allowed to grow so tall or it will become unmanageable. Many smaller more delicate plants have been lost due to the absence of light.

This autumn I was resolved to start on the pruning regime. The weather made it difficult to make much progress, but I have begun the task. The raised border at the eastern side has two large trees that will tolerate hard pruning, Sambucus Nigra “Black Lace” and Viburnum Bodnantense “Dawn”, a large Hydrangea, two unnamed climbing roses, a pale pink and a rose pink, Pernettya with pink berries, a large white Phlox, Mahonia, and a spreading Hellebore. Underneath there are Cyclamen, Astrantia, self seeding Aquilegias, and a host of spring bulbs. I do not want to take the trees out, I have pruned them back severely and I hope to keep them in check. The two roses have climbed vigorously, sending long thorny arches into the neighbouring garden, I prune these every year, but I think they need a heavier hand.

At the back wall, running the length of the garden to the south there is a large holly supporting the rampant rose Rambling Rector, and offering protection to the delicate Acer “Orange Dream”. Roses Zéphirine Drouhin and an unnamed white dog rose, and Clematis Montana Rubens scramble along a sturdy timber structure, a strong thorny Pyracantha “Red Column” holds its own, and a Viburnum Tinus “Gwenllian” crouches underneath. Behind the bench the white dog rose continues and tangles into the Clematis Viticella Purpurea “Plena Elegans”. Beyond the bench is the slow growing Magnolia “Leonard Messel”,  a large Hawthorn, brought from Cork as a cutting, with Honeysuckle “Lonicera Belgica” growing through it, Bergenia tucked in under it, and two Potentillas flanking it, one yellow and one pink. Purple flowering heathers, daffodils, crocus, snowdrops, and other spring bulbs are planted underneath.

First step was to raise the space under the plants by pruning lower branches, this allows light in and a Ruscus under the holly has produced red berries for the first time in years. I still need to reduce the height of the holly. The Rambling Rector rose has climbed to the top of the holly, into the heights of the Sorbus (Mountain Ash) and into a large Damson tree growing outside our garden wall. With its abundance of white blossom it looks amazing for two to three weeks in June, but this vigorous rose will have to be kept to a more manageable height, up to now I have been nervous of killing it, but I think that’s unlikely.


Gardening under water

My garden is a soggy sight, it has rained since July with only an occasional dry day. Even when we get a dry day it is so wet under foot that walking around compacts the soil and turns the grass to mud. All the water butts are overflowing and moss is growing everywhere. In April the Met office told us that there was a 40% water deficit in the soil, this has been redressed now – and some!

Many jobs that should have been completed in the autumn are still waiting to be done. I tackled some pruning when we had a few frosty days, but cold frosty weather is not the best time to prune. I need to reduce the size of the Laburnum as it is beginning to outgrow its space, but I need solid ground to support the ladder.


Surprisingly, some things are looking reasonably well, but the overall effect is bleak: rotting foliage on plants and shrubs and wet leaves sticking to the paths.


The winter flowering shrubs, such as Viburnums, are not as good as usual but still provide a welcome splash of colour. The pink rose in the front bed still has blossom in spite of adverse conditions. The Hydrangea heads look interesting, but they are very wet so they may not last until spring.  The Witch Hazel is starting into blossom and the Magnolia is developing its catkins.


The vegetable beds are the saddest, they are mostly tucked up for the winter with a layer of home-made compost covered by soft cardboard that will rot down, and a layer of soil over the top. The garlic bulbs are beginning to show. I am experimenting with overwintering pea plants to see if we can get an early crop. I planted saved seed of Early Onward in the autumn and covered the emerging plants with a plastic dome. I do not expect much growth over the winter, but I hope they will have a head start in the spring.