Our Garden Visits

July 2019

We ventured south to Kings Cross to discover an unexpected oasis tucked away a few streets behind Camden Town Hall. As we waited to gather our members, behind the gates of the 1903 industrial dwellings we could see a courtyard with abundant foliage from a mature hawthorn tree and a host of large and small pots spilling over with flourishing shrubs and bedding plants. Along one small area beside a front door, large green tomatoes promised salads in a few weeks while a courgette plant wound its tendrils along the railing, bracing itself for a bumper crop in a small but sunny spot where every inch is put to use. Our host, Sue, told us about the history of the building, one of a series of blocks which rehoused slum clearance from the other side of Grays Inn Road, well built social housing with interesting features outside and decent space indoors. Refurbished by Camden Council in the 1970s, several ground floor flats were adapted to give flat access for people using a wheelchair, and incorporating a large garden space. Sue’s family then was her husband, who needed a wheelchair, her twins and foster son, who moved in with an optimistic approach to the large expanse of bare earth which surrounded them on both sides of the flat. Forty years later, with plenty of help from energetic and loyal friends, she has created a lush and varied garden, an oasis between the tall blocks on either side. A moving in gift of a small magnolia now fills a wide corner, embellished by a white climbing rose which adds to the enjoyment of a neighbour, and now friend, who looks out over a cloud of blossom in spring. Two slender birch trees and a variegated maple add to the sense of a wooded grove, and a large variegated holly along the darker side brings dappled colour and perches for blackbirds. On a shaded corner wall a hydrangea petiolaris has climbed to the first floor and shows no sign of stopping there. Nearby the ruffled foliage of a pittosporum has been lifted to give groundcover space while it marks another part of the boundary. There is a central lawn, patched to repair the damage of the urban foxes, yes even so close to central London. Several raised beds in a sunny spot provide rhubarb, courgettes and tomatoes and a pool of peachy coloured nasturtiums. Glossy leaved evergreen Trachelospermum jasminoides smothers an archway with fragrant white flowers, a walk through to a quiet shaded grove where Buddha meditates peacefully. There a big pots full of agapanthus just bursting into dozens of blue flower heads, a vivid pink, long lived salvia, a mass of pink and white francoa blossoms and many spires of heuchera flowers which do well in this light but shaded garden. Several of us took advantage of the plants for sale after the weekend NGS open garden session, pleased to take with us some of the delights of this special garden, very much an urban place, softened and enriched by the labour of love and friendship, bringing life, colour and pleasure for the many people whose flats ‘borrow’ their view of Sue’s oasis.

June 2019

A repeat visit to Ashley Road was again a delight, this year with artworks still on display after the weekend’s Crouch End festival, including some fascinating portraits printed on to leaves.
 
The garden was even more lush than before, and yet there were no visible weeds. It isn’t just that the owners are constantly on the lookout for interlopers, its their attention to planting thickly, and using ground cover plants which simply don’t let the weeds find a foothold.
 
Fuschi procumbens is a fascinating example, a New Zealand native which spreads close to the ground forming a thick mat, its heart-shaped leaves studded by tiny but extraordinary flowers which have golden tubes with contrasting dark red-brown sepals folded back to reveal red stamens tipped with bright blue pollen. It co-exists well mixed in a border with Ajuga reptans whose dark green, deeply veined leaves stand a few inches taller. Covering an area below the moss and fern studded rockery of tufa boulders is Alchemilla conjuncta, a smaller variety of the commonly known Lady’s mantle which has similar but smaller fluffy bursts of pale yellow-green flowers and a fine silver edging to the ruffled leaves, giving a glistening effect beside the deep pink flowers of the fine-leaved mountain azalea.
 

 
There’s an even smaller variety, Alchemilla ellenbeckii, whose tiny leaves have a reddish tinge and deep red stems which enrich the thick mat formed by this tiny plant.
 
Many of us are plagued by slugs and snails in our London clay gardens, and while the owners of this garden keep it damp with their use of mist sprays and hidden drip-pipe irrigation as well as regular watering, they have an extensive collection of ferns and succulents which are simply not bothered by molluscs. A favourite is a variety of maidenhair fern, Adiantum pedatum, whose neat, round-ended fronds curve over the smaller of the two ponds. They raise ferns from the spores which generally appear on the underside of the fronds, and showed us a seed tray covered from edge to edge with almost microscopic seedlings, to be potted up as tiny fronds first appear.
 
There is much to learn here, and our thanks to the owners for their knowledge and inspiration as well as their warm welcome.

3 The Park, Highgate
 

 
On a grey day with an unpopular American in town, eight keen gardeners were treated to a hidden treasure of a garden, the creation of Bunty Schrager, a woman who has transformed a neglected wartime wilderness into a flowing series of gloriously abundant spaces, burgeoning with variety, colour and texture to be enjoyed by her family and the residents of the other flats in the house. Her hand drawn plan was much appreciated in guiding us around the borders, through the arches and under the trees, identifying the main plants and features of this spacious, plant-laden haven, and clearly pictures the total lack of straight lines in the design. Tall trees in adjoining gardens, a perry pear, a walnut and a heavily pruned but thickly leaved chestnut, give borrowed landscape at the boundaries, and the deep, heavily planted borders wind around the edges, through the centre and back up to the slope below the patio, to the pond with its little fountain and waterfall, damselflies, fish and frogs. There is height from unusual trees including a paulownia with a few purple blooms left, magnolias, acers, tree peonies, roses and clematis on frames and arches. Covering the ground, pale pink heuchera and dicentra fill shady spaces, salvia, greeny-blue ansonia and bright blue corydalis flank the deep bronze foliage of the cow parsley-like anthriscus ravenswing, and an extraordinary Chinese foxglove – Rehmannia elata – its bright pink flowers with vivid yellow spotted throats. No wasted space and unexpected delights at every turn. A splendid Crinodendron hookerianum by the kitchen door, what a wonderful sight of a morning! The tall house faces south, and its shadow stretches nearly to the end of the garden in winter, shortening visibly as the spring progresses, but there is a broad area below the house which gets no direct sun. No matter, its still full of lush planting. There’s a golden arch of philadelphus aurea, still blooming with fragrant white flowers, which frames the steps down from the entrance patio, thriving in an open setting despite a complete lack of direct sun. The horizontal, blossom covered branches of a viburnum plicatum spread out over a camellia, and below that the unusual spiky tipped palmate leaves of Kirengeshoma palmatum grow wide and healthy in deep shade. Its ‘pixie hat’ shaped, waxy yellow flowers will emerge in late summer, in succession after the ground-cover of sweet woodruff and lilies of the valley. Far from ‘just’ being an imaginative, creative and productive gardener, who battled through thick brambles and almost endless debris (including 27 old car batteries!) as she reclaimed the space, Bunty has turned her hands to brick walling, pond digging and waterfall design and construction. She makes all her own compost, always with two bins full resting and two being filled with clippings, raw vegetable peelings and even the teabags, cups and paper plates from which which we had our refreshments (excellent lemon drizzle cake!). The results are piled onto the garden in autumn and winter and the plants most certainly thrive on it. Our thanks to Bunty for a delightful morning, and much inspiration!

Photographs © Alison Miller

April 2019

Fenton House
 
There was a cold wind and a few spots of rain but plenty of sunshine too, so U3A were not deterred even though the house gardener had cancelled the guided tour. No matter, between us we knew the names and something about the habits of a good proportion of the plants which were out or starting to appear, demonstrating that gardening can be good for the memory as well our wellbeing in other ways!
 
There are wide borders either side of the path up to the front of the house, with a formal garden at the back and a sunken Italianate area with high yew hedging, a walled apple orchard and kitchen garden to the side. There’s even a walled hothouse, complete with lemons and banana plants, giving a good variety of plants and styles for a location in a tightly built urban site. It really is a hidden gem in Hampstead. Though early in the spring season there was a good show of bulbs, especially tulips and crown imperial fritillaries, and a lovely spread of the white and plum coloured ‘checkerboard’ fritillaries with bright white wood anemone and vivid blue Scilla amongst the grass in the apple orchard. The apple blossom was just budding, but will be worth a return visit in a few weeks, and in autumn for many different varieties in this well-established orchard. We liked their use of simple bent branches to edge the grassed area, unobtrusive, low cost and eco-friendly, they were effective in discouraging people from walking on the grass and it’s floral display. A huge wisteria clothes the far corner on both sides of the wall, it’s feathery buds still tight in great numbers, but bare enough to see how it has been pruned and tied in, giving valuable learning. Elsewhere, wires along the brickwork support beautifully pruned climbing roses coming into leaf, one in yellow flower already, and clematis shooting up beside them promise a wonderful display later in the season. The kitchen garden was already showing signs of the crops to come.
 
Some of us admired the impressive composters, fine if you have the space, while others were intrigued by the use of tall steel supports for the beans, interspersing the traditional bean poles. One of our group recognised them as the sort used inside concrete blocks for building, but the groove which spirals up them also looked ideal for bean tendrils, or sweet peas. Fenton House had impressive examples of tender shrubs, tree peonies and echium shooting up already despite the chilly wind, and deliciously scented blossom on the hardier osmanthus and skimmia japonica as well. As the head gardener wasn’t around we took the liberty of critiquing the teasels and asters which we wouldn’t allow in our own gardens, but perhaps with the generous space they’re more relaxed!
Fenton House usually runs a guided tour of the garden from April to September on Thursdays at 2pm, subject to weather conditions. We discovered it’s a short downhill walk from the 210 bus, then down again to Hampstead tube if the uphill route is too steep.
 
 

March 2019

Bernita’s allotment
 
Bernita’s guided tour took place on a sunny Tuesday in late March, with a cold wind but many exciting signs of spring. As a long standing allotment holder, Bernita was able to show us around a number of very different plots, the sheer variety of the uses to which people put their plots to grow flowers, crops and construct sheds and places to sit and relax was amazing. They do have an open session with lunch on the first Sunday, 12 – 2 p.m., so get yourself along to the entrance on Winton Road N10 if you want to find out more.
 
Some plots were deeply dug over, earthed up in the traditional way for the potato crop, while others had adopted a ‘no dig’ approach in different types of raised bed, ideas which may be helpful for those of us with back troubles. There were wooden sided raised beds filled with well rotted compost which rots down over time. Others used the same principle, but with link boards, a rot-resistant product to frame the beds, while some had used ‘found’ materials from skips or Freecycle, and yet other had piled wood clippings deeply on areas of thick, wet clay.
 
Another approach was ‘hot beds’ using straw bales as the frame for the bed and filling the space with fresh manure. This isn’t suitable for all crops but pumpkins and courgettes can do well on the heat generated. Bernita was using ‘lasagne beds’, in raised boxes 1mx1mx1.5m starting with 3”/25 cm of woodchip, a 2” layer of green food waste, then a few layers of broken up cardboard, a layer of well rotted compost mixed with broken up rotted wood or bark to create air pockets, then watered well before planting seedlings in pockets of compost. The warmth from the composting process can help accelerate growth.
 
Bernita keeps bees among other talents, housed in a fenced area with high mesh sides, which means their flightpath is high, and avoids anxious or allergic neighbours. Honey bees don’t usually sting, but this can be more likely if their flightpath is impeded. There’s a pond near the bees, and as we know from previous discussions about encouraging pollinators, access to water is really helpful, but this pond is fed by a small spring and the running water has made for a healthy crop of watercress too!
 
The young gardeners group had impressively well advanced seedlings in a poly-tunnel. Later in the season it will be really interesting to see the results from all these approaches.
 
Thanks to Bernita for a delightful and informative visit, among the fruit tree blossom and the sound of blackbird and woodpecker, and to her fellow allotmenteer for the lovely fresh picked lettuce leaves!

September 2018

Steve and Liz’s garden
 
  This month we visited the garden of Steve and Liz in Park Avenue North. It was a surprise to most people that this wonderful exotically Mediterranean garden had such a variety of plants that need very little watering, and most of them can stay outside all year. After the summer weather we had this year, maybe this kind of garden is the way to go! The varieties of succulents, cacti, agaves, and even peach and apricot trees, were very inspiring, showing that anything is possible in a London garden!

August 2018

Kathy Hammond’s garden design project and tips
 
The group met at Kathy Hammond’s garden. Kathy has moved to Crouch End in the last year and has created a new garden and wildlife pond. She talked about what she had learnt and what had worked well and less well, and the group shared tips on ponds, watering, seed growing and … that persistent problem – slugs.
 
Garden design ideas
 
Kathy found The Ultimate Garden Planner by Peter McHoy fantastically useful – crammed with photos and diagrams and lists (bought secondhand at Oxfam book shop). Also The Tree and Shrub Expert, by D G Hessayon and Good Planting by Rosemary Verey (both books also found secondhand).
 
Building a wildlife pond
 
Shallow levels are good for pond-life. Frogs, newts and toads magically arrive once you have built a pond – and transporting amphibians from other gardens is not really a good idea as it is thought that can spread viral or bacterial diseases particularly amongst frogs. Some shade is really essential as young tadpoles and baby frogs cannot tolerate water that gets too warm (shade is something Kathy didn’t have enough of and she is working on planting some more overhanging pond-margin plants for next year). Newts are voracious eaters of mosquito larvae which is great news! Waterside nurseries has great ‘how to’ tips for designing and maintaining different sorts of ponds.
 
▷ Advice on how to build a pond in your garden
 
For (inexpensive) early veg and flowers sow seeds in Jan/Feb in potting compost and grow in a seed tray on a cool but well-lit windowsill and, once they have germinated, harden off the seedlings by putting them outside whenever it is warm enough. This works really well for most annual veg and flowers like tomatoes, aubergines, peas, globe artichoke, sweet peas, hollyhocks, sunflower, and morning glory. Some seeds like climbing french bean need a fairly dry compost.
 
▷ Advice from the Royal Horticultural Society on seed sowing
 
Fertiliser
 
Be thoughtful where and when to add what fertiliser. Three main elements are needed for plant growth. Nitrogen (N) enhances plant and leaf growth (so if you give too much at the wrong time to flowering plants you get loads of enormous leaves and fewer flowers!); phosphorous (P) encourages root, flower and fruit production; potassium (K) promotes fruit and flowers. Rhs website or commercial seed growers websites have more information on what fertiliser with which mix of elements is best for different plants at different stages of their growth.   Rhubarb leaf spray
 
Rhubarb leaves contain oxalic acid and have been found to be effective against mildew and aphids. Look online for how to cook up the leaves and what concentration to use.   Slugs   Most of our gardeners thought slugs weren’t so much of a problem this year, but if you are infested then, nematodes seem to work against the small slugs that live in the soil, and for those giant orange horrors, try beer traps (cheapish if you use home-made beer), and if that doesn’t work … there is always the scissor treatment – make a regular patrol of your garden about half an hour after sunset, especially if you have just watered.
 
Which plants worked well in the hot and dry summer?
 
This year hollyhocks, lavender, thyme, sedum, rosemary, fennel all flourished in the heat and needed very little extra water.
 
Good colour combinations

White cosmos and purple verbena look marvellous together. Veg can look good in any garden (orange flowers of courgette or squash are very attractive – and both of these flourished in this hot summer)

The Garden – Before and After
  
 
13 April 2018
 

 
28 May 2018
 

 
13 July 2018

The Pond – Before and After
  

 
13 April 2018
 

 
28 May 2018
 

 
1 August 2018

July 2018

Ashley Road N19
  

 
Several of our group had visited this garden when it is open under the National Gardens Scheme, but all agreed that the richness and intricacy of the design and planting here repays repeat visits – possibly many of them!
 

 
The owners made us abundantly welcome. They introduced us to the sloping fern bed at the front, lovely from outside, and from inside where a semi basement window looks up and out onto this patchwork of greens and textures.
 

 
Then out into the quite small but intensely planted rear garden, with such a lot going on its hard to know where to start. Some examples: a trellis in the back corner supports a clematis armandii with evergreen leaf and white winter-spring flower, wisteria for spring green leaf, purple flower in May and now sports long bright green velvety pods, so tactile! On the same frame a repeat flowering red rose for summer, a wildly twirling grape vine, and even a fig making its way up. Not an inch of wasted space and a delight together as well as each in their season. Backing the comfortable arbour underneath this profusion of climbers is an innovation of one of the owners, an ingenious fern wall crafted from strong wire mesh, carpet underlay and cable ties, with planting pockets holding an array of small ferns, bringing colour and texture to an otherwise dark corner, and greatly increasing the area available for plants.
 

 
The exotic leaves of pauwlonia and banana centre the built-up back boundary, with the cool sound of water cascading gently into several pools beside them, bordered with a wide variety of texture, colour, size and shape of foliage.
 
Rockeries are apparently coming back into fashion, so this garden is ahead of the curve. Conceived to reflect the landscape features of the natural rocky environment, the several rockery areas have naturalistic fault lines between the tufa rocks, they fall in contours, there are surfaces for plants on all sides – again giving more planting spaces in this quite small, flat garden – and the plants are varied, intricate and to scale.
 
The owners love mountain landscape and foliage, and with 45 varieties of acer, uncounted ferns, ground cover plants, shrubs and trees have created an extraordinary lush haven with imagination and artistry. They made us feel quite at home with great generosity and a wealth of practical information. And then gave us such delicious home made cake!
 
Thanks so much for all the inspiration!

June 2018

Alexandra Palace Garden Centre
 

 

 

May 2018

Sue Morrison’s garden
 
The weather was beautiful for our visit to Sue’s garden for the May meeting of the Gardens group, and the garden was full of lush spring growth. Sue told us about how the garden had evolved, from the sandpit years to garden ‘rooms’, with a sunny sitting and dining area, through a rose arbour covered in buds on the ‘Mme Alfred Carriere’ which will fill the air with sweet scent very soon, and down a curving path to greenhouse tucked away at the side, raised beds and a shady woodland area at the end. Colours and texture came from a deep blue ceanothus, explosions of purple alliums in the borders, the rich foliage of purple beech and sambucus, with a vivid green, feathery, acer palmatum providing a bright spring contrast. Sue has grown her long, narrow town garden to provide a delightful meandering stroll, greatly enjoyed by our group.
 
We had our first plant swap, with all sorts of interesting cuttings going to new homes. New owners will give progress reports in due course, and more surplus plants will no doubt find welcoming spots in gardens around the district. The possibility of co-operative watering was suggested, to help over summer holidays. People who are interested can make their own contacts.

Mona Abboud’s garden
 
The subtle colours, textures and shapes of the trimmed curves of Mona Abboud’s front garden give the hint that someone with a real interest in unusual plants lives here. Beautifully clipped specimens rub shoulders with wiry sculptural shrubs, shiny evergreens with tiny yellow starry blooms, and bright green feathery foliage studded with vivid red flowers. Passing through the house to the steep stairs at the back we gasp at the vista of Mediterranean and Australasian trees and shrubs stretching away into an endless tapestry of lush foliage. Mona’s garden is a story of clipping, pruning and shaping, executed with bold determination and an artist’s eye, to refine and develop a garden full of visual treats and year round interest. Our U3A Gardens Group is gathered near a neatly clipped double lollipop of variegated Rhamnus alaternus, a tender buckthorn, with strange inverted spires of Pseudopanax from New Zealand behind it and a strawberry tree and variegated Pittosporum on the left side. It’s taken Mona 19 years of composing, nurturing and shaping the many tender, drought loving plants which thrive under her care. She loves plants which need free drainage, but her 100 metres of garden is on heavy clay, and a few days before our visit had a three inch deep lake at the bottom of the slope. The tons of gravel, grit granite and topsoil brought in by the barrowload to create the right conditions is a testament to her passion.
 
A gently bubbling fountain surrounded by a curtain of Equisetum, a primeval species dreaded by most gardeners for its vigorously invasive nature, but here, confined in concrete basin, makes an elegant screen around the gurgling water. The garden is long and narrow, but the path twists down around olives and tea tree, crape myrtle, palm and bamboo giving constant changes of view. Many have been pruned to lift the crown of foliage, opening views through the close planting. The soft, tactile, copper-coloured bark of  the Chilean myrtle, framing the fresh green of new acer leaves and willows is a lovely example of this approach. The varied textures, bronze and grey-green soft colour schemes and shapes give coherent themes, with splashes of bright colour like this lush yellow mimosa in full bloom.
 
Mona told us it was her fourth attempt to grow this tender Mediterranean gem, and the sunny cloud of fluffy blossom was worth the effort. As well as being awarded ‘Best large back garden’ by the London Garden Society, Mona received the accolade of her Corokia plants being designated a National Collection. Native to New Zealand, these charming shrubs appear throughout her garden and are displayed together here in pots, showing their variety of soft colours.
 

Top tip: In many ways more interesting than the box hedging which is so badly damaged by blight in many gardens, Corokia looks a great alternative, and is drought resistant too.

Sue Whittington’s garden
 

 
The Garden Group met in Highgate on 10th April at another local garden, Southwood Lodge, which is open to the public under the charitable National Gardens Scheme. Sue Whittington was kind enough to offer us a U3A special guided tour, and answered our many questions about her unusual and wonderful garden. It was a grey day, so the views out from the hill were misty, but despite the weather the garden was a feast of interest.
 

 
From the herb bed by the front door with a lovely aromatic lovage plant, through clematis arches, clipped beech and hornbeam hedging, topiary yews, past beds planted with shrubs and burgeoning ground cover bulbs, round ponds full of frog, or perhaps newt spawn, a secret grove, and a stunningly sculpted conifer trunk, it is full of surprises and delights. Being U3A and keen on learning, we asked dozens of questions about the plants and learned the botanical names of everything which caught our eyes, and a lot about cultivating them into the healthy specimens we saw. Just one intriguing idea was a shrub rose, ‘Ferdinand Pichard’, trained to grow in loops to best show off its pink striped flowers – definitely one to return to see at the next NGS Open Day on Sunday 13th May, 2-5.30 p.m. We had a preview of the delicious home made biscuits today, an added attraction, but with plants for sale as well that date is firmly in my diary!]
 

Photographs © Alison Miller

March 2018

Susan Bennett & Earl Hyde’s garden
 

 

 
The Gardens Group made its first visit to a local garden whose owners open to the public under the charitable National Gardens Scheme. We wanted to see these ‘show’ gardens before they are at their peak, to see how they develop over the season, as well as to get inspiration for our own gardens. St Regis Close is an exuberant Tardis of a garden. Fronted by a classic magnolia, another world is tucked away behind a modern terrace of houses. Down a narrow side entrance it opens out into an extraordinary network of creative spaces, filled with sculpture, pottery and trompe l’oeil installations, including a Japanese tea house, all providing colour and visual interest at all seasons.
 
Every corner is a feast for the eyes, with a host of shrubs, trees, bedding plants and many, many pots and other receptacles – plants grow in all sorts of containers here, from chimney pots to a pair of shoes! Cuttings and seedlings are nurtured to plant out for the open days and for plant sales. Our artist hosts, Sue and Earl, had a story for everything, and along with their delicious cakes they gave us a most entertaining morning.
 

Photographs © Alison Miller

Our activities

The Gardens Group started well at the Open Event, and is now up to 30 members, all with a lively interest in a wide range of gardens and gardening topics.
 
Our meetings began with sharing interests, problem areas and ideas for group discussion and activities. We had a discussion on pruning, and finished the year with a festive session including traditional American popcorn and cranberry decorations.
 
2018 started with tips from a local gardener, Alfie Bines, on Getting ready for Spring at our January meeting, with ideas for planning and preparing for the coming seasons with colours and shapes, and interesting shrubs which grow well in most local conditions.
 
In February Chris told us about her experience of learning beekeeping, a complex task which needs training, and fascinating and productive when you have some expertise. Who knew there are 620 species of bee living in the UK? She also talked about creating pollinator-friendly gardens. Bees need water, so a pond, however small, helps them directly, as well as encouraging birds and frogs which will eat pests, avoiding harmful pesticides. A ‘bug house’ and a small log pile complete the bee friendly landscaping. If we then plant plenty of their favourite simple, non-hybrid flowers like salvia, borage, lavender (in pots if we have heavy clay soil) rosemary, sedum, herbs and winter flowers like sweet box, ivy and hellebores, we’ll be helping these essential creatures to benefit our gardens and the wider eco-system.