Greenwich Gardeners’ World

Jen asks:

I can’t wait for Spring when I can get out into the garden and see green again. I’d thought it would be nice to try making a ‘Greenwich Garden’ with influences from the area’s history. Any suggestions?

The Phantom rubs hands with glee and replies:

What a great question. Spring is definitely champing at the bit now, isn’t it. I like the idea of a themed garden. Hope you put one in the front too so we can all enjoy it. If it’s especially good, I’ll feature it as one of the Phantom’s Favourite Gardens…

You don’t say how large your space is. For pure fantasy reasons I’m going to assume it’s huge; you can always scale-down if yours is more of the average size in Greenwich – i.e. tiny.

For a really large garden (and I know some people do have them – my greedy eye lasciviously sweeps the property sections every week – the words “120-ft garden” makes my heart leap…) a sweet chestnut would be a wonderful thing, reminiscent of the fabulous old trees planted by Le Notre (well, one of his flunkys, obviously) during the redesign of Greenwich Park in the 17th Century. These beautiful trees were a passion, nay, an obsession with John Evelyn, who used to take them round to friends houses in his one-man campaign to get a chestnut in every garden.

A friend of mine (with no previous gardening experience, and who lives in a high-rise) has recently heavily got into bonsai which got me to thinking about trying to create a compromise with trees for people who like trees but only have handkerchief gardens. A giant flower pot, a small tree and some careful pruning of both roots and branches each year could surely create a lovely specimen plant – fine for a centerpiece. If you don’t fancy chestnuts, perhaps a grand old oak, like the one Elizabeth I sat and Henry VIII frolicked under.

If you want fruit, how about a medlar or a mulberry tree? These wonderful old plants can both be found in the back garden at Trinity Almshouses, and there are mulberries in Sayes Park (the sorry site of John Evelyn’s gaff) and right by Inigo Jones’s loo at Charlton House. You can’t eat medlars until they’re ‘bletted,’ (read ‘rotten’) by which point you wouldn’t actually want to eat them but they make tasty jam and pie fillings. Mulberries are fiddly to pick but also make good preserves and tarts.

Right. Onto flowers. Some tulips, perhaps, to remind us of the Tulip Staircase at The Queen’s House? Or daffodils, for the yellow carpets of them that grow in stiff rows outside the house in spring? My faves are the ones that grow up the hill leading to the Observatory, though I’m also rather fond of the handful of naturalised crocuses that spatter the grass near the Pepys Centre.

Bela Court was originally part of Duke Humphrey’s masculine stronghold, but it was made all pretty and girly by Margeurite of Anjou who decorated everything from stained glass windows to tiles with daisies (her flower) and planted bowers of various blooms. She begrudgingly included a few hawthorn buds for her estranged husband.

Henry VIII liked masques. On one occasion, he used a dancefloor which had a cloth lain on it embroidered with gold lilies. Other popular medieval/ Tudor flowers you could consider are gillyflowers, or “Sops-in-wine,” used to flavour drinks with their clove-like perfume. They’re better known to us as carnations. There exists a charming painting of Elizabeth Woodville surrounded by gillyflowers and the ubiquitous roses.

On the subject of roses – you could always go to Rangers House for inspiration:

or get a variety with a good name. Rosa Christopher Marlowe might be a nice choice if you’re more over the Deptford side.

Georgian Greenwich is a bit more difficult. Rococo in small gardens has to be done with care or it starts to look cheap, however much cash you lay out. In the meanwhile, take a peek at the back of the Fan Museum for a very English take on the Oriental style which was also popular. I love the detail which isn’t always obvious at first. There’s an even more impressive one at the Pagoda in Blackheath which opens for charity occasionally. But by then, it was nudging into the Regency, and everything had softened a bit so you can get away with a lots of flowers too.

If your place is Victorian (and odds-on in Greenwich it will be) you can have great fun. They went absolutely berserk. The fabulous formal beds at the top of Greenwich Park are almost certainly toned-down for the modern eye – nineteenth century fashions were definitely on the gaudy side. They loved bright, acidic colours which to us are frankly a bit much. Bedding’s a bit outre these days, but done well it can still be a great look expecially in front gardens which can get neglected. I’m sure the wheelbarrow of fortune will turn soon and formal beds will be back. If you fancied, you could have a fernery, or shrubbery, like the path up the west side of Greenwich Park, or even have a nice greenhouse like Colonel North’s Winter Gardens at Eltham.

When it comes down to it, virtually everywhere you go in Greenwich you can be inspired by wonderful greenery. Keep an eye out and visit widely on Open Gardens Days. When you’ve done your Greenwich garden, do make sure you open it for charity on an occasional basis too, like this one I visited at the top of Crooms Hill last year…

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