From London

The gardening instinct is a curious phenomenon. Gardeners will grow plants and create their own environment no matter where and how they live. While I am writing this column on Patmos, a Greek Island (ain’t email just one of life’s modern wonders?) you will have to wait, dear Reader, for my next column to receive yours truly’s impressions of Greek gardening. Today my thinking is on a late London summer.

I have been to London a number of times in recent years, but it is a long time since I have visited in summer when the trees are in leaf. And goodness, we could learn a thing or two from the greenery of parts of London. The city would be a cheerless brick and concrete jungle were it not for the trees. Big trees lots of them. I am dreadful at estimating heights but there are countless trees which measure three or four stories high against the multi-story houses. Trees which are even permitted to take up the entire pavement so that the pedestrian has to step onto the road to get around them. Street trees where the roots lift the pavement and tilt the front boundary fences of residences. Can you imagine the hue and cry and the pressure on the Council were a street tree to dislodge a concrete block boundary fence at home? These are all deciduous trees (oaks, alders, sycamores and the like) so leaf drop in Autumn will be a huge issue. Garden waste collection in Maida Vale, where I stayed, is on Wednesdays.

On this visit I was lucky to have the use of an apartment in Maida Vale, new territory to me. More or less next door to Notting Hill, if you saw the movie. We know these friends from New Zealand where they are relatively recent owners of a large garden. I chuckled when I saw their London apartment and I could understand why their hearts are now firmly anchored in their Taranaki garden. They are lucky to have a basement apartment and to own the back garden – a rare treat in London. The garden measures about nine metres by five metres and they landscaped it with love and care on three levels. The centre piece is an established Ponga tree. The tiny space is an Oasis of outdoor living and garden – no mean feat when every paver, plant, length of decking, trellis, and pot has to be carried down the front basement steps and through the apartment to reach the back area.

Being a nosy type, I stood on chairs to look over to the neighbours, and I have to report that there is obviously no gardening instinct evident with any of them and they are not shamed by having urban wastelands.

I walk around alternately looking down at the ground level dwellings and up to the stories above. In this densely populated city many people live four or five deep, more in the ghastly Council tower blocks. You can always spot the gardeners. No matter how small the space, they are the ones who must surround themselves with plants. Some are just window boxes on the sill. This is not a windy city – I have seen container plants perched high where the first decent blow might dislodge them. More fortunate people have tiny balconies crammed with foliage and flowers or basement areas which are lovingly tended.

I walked around Little Venice, an area of canals where there are clearly permanent canal boat residents. These narrow boats are probably a great deal more picturesque than comfortable (and decidedly damp and bleak, I imagine, in the depths of Winter). Leaving aside my curiosity as to what system is in place to deliver fresh water and pump out waste, I pondered the type of people who would chose to live permanently on these narrow barges. It may be an economic decision in some cases because the home making instinct was strong amongst those which seemed to be permanently moored. First I came to canal boat Matilda which had over 40 container plants on the verge along side the boat, along with an on shore patio featuring Enderslea furniture, gas heater, and even a bird bath. Cecily had flowering pelargoniums in pots on her flat roof. My heart was won by Sky Magpie which had a row of four large cordylines (cabbage trees) and one dracena in large pots on the path beside it. I did wonder if He or She Who Gardens on Sky Magpie sent their partner to the garden centre to buy another cordyline, only to have them to return with the dracena by mistake.

In Little Venice these Canal boats had a private path and a metre verge between them and the public footpath. Sky Magpie had created a rockery on their short stretch of verge.

All was eclipsed by the boat (name concealed under all the surrounding foliage) whose owners had constructed a wisteria arbour on the verge, complete with hanging baskets and a fully cultivated garden, even growing tomatoes successfully along with an onshore herb garden. On the roof of the boat itself were five planters shaped like white swans (know they were not inverted car tyres painted white – I checked) and on the minuscule back deck (the stern, is it? I have no boating background) was a large container with a well established cordyline Purple Tower. I was impressed, both by the heath of the plants and by the determination which saw this person gardening successfully in a situation which would defeat most people. I had just come from the local garden centre where the price of that grade of cordyline was around one hundred and ninety pounds (multiply by three to get NZ dollars).

True gardeners will apparently show their colours no matter where and how they live. There is no keeping a determined gardener down.