In the heart of London, on the south side of the Thames downstream of Tower Bridge, lie the capital’s only floating gardens.
This silent green haven afloat is tended by two gardeners, with contributions from berth holders. You may come across anything from strawberries to an avenue of medlars or quinces, and huge branching false acacias – plus the occasional snail invasion creeping by.
The community’s aim is to exist happily together in this little microclimate, keeping the river alive and conserving and continuing its maritime history.
The gardens have in past years been awarded gold for the best community gardens by Southwark Council. We open out gates to the public in the summer for charity, both for the NGS, National Gardens Scheme and for the London Garden Squares Open Weekend.
The gardens were devised by the architect Nick Lacey, and work began in the mid-1990s with the garden on the barge Silo, with the idea of extending the planting onto other barges to form the open-ended square that characterizes the layout today.
The plants on the barges display year round seasonal interest with a variety of blossom, berries, flowers, evergreen foliage, colourful stems and attractive seed heads. All barges feature some degree of Vinca major and minor and ivy groundcover, as well as repeat plants for continuity such as choisya, hebe and nepata. Self sown annuals such as poppies, marigolds and nasturtiums are encouraged.
As well as plenty of nectar producing flowers, the gardens are managed organically to have as much interest for wildlife as possible. Some spots are left to grow wild and there are other devices to encourage wildlife such as small piles of logs and branches for insects and clumps of nettles for butterflies to lay their eggs. No chemicals are used. Weeds are either tolerated if they are not invasive, or hand picked or hoed out if they are. Caterpillars and insect pests are also tolerated, within reason, to attract natural predators or else are blasted with washing up liquid or squeezed out if they become too invasive – which is rare. The gardens are fed with home made nettle fertilizer, farmyard and chicken manure, powdered seaweed and seaweed drenches. Organic peat free mulch is laid down each year to retain moisture, suppress weeds and nourish the soil.
Each barge is intended to display individual planting characteristics within the composition as a whole, some of which are noted below:-
MEDRAIN:- This barge is characterized by a mix of hand and self sown annuals set within a mix of drought tolerant species such as sedum and Mediterranean herbs. A large Californian lilac (ceanothus) and New Zealand flax (phormium tenax) dominate the larger bed and pom poms of allium hollandicum ‘purple sensation’ can be seen amongst the stipa tenuissima grass and cosmos. Clematis and jasmine scramble over the ropes and plants.
SURPASS:- Also a mixture of self sowing annuals and flowering perennials (notably helichrysum and stachys) as well as strong structural planting of escallonia and medlar with some balls of box. A weeping pear (pyrus salicifolia ‘pendula’) marks the entrance.
SILO:- This barge has a somewhat formal structure of box hedges, softened by a mass of honeysuckle which we try to keep a bit under control. Within the enclosures the beds are sown with a mix of self seeding perennials, bulbs, shrub roses and herbaceous perennials. The tree at the centre of Silo is a weeping ash. There are two crab apples at the downstream end underplanted with geraniums, sweet peas, iris and cerinthe.
SCRIP:- Drifts of the grass, stipa tenuissima, soften the structured planting of acanthus spinosa, senecio, choisya and spirea . There are shasta daisies (Leucanthemum x superbum) and a long drift of silvery artemesia. Robinia pseudoacacia ‘frisia’ provides golden height and holly and holm oak (quercus ilex) provide evergreen interest.
SKUA:- Points of interest include the architectural ornamental artichokes (cynara cardunculus), holly and bold drifts of poppies. There is a large clump of anemone with dots of fox gloves. Weeping birch mark either end.
SABU:- A long drift of euphorbia characias subsp. ‘robbiae’ provides a frame for ferns, iris, geraniums, bergenia and verbena bonariensis. The striking white stems of rubus cockburnianus ‘silver fern’ are beginning to show through for winter interest. To the south-west a box hedge gives a formal edge.
SURBED:- An avenue of quince trees, echoing the medlars at the upstream end of the gardens, is underplanted with lilac, choisya and hebe, groundcover ceanothus and framed with golden robinia pseudoacacia ‘frisia’.