You can’t miss it. Near the Imax cinema (with its ever changing display of vast and vulgar curving adverts which presumably are the life-blood of the BFI: slender smart phones the size of houses, knickers and bras, magical trainers ), on the other side of the Waterloo road from the station. Visit if you can! It’s ‘an oasis of peace’ etc! Now’s the time!
The other day was one of those magic moments in the churchyard gardens, if you ignore the ravaged parterre, its box hedges attacked by caterpillars and waiting still for a decision like a mouthful of rotten teeth, do we take them all out and start again, or do we fill the gaps? Today is June 18th, the other day was June 15th, not so long ago but today was a day of heavy rain at last, thank goodness, and magic moments are so brief even without a battering, although here at home the garden has come through well and it might be just complicated roses with their multiple petals which become waterlogged and heavy stems which droop or fall. Simple things come through best.
Looking at the photos I took the other day at St John’s I thought about how some gardens have a remembered and written history: the designer’s designs, plant lists, records of sowings, of weather, a defining control structure which may be one person’s steady work or a hierarchy of management and labour. (At Kew they won’t even let you pick up and take away prunings to make cuttings). At St John’s we have some of that, but surveillance is poor, important people have gone and taken their memories with them, my notes are scattered and incomplete, seeds blow in and out.
I know that some gardeners/designers begin with ideas of associations, but I generally begin with individual plants, and the associations they make with each other are their own inventions. Even though of course I may place two things next to each other I don’t have a clear picture in my head of how they will grow and look together, and I might not be aware that they will flower at the same time or that one might be opening just as the other fades, and I certainly can’t predict the many combinations that self-seeding produces. The clearer the designer’s picture, the stricter the work that’s needed to create that picture. Each plant must have its defined space, its boundaries. Trespassers are not tolerated. But at St John’s there have always been all sorts of trespassers – and immigrants, and exiles, and vagrants, and aliens…. plants and people.
In the foreground, Eryngium bourgatii; the tall, pinky things, Salvia turkestanica; the yellow, Euphorbia ceratocarpa; the delicate grass below, Stipa tenuissima. I wish I could mae this picture bigger. I’ll have to do a portrait version again:
That’s a bit better. A little history. Years ago Salvia turkestanica (S. sclarea var. turkestanica hort. to give it its full name…) did well at St John’s, and three years ago I bought a couple of seedlings somewhere, and planted them in a section of the dry garden which we were renewing at the time. We have allowed a colony to develop, even to the detriment of other, smaller plants. At the same time Eryngium bourgatii and a euphorbia which I think is E. ceratocarpa, which we originally got from the Beth Chatto nursery, have become expansive. And it just happens that these three are at their best at the same time, which is now. It’s hard to resist the dominance of vigorous, beautiful plants; it’s hard to accommodate a wide variety of plants with very different habits and sizes in the same garden bed. The small things get suffocated and lost to the oral histories; so much crowds in on our memories. The euphorbia and the eryngium are both long lived perennials which also seed copiously in the stony soil, the salvia is a biennial. Appropriately for a plant which thrives in a protestant churchyard the smell of its aromatic leaves, which grows stronger as they age, is remarkably like that of human sweat, hence its nickname the Pope’s armpit. Everything else about it is delightful and some people don’t get that association at all. I find them difficult to grow at home because slugs love the young leaves. Many plants need protection from slugs and snails when they are little, but as they grow they apparently become distasteful. One of the unnatural advantages of a garden site in the heart of London is the absence of many pests and diseases.
It’s also hollyhock time. They appear and disappear over the years in ever-changing colours, the variety of which is both striking and subtle.
They are another self-seeder.Sometimes you need to root them out of other plants’ space; you can scatter the seeds where you want them to grow. Notorious for disfiguring rust disease, it helps if you take off the affected leaves as they spread up from the bottom of the stem.
Two years ago a woollen sculpture (‘Immemorial’ by Martin Heron) was embroidered on the south side of the church. It looks like rays of light streaming from the window. I’d assumed that it wouldn’t last long, just an annual or a biennial, but now it’s claiming perennial status. Who would have thought that strands of wool would survive two winters, scorching drought, gales and rain. This year, as they sometimes do, a big echium bowed and made a loop on the wall with its own shadow, curving behind the parallel strands of wool. A virginia creeper – where did that come from? It’s young, and probably self-seeded – is curling through the wool.
Here’s the sculpture from another angle, with a Nicotiana sylvestris, yet another self-seeder and Salvia ‘African Sky’.
Here is a photo of the sculpture taken almost exactly two years ago, with opium poppies, but no hollyhocks. This year we have very few poppies. Were last year’s pulled up too soon, before the seeds were ripe? But they ripen very quickly. Was it the winter deluge which stopped them germinating well, or the spring drought?
This is a mallow, a variety of Malva sylvestris, I think. It struggled for a couple of years, in fact I’d almost forgotten all about it, lost as it was in the general exuberance of the bed on the south side of the church. But it’s finally made it.
Here is a close-up of Eryngium bourgatii and Erigeron alpinus in the dry garden, a chance meeting:
And this, with the dramatic leaves, is Melianthus major, easy, fast growing but rather tender, with a salvia which has become popular recently, S. ‘Amistad’, and in the background Euphorbia mellifera, its flowers which have now faded – you can make out the seed pods – smell of honey. But it can be a pest.
Lastly, another memory from 2018: also largely absent this year are our beautiful larkspurs, (mostly blue but occasionally white,) seen here against the south side of the church with opium poppies and the young leaves of a giant echium:
Go and see St John’s now, if you can, things will never be the same again!