Mike Prime runs the Besson Street Community Garden
in south London. In some detail he explains its history and creation,
its successes and failures. Mike is a 'hands-on' sort of a guy and
his personal observations are painstakingly recorded. Valuable stuff!
Mike Prime, 30 Petten Grove, Orpington, Kent
Chamaerops No.22, Spring Edition 1996
on this article:
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Photo: can this be London? Agave, Dasylirion &
Yucca whipplei, at home in the Exotic Community
The origins of London's first 'exotic' public garden
go back to 1987, when I was employed as the sole worker at a community
garden in central London. With its sheltered, inner-city microclimate,
I had hoped to make this garden an oasis of exotica amidst the traffic-ridden
streets of London's West End. Unfortunately, I was responsible to
a management committee who insisted on a policy of planting only
'English' plants, which they had heard were better for wildlife.
In fact, their definition of 'English' plants included such far-flung
introductions as Hollihocks, Sunflowers and Shasta Daisies. What
they would not accept were plants that looked 'foreign' - Palm trees,
I was told, would make the garden look vulgar.
As an ecologist, I tried in vain to persuade them
that a 'natives only' policy had little relevance to a newly-created
urban site that had already been artificially planted, and that
a garden containing exotics could be made equally attractive to
wildlife, while also reflecting London's multicultural character.
It is sad that the vital messages of the conservation movement have
become distorted and popularised as a natives good, aliens bad'
dogma. Horticulture in Britain is still dominated by attitudes that
arose sn the first half of this century, when the insecurity induced
by loss of Empire led to a rejection of the exotic plants loved
by the Victorians, and a haze of nostalgia for concepts of 'Englishness'
which were themselves largely invented during the Victorian era.
Needless to say, I soon tired of banging my head against
a brick wall, and retired south of the river Thames to see if it
would be possible to create a truly multicultural community garden
in my own borough of Lewisham. After forming a working party with
other local people, we approached Lewisham Council's planning department
for help in locating a site and seeking funding. At that time, Lewisham
was one of the lucky inner London boroughs selected to receive funding
for community projects through the Department of the Environment's
Urban Programme. A half-acre derelict site was found, containing
nothing more interesting than a patch of amenity turf, a few trees
and a crumbling Portacabin, facing one of the busiest road junctions
in the borough. To meet the conditions of the Urban Programme, a
firm of community landscape architects was engaged to draw up and
supervise the contracts for fencing and landscaping the site, while
all planting schemes were left to our group. In 1989 we succeeded
in obtaining funding, but the architects' estimate proved inadequate
to fund all the works necessary. The vandal-prone location made
an expensive persmeter fence necessary, while a series of mounds
planned to screen the garden from the road proved problematic. I
could never see any trace of the thousands of pounds' worth of topsoil
which was supposed to cover these mounds which according to the
landscape architects had been delivered. In the end we were left
with heaps of sticky clay mixed with builders' rubble to plant in,
and very little money for plants. On a brighter note, I succeeded
in getting a job with Lewisham's Nature Conservation Section which
enabled me to include the garden in the rota of volunteer workdays
through which the Borough's nature reserves are maintained.
It was unfortunate that we could not afford a few
large specimen palms, which would have given the garden instant
impact. A few small plants were all we could afford, augmented by
those I had propagated myself. Planting began in the autumn of 1990.
Because of the extremely poor nature of the soil, I chose to plant
a selection of Acacia species for screening and shelter, as these
fix their own nitrogen. These have proved a spectacular success,
several already having reached tree size, and providing flower from
November to March in some years. Visitors are amazed by the diversity
of foliage in this genus, which ranges from feathery pinnate leaves
to prickly conifer-like phyllodes. Our collection includes Acacia
dealbata v. subalpina, A. frigescens A. mearnsii, A. melanoxylon,
A. patackzeckii, A pravissima, A. riceana, A. rubida and A. verticillata.
We have not experienced any frost damage, despite temperatures as
low as -9°C in February and December 1991. A Eucalyptus delagatensis
planted at the same time has already reached nearly 30ft. With its
large sickle- shaped leaves tinged red in summer, and erect trunk,
this is amongst the most exotic of the hardy Eucalyptus. As it grows
to 300 ft in the wild, it could eventually prove quite a landmark!
Even faster growing is E. crenulata, which has grown 20 ft in two
years! All Eucalyptus and Acacia were planted as 12-18" seedlings,
which establish better than larger plants, and were selected from
high altitude provenances. Other plants that have grown well in
the compacted clay mounds include the South African Freylinia cestroides,
covered in scented flowers every autumn, the Pepper Tree Schinus
molle, the winter flowering Buddleia officinalis, Yucca aloifolia,
Lyonothamnus floribundus, Ceanothus spp., Pomegranate and Olive
trees. A seedling of Ceanothus griseus v. griseus has topped 20
ft in five years. All these contrast with a native species hedge
of Hawthorn, Hazel and Blackthorn, which has barely reached 5 ft
in the same amount of time. A slightly less compacted mound was
planted with a selection of succulents and other xerophytic plants.
Despite initial fears of how they would take to the clay soil, the
admixture of rubble and the raised nature of the mound seems to
prevent any waterlogging in winter.
Tireless hoeing by our long-term volunteer, the appropriately
named Bob Gardiner, has also helped to improve the soil structure.
Dasylirion achrotrichum, seedlings from the old plants at Tresco,
have grown rapidly, as have Yucca treculeana, Agave americana and
Nolina longifolia. This has the broadest leaves of any Nolina, and
in time formns a thick, branching trunk. All of these put on a spurt
of growth in autumn that carries on into early winter, but seem
unaffected by frost. By contrast, Opuntias, such as 0. haematacantha
and 0. linguiformis, grow only in the hottest months, while 0. compressa
prepares for an Arctic winter by shrivelling up and lying flat on
the ground at the end off August. None of these succulent plants
is covered in the winter, as is so often stated to be necessary.
Ground cover is provided by the invaluable hardy mesembryanthemum
Delosperma cooperi, together with the winter-flowering 0thonna cheirifolia.
The blue leaves of a Butia capitata associate well with the succulents,
while a seedling of Sabal minor planted in this bed has made slow
but steady growth, producing two leaves a year which are gradually
increasing in size. This year it has been joined by a Brahea armata
and a Chamaerops humilis, completing the desert scene.
Another palm with a reputation for sloth is Jubaea
chilensis, but our seedling has grown well, producing four or five
leaves a year. Unlike Phoenix canariensis (which we also have a
specimen of), which gains hardiness only with size, this palm seems
safe to plant out even as a seedling, and it grows more quicldy
once in the ground. A small plant I had growing unprotected in my
own garden was completely unaffected by the three severe winters
of the mid-eighties, despite frosts down to -12°C. Near the
Jubaea grow the so-called Chilean Guava, Myrtus ugni (which fruits
every year), and the hardy lemon, Citrus ichangensis (which hasn't
yet) . Has anyone ever attempted to cross this with the more edible
citrus varieties? Also nearby, but in partial shade grows the only
specimen of Cordyline indivisa that I have ever managed to establish
This appeared to die in a spell of hot, dry weather soon after planting,
but miraculously reappeared the following spring. I have avoided
watering it, but it seems to have got its roots down far enough
to survive drought. There is no doubt that drying out before the
root system is established will kill C. indivisa, but I have also
lost specimens in hot weather that have been carefully watered.
I suspect that like Arbutus menziesii, they may be allergic to London
In 1992, we succeeded in obtaining funding from the
London Marathon to replace the old Portacabin (whose roof had now
fallen in) with a brick building. As a result of the building operations,
we were left with a pile of rubble to dispose of, which I made use
of to construct another succulent bed along more classical lines.
The rubble was levelled into a 12" layer, and covered with
another 12" of a mixture of 2/2 ballast to 1/2 soil. Despite
a November planting date to coincide with the opening of the building
by the comumonwenhth Secretary General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku (who
made an important speech in favour of multiculturalism in horticulture),
most of this new planting has succeeded well. The only exception
was a Washingtonia filifera which did not survive its first winter
(not really a fair trial), but Brahea brandegeii proved to be made
of stronger stuff. Agave ferox, Beschorneria yuccoides, and Yucca
schottii are all doing well on a portion of the bed that is shaded
for half the day. In fact, Yucca schottii, a treelike species from
high altitudes in New Mexico and Arizona, seems to resent being
placed in full sun, turning red and refusing to grow. Puya alpestris
and P. chilensis are enjoying the perfect drainage, as are Furcraeae
longaeva, Yucca thompsoniana and Aloe aristata. Along with more
Opuntias, a selection of globular cacti were planted here, including
species of Echinocereus, Gymnocalycium and Neoporteria. There are
probably hundreds of potentially hardy species of cacti from colder
parts of North and South America that are worth experimenting with,
given full sun and perfect drainage. I prefer to see what will survive
without any winter protection, though this might be necessary in
very wet areas. I have grown Echinocereus viridi flores and S. neomexicana
outdoors for ten years now. The only problem I encountered was with
a fox, who took great delight in uprooting the specimen of E. viridiflorus
and hiding it in various parts of the garden. Luckily, the cactus
suffered no more than a few small puncture marks, and the fox eventually
tired of the game.
Most of the garden is often very dry in summer, but
a patch of deeper soil on the western side of our new field centre
has provided a home for some more moisture-loving species. The ginger
Hedychium forrestii has luxuriated here, producing broad almost
Cannalike leaves over a foot long topped with attractive white flowers.
The Chain Fern, Woodwardia radicans, shelters under the blue leaves
of Melianthus major. A very tropical effect is provided by Pseudopanax
laetus, with its large, Scheffieralike leaves. Although this is
one of the less hardy New Zealand Pseudopanax species, there are
magnificent old groups at the Morrab Gardens, Penzance. It will
be a great feature if it also proves hardy here.
Other palms I have not yet mentioned include, of course,
good old Trachycarpus fortunei and its var. wagnerianus, and a seedling
Nannorrhops which has grown more quickly than those I kept in pots.
Small specimens of Raphidophylhum hystrix and Serenoa repens have
taken over a year to settle in, but finally began to nsake some
new growth last summer. Arecastrum (Syagrus) romanzoffianum has
survived five winters, including a frost of -9°C, but was unhappy
in its original position by the road, where the leaves became covered
in black soot from the traffic fumes. Since being mnoved over a
year ago it has made no new growth. Whether it will recover, or
whether it is simply languishing from lack of heat or repeated cold,
only time will tell. I have recently heard that this species can
suffer from magnesium deficiency, so I will try dosing it with Sequestrine.
During 1995, we added a number of new palms to the
garden, including Sabal palmetto and S. causiarum, Trithrinax acanthocoma,
Phoenix reclinata and Chamaedorea radicalis. It might seem overly
optimistic to be trying Sabal causiarum, a palm that originates
in the West Indies, outdoors in London. However, this species has
been reported to withstand -12°C in Texas and California, and
might well have had a more northerly distribution before the last
glaciation. Phoenix reclinata, the African Wild Date, survived the
'87 freeze on Tresco, so I reckon it's worth a try. Experimentation
will continue as various palm seedlings become big enough to plant
out. The climate in this part of south-east London is not quite
as mild as c entral London msorth of the Thames, but shade temperatures
in summer are often several degrees higher than those reported by
the London Weather Centre (whose thermometer is several hundred
feet up on a windy rooftop).
Over the past two years, we have fitted much of the
garden with Plantex weed-suppressing membrane . This is a thin woven
material which allows air and rain, but not weeds, to pass through.
It is not too difficult to fit it around established shrubs, and
once covered in a layer of bark mulch or gravel it gives almost
complete control of weeds. This has been a great boon, since the
garden is maintained entirely through volunteer labour. Local schools
make use at the garden regularly, amsd the school next door now
has its own entrance, allowing daily use. A little girl of Moroccan
extraction was able to describe to her class how Chamaerops leaves
are harvested and woven into hats and baskets. The garden is open
by arrangement: For details, please ring 0181-695-6000 x 8133.
Many of the plants mentioned are described in my booklet
'Multicultural Gardening", available for £1.30. from:
The Nature Conservation Section 3rd Floor, Town Hall Chambers, Catford,
London SE6 4RY
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