When non-gardening friends ask me if I have anything to do in the winter, they’re surprised when I reply that I’m as busy at this time of year as I am in spring and summer. Doing what? Tidying, pruning and mulching mainly. And surely there are no flowers to see in a garden in winter? Quite the contrary, this is the season when shrubs that take a back seat for the rest of the year bloom their socks off to attract early flying pollinators, often flowering on bare wood as well as pumping out sweet perfume. Early bulbs too are a welcome sight in January and February gardens, flashes of brightness against the newly mulched soil.
There’s now an area of Kew Gardens dedicated to this season. The Winter Mound has been created on Flagstaff Mound*, one of the few ‘hills’ in Kew’s otherwise flat 330 acres. Whilst winter flowering shrubs abound in the Gardens, notably around the Ice House, it is a joy to see them centre stage in a new garden. A new path curves elegantly around the mound towards the summit, where vestiges of the flagstaff’s concrete base and fixings remain apparent. This vantage point gives a good view of The Temperate House’s eastern facade and a bench has been installed from which to enjoy it.
Snowdrops are now in flower on the lower slopes, in one section gleaming brightly amidst a mass planting of black mondo grass (Ophiopogon plansicapus Nigrescens). All the plant combinations are inspiring: the fern Polypodium vulgare nestles beneath white stemmed birches, Betula utilis subs. jacquemontii Doorenbos. The paper bush, Edgeworthia chrysantha Grandiflora is underplanted with Anna’s Red hellebores; the crimson stems of the Westonbirt dogwood, Cornus alba Sibirica contrast with fountains of a grass which I believe is Pennisetum.
The bare stems of dogwoods are used to great effect: yellow-stemmed dogwood Cornus stolonifera Flaviramea and orange Cornussanguinea ‘Anny’s Winter Orange’. The latter provides a fiery haze towards the top of the mound. So far I’ve counted at lease two cultivars of witch hazel, Hamamelis x intermedia, to my mind one of the most striking winter flowering shrubs: scarlet Diane and sunset-toned Jelena. Like the paperbushes, these are planted more sparingly across the scheme, as are two further winter flowerers: Viburnum bodnantense Dawn with its sweetly scented pale pink flowers and Prunus incisa Praecox, a midwinter flowering cherry. I read that the latter will achieve a height of 4-8 metres in 20 years. Helleborus Ice Breaker is used extensively in the lower reaches of the garden as lower storey ground cover. Sarcococca hookeriana Winter Gem is another source of sweetness in this garden. Its rather insignificant shaggy cream flowers emit a powerful scent.
When the bare branches of the dogwoods, birches and Viburnums green over in spring, the Winter Mound will undergo another transformation and I’m really looking forward to seeing it evolve over the coming months.
See below for more photos of the Winter Mound, taken on a freezing day in early December. Next time I’ll take you to the Winter Garden at Osterley House and Gardens, a well established garden for this season.
Kew Gardens 5 February 2023
*When it was erected in 1959, a gift from the provincial government of British Columbia, the flagstaff was, at 225 feet long, entered in the Guinness Book of Records as the tallest in the world. It was the third flagstaff to be erected on the site and stood until 2007 when it had to be dismantled because deemed unsafe. Artist Edward Bawden has included the flagstaff in this charming image.
In January, if I’m not spreading manure on my clients’ gardens, I’m installing strainer wire supports for climbing plants on fences and walls. It’s one of those jobs that’s easier in winter, when the borders are clearer and the subject to be supported will, if it’s deciduous, have shed its leaves. I bought a new drill last year, which has made this job much quicker and means that I can drill into cement posts which I couldn’t with my old Black & Decker drill (inherited from my Dad). Once I’ve drilled the holes, tapped in the rawlplugs (if I’m working with brick or cement) and screwed in the vine-eyes I do battle with the coil of wire! When I first started putting these supports up three years ago I got into horrible tangles trying to unravel the wire from the coil without creating kinks in the wrong places. I’ve now learnt to pay out the wire gradually and avoid this problem. My favourite part of the procedure is after fastening the wire to the vine-eyes when I tighten it by turning the vine-eye through 360 degrees using a screwdriver. It’s so satisfying when the line is good and taut. Depending on the height of the wall or fence I’m working on, I put up 3 or 4 tiers of supports: enough to provide plenty of options when tying in the climber or wall shrub.
With a climbing or rambling rose, my modus operandi is to train the branches horizontally along the wires, tying them in as I go and only then pruning the branches back to an outward facing bud. Last week I worked with two very large climbing roses which had been attached to stylish horizontal timber fencing but in a vertical direction meaning that the flowers had accumulated at or near the top of the rose, 2.5 to 3 metres from the ground. It took several hours and a return visit to finish the task but now these two roses should I hope flower at eye level. Both were English climbers from David Austin, one Rosa Wollerton Old Hall and the other Rosa Mortimer Sackler: the first pale apricot, the other light pink. In the David Austin catalogue, Wollerton Old Hall is described as having a ‘strong, warm myrrh fragrance’ with ‘intense hints of citrus’: sounds gorgeous. Hopefully my efforts mean that this summer the perfume is pumped back into the garden rather than wafting skywards.
Installing these supports has made me consider the myriad of methods used to control the plants in our gardens by either holding them up from the ground or back against a wall or fence. Here I share a few examples from gardens I’ve visited and from volunteering in the gardens at Osterley House. In no particular order, here they are.
In early December last year we garden volunteers cleared ivy from the brick wall between the Long Border in the Tudor Walled Garden and the American Border. I noticed that a stretch of wall was studded with fixings for wire supports and Head Gardener Andy Eddy explained that the wall had once formed the backdrop of one of the Victorian glasshouses at the property which had been used to grow stoned fruits such as peaches and nectarines. The plants would have been trained against the wall onto wires arranged in closely spaced tiers. This was my first experience of using a tripod ladder and it felt so secure and steady in comparison with a stepladder, as well as being more manoeuvrable.
I saw these in use at both Great Dixter in East Sussex and at East Lambrook Manor Gardens in Somerset. These ‘Sussex hurdles’ measure H56 x W69 cm and resemble mini gates. They are used to support herbaceous perennials, preventing them from flopping onto and swamping other plants, or to prevent lawns and meadow areas from being walked on. In one of those moments of frugality I didn’t buy a hurdle from the nursery at Dixter, despite being tempted to do so and have put my name on a waiting list for one. They are made in the Great Barn there, from chestnut harvested on the estate.
I usually install a single tree stake for small saplings, such as a Prunus Amonagowa I planted in a newly replanted local garden in November 2020. I wrap an adjustable black plastic tie around both tree and stake, ready to be let out once the trunk’s girth increases. I was very taken with this double staking method seen in the orchard beside the World Garden at RHS Hyde Hall in Essex. The tree looks sturdily supported and if the crop is anything to go by, the tree is very happy with the arrangement.
When I was in Kew Gardens today I was able to study the superstructure for the two huge stands of Wisteria growing in the northern end of the Gardens, between the Stone Pine and the Duke’s Garden. These are deliberately grown to eye level only, rather than on a taller support which means that you can see the flowers at close quarters in April, as well as appreciate their delicate fragrance. The plant’s sturdy branches are attached to cylindrical tree stakes measuring about a metre and a half, using buckled ‘belts’ which can be loosened or tightened as necessary.
Apart from the system I described above for training climbing and rambling roses against fences and walls, there are many different ways to support vigorous roses. I first saw the swag arrangement in Queen Mary’s Garden in The Regent’s Park, where tremendously thick ropes are swung from a wide circle of timber supports. It’s an absolute picture in June when it’s smothered in rambling roses. I saw a similar system, bare of flowers of course, in the Kitchen Garden at Chatsworth in November using a chunky chain rather than ropes. Another favourite of mine is the obelisk, which I’ve seen installed in varying heights in different gardens. Those punctuating the Broad Walk Borders at Kew Gardens are about three metres tall as are those I saw in the Rose Garden at Arundel Castle last April.
In my own garden I grow Rosa Blush Noisette against a wooden trellis and Rosa White Star around the timber support of a single arch. I attached strainer wire to each of the vertical planes of the post and each year I train the branches of the rose around the post in an anti-clockwise direction. Last year, in its third year, it reached the top of the post and I shall now encourage it along the archway.
At Osterley roses are grown against walls and on timber frames. Here is the rose trained onto the rear wall of the Garden House.
Metal supports formed into an arched tunnel were festooned in roses and clematis in Kate Stuart Smith’s garden at Serge Hill in Hertfordshire which I was lucky enough to visit last July. A metal archway is a relatively new feature at RHS Wisley, located near the old entrance into the garden.
In September dahlias are the main attraction in Sarah Raven’s garden at Perch Hill in East Sussex. It was an education to see the methods used to support the array of colours and forms of dahlia abounding in this garden which showcases many of the varieties in the inspirational catalogue. Although almost hidden by foliage I could just make out a timber framework constructed I believe from silver birch. In her book A Year Full of Flowers*, Sarah Raven devotes several pages in the April chapter to the structures used at Perch Hill, each constructed afresh every year. I also admired the cat’s cradle effect of string between coppiced branches in another part of the garden.
Talking of coppiced branches, I spotted this simple but very effective way to hold up lavender used along the driveway at North Hill Nurseries, the wonderful wholesale nursery near Chobham where I buy plants for my clients. A single pole is supported by shepherd’s crook style metal stakes at just the perfect height to prevent the shrub sprawling onto the grass.
In the last year or so I’ve discovered the merits of the half hoop metal support, the taller versions of which are very valuable for keeping exuberant perennials like Salvia Amistad in check. They are very versatile: for example, two can be arranged in a ring formation or a single hoop can be enough to separate one plant from another. They are not cheap though and I shall continue looking for the mythical versions a client told me were once stocked at an excellent price by Wilko!
My final images are a miscellany of sui generis solutions to unique scenarios. V-topped struts support a limb of an ancient lime tree at Great Dixter. A massive banana plant in the Temperate House at Kew is held upright by strong wire encased in rubber tubing attached to very substantial wooden posts. And perhaps the ultimate in plant supports, the brickwork buttress for the trunk of the Pagoda tree (Styphnolobium japonicum) in Kew Gardens, the horizontal branches of which rest on metal stands.
I’ve omitted many, many other forms of plant support in this quick overview and can see this is a subject I shall revisit, as I collect more examples from my travels.
The first professionally performed play I attended was A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Regent’s Park open air theatre. The year was 1970. We were taken on a school trip to a matinee. And it blew me away. Little did I know then that the glamorous couple playing Titania and Oberon were acting royalty: Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens. I remember it was a hot summer’s day and that I loved it all: the tree-surrounded setting, cheeky Puck, the fairies’ floaty costumes (chiffon was big in the 70s), Bottom as a donkey, the language. We were studying the play in the first year of secondary school and had had to learn Oberon’s ‘I know a bank where the wild thyme grows…’ speech off by heart. It was so exciting to hear it recited in the mellifluous tones of a real actor.
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine: There sleeps Titania sometime of the night, Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight; And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin, Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in
Last Wednesday I saw another open air performance of the play, this time in Kew Gardens. ‘Dream’ as I believe it’s known in acting circles, has been performed in the Gardens most nights this August. The stage is erected in a clearing beyond the Waterlily House and a group of handsome trees form a dramatic backdrop to the action. The lighting crew do a fantastic job of illuminating this leafy scenery with stunning colours, emphasising the stature and structure of the trees themselves and evoking the magical atmosphere of the wood near Athens where most of the action takes place. The ‘Rude Mechanicals’ and the fairies sometimes approach the stage from behind the audience, bursting out from the shrubs at the rear of the ‘auditorium’. Over the course of the evening they must cover several miles. Puck is acrobatic and athletic and when he vows to put a girdle around the earth in forty minutes you almost believe he can. The five minute walk from Victoria Gate to the site of the play takes you past the Rose Garden, the pale blooms almost glowing in the dusk. Later the route was lit by strings of warm white lights on either side of the path. It was an enchanting setting for the play and brought back happy memories of my first encounter with Shakespeare and with open air theatre.
Meanwhile in another part of the wood, i.e. in my garden, I’ve been having something of a Shakespeare festival myself. Early in the summer I celebrated a successful year for Weeds Roots & Leaves by buying a large terracotta container from Whichford Pottery. This was triggered by needing something in which to plant the Rosax odorata Bengal Crimson which I brought back from my first ever visit to Great Dixter at the end of May. The rim of this hand thrown and frost proof pot is etched with an extract from Juliet’s famous line in her speech to Romeo in the balcony scene:
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet; (Romeo & Juliet, Act 2 Scene 2)
Moulded in relief on the side of the pot is an elaborate illustration of a cluster of roses. When the pot arrived a couple of months ago I was pleasantly surprised to see that not a scrap of plastic had been used in packing it. The sturdy cardboard box was packed tightly with straw. But next time I splurge on a super pot from Whichford I’ve made a mental note to open it in the garden. I was vacuuming up traces of straw for several weeks after my eager unveiling of the new addition to the garden.
The Bengal Crimson rose, which was grown from a cutting of the large specimen in the Barn Garden at Dixter, bears deep red single flowers which seem to last barely a couple of days, before the petals fall. I hope there’ll be such a profusion of blooms in the years to come this ephemeral quality won’t be so evident. I’ve admired the rose since it was planted at the edge of the meadow bank opposite the American Border at Osterley. Looking at a few websites, I’m reassured to read that it is suitable for growing in a container.
Knowing the little rose would take a year or so to establish in the pot, I also planted the tiny maroon flowered African geranium (Pelargonium sidoides) and the deep red cultivar of Dianthus the seedlings of which I brought from Osterley before the first lockdown. You can see I have a deep red theme emerging with this choice of plants. I always perceive dark red petals as velvety and there’s a certain plushness too to the other red flowered plant in this arrangement, the graceful burgundy Cosmos which I grew from seed earlier this year. With its spikes of violet blue flowers, the annual Salvia farinaceaVictoria, provides a contrast in both colour and form to the other plants in the pot.
Whichford Pottery is located, appropriately, in William Shakespeare’s home county of Warwickshire. Having read Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet earlier this year, and enjoyed its evocation of life in late C16 Stratford upon Avon, I can see a visit to both the pottery and Shakespeare’s birthplace would make a splendid day out. Indeed, now that theatres have reopened, perhaps I should make a weekend of it and take in a play!
National lockdown in England has morphed into Tier 2 restrictions here in the London suburbs. During lockdown, because I work outside, I was fully occupied during in the daytime, tidying clients’ gardens, planting bulbs and creating winter themed containers. And thanks to a wealth of online talks and events I was busy in the evenings too, spending time in the virtual company of garden designers and plantsmen, touring a university botanic garden and a world famous garden in Kent and attending an awards ceremony celebrating the work of the garden media industry. Were it not for these webinars and films I doubt I’d have covered so much ground in such a short space of time. On a dreary late autumn evening I might have thought twice about venturing out to a Plant Heritage meeting in Cobham or a Garden Museum lecture in Lambeth and certainly not wearing my slippers and pyjama bottoms!
My horticulture vulture November began courtesy of the Garden Museum with a talk about gardens in the work of the painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) by his great nephew Richard Ormond. He described a career as a society portrait painter counterbalanced by summers spent painting in some of the great gardens of Europe: La Granja, outside Madrid; the Borghese Gardens in Rome; the Boboli Gardens in Florence. Many of these paintings featured Sargent’s favourite subjects of classical architecture, topiary, fountains and statuary.
Due weight was given to the atmospheric ‘Carnation Lily Lily Rose’ in which two young girls light Japanese lanterns at twilight amidst the flowers of the title. Although painted out of doors, the set-up we were told could hardly be described as spontaneous since the canvas was painted over the course of two seasons with the bought-in flowers being attached to wires.
The myriad of slides we were treated to included sublime still-lives of roses and gentians as well as gourds and pomegranates growing in a garden in Mallorca.
Two evenings later I was transported to the walled environment of the Oxford Botanic Garden by the Surrey Plant Heritage Group. The speaker Timothy Walker retired in 2014 after 26 years as the gardens’s Horti Praefectus (director). Engaging and erudite, he crammed the 400 year history of the garden into an entertaining hour and a half, prefacing the talk with with a reading list and historical context for the creation of the garden from 1621. But this was no dry academic lecture. As both a botanist and (Kew-trained) horticulturist, he revealed the site’s wonderful 30 feet depth of topsoil and referenced specific trees in the garden, including a Pinus nigra planted in 1834 said to be JR Tolkein’s favourite tree. We learnt of the acquisition in 1946 of land outside the city of Oxford which became the Harcourt Arboretum, where the acid soil favours the cultivation of rhododendrons. Timothy Walker also shared family photographs showing his children happily posing atop the enormous leaves of the giant waterlily Victoria amazonica to demonstrate the plant’s strength and rigidity. What makes it all the more extraordinary is the fact that the plants are propagated annually in the Oxford Botanic Garden’s glasshouse.
Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), the first unofficial director of Kew Gardens or ‘the Richmond allotments’ as Timothy Walker dubbed them, was the subject of the next talk I ‘attended’. The Gardens Trust hosted Professor Jordan Goodman of UCL describing the global botanical projects launched by Banks to source plants for George III at Kew. The first of these, in 1787, was the notorious voyage of The Bounty, with Captain Bligh at the helm. The objective of the expedition was to transport breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies, returning to London with exotic plants from both the Pacific and the Caribbean. Banks had first encountered breadfruit 20 years earlier when he joined Captain Cook’s voyage to the South Pacific Ocean. To facilitate the transportation of living plants, the ship’s cargo included over 1000 empty pots and there was a gardener on board whose job it was to look after the precious cargo. The captain relinquished his cabin to accomodate the breadfruit plants which were duly collected in Tahiti. What happened next has been dramatised in several movies. Led by Fletcher Christian, the ship’s company mutinied, the plants were thrown overboard and Bligh and 18 seamen loyal to him, including the gardener, were set adrift in an open launch. Bligh and his men eventually reached Timor. By 1790 Bligh had found his way back to London and he commanded the next expedition organised by Banks. The voyage of The Providence (which, with a greenhouse installed on the quarter deck, was described as a ‘floating garden’) was a great success, visiting Tahiti, St Vincent and Jamaica. It docked in Deptford in 1793 laden with more than 2000 plants destined for Kew. Even the final stage of the journey took place on water, when they were transported along the Thames by barge to Kew.
Use of the Thames to transport plants cropped up again in Andy Sturgeon’s lecture for the Kew Mutual Improvement Society to raise funds for the Kew Diploma students’ third year field trip to Spain. During ‘Making the Modern Garden’, the Chelsea Gold medal winning designer described a project for a garden on the banks of the river in Putney. Apparently there are only 93 houses in London whose gardens connect directly with the Thames and the materials for the hard landscaping and the plants for this design were delivered via the river. More than 200 years since Banks’ botanical expeditions and plants are still being transported by water! This lecture was both a reflection on a hugely successful career as a garden designer and an assessment of changing fashions in garden design during the three decades since Andy began creating gardens. In locations from London Docklands to Bermuda, via a gravel garden in Snowdonia, his gardens share a spaciously elegant quality and often feature a restricted colour palette. This isn’t to say that the colours are muted or dull, far from it, but he argues that it is unrestful to use too many colours. I was encouraged to note that in the list of plants which Andy favours for his designs: euphorbias, Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’, Nandina domestica, Bupleurum and Astelia, I have used them all in planting schemes for clients save Bupleurum.
Plant names came thick and fast in Irish plantsman Jimi Blake’s tour de force for the Hampshire branch of Plant Heritage. We learnt that he grew up at Hunting Brook near Blessington in County Wicklow, to which he returned to create a unique garden of contrasts after training at the National Botanic Garden in Glasnevin and a stint as a head gardener. Deep beds on the sunny slopes of this steep garden sport flowers as colourful as Jimi’s extensive collection of floral shirts. The site descends into a tranquil wooded gorge intersected by a stream running down from the Wicklow Mountains, where Jimi has created an understory of shade-loving plants. Jimi spoke with such infectious enthusiasm about his garden, his passion for so many different geniuses: snowdrops, species dahlias, kniphofias, salvias, geums, that I felt uplifted listening to him. He loves woodland and spring plants, the latter ‘so good for your mind’, giving a feeling that ‘momentum is mounting’. He prefers daffodils to tulips. He breaks rules and obtains great results, dividing plants in summer rather than in autumn and winter, for example a favourite of his, Lychnis ‘Hill Grounds’. He creates unusual plant combinations such as foxtail lilies with alliums. By pollarding non-tender plants like Populus glauca he achieves the exotic look of larger leaves without the tenderness. A hallmark of his planting design is the use of narrow-leaved woody plants like Pseudopanax linearis amongst flowering plants to introduce an element of exoticism. He’s fond of orange-flowered plants: Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’, Cosmos ‘Tango’, the cigar plant Cuphea ignea. He loves silver-leaved plants: Artemesia stelleriana ‘Boughton Silver’ provides good ground cover. He gardens organically. His dogs Doris and Billy appeared in a few photographs and he advised pet lovers to avoid planting Aconitum, Euphorbia and Heliotrope. Needless to say I’m already day-dreaming about going to Hunting Brook Gardens when we can travel freely once more and to Costa Rica where Jimi described seeing hillsides covered in dahlias. In the meantime I shall make do with putting Jimi Blake’s new book ‘A Beautiful Obsession: Jimi Blake’s World of Plants at Hunting Brook Gardens’* on my Christmas list!
In Part 2 of this account of lockdown lectures I’ll report upon a conversation between the author of a new book about Sissinghurst and the director of the Garden Museum and attending an awards ceremony dressed up from the ankles upwards.
During lockdown I entered a competition run by the Garden Museum in Lambeth. The theme was a memoir based on the garden as ‘Sanctuary’. I chose Kew Gardens for my subject and although I didn’t get shortlisted but would like to share the piece with you.
*Thank you to Elvis Costello for the title to this post. He performed a wonderful acoustic set at Kew the Music in July 2014. To date my favourite concert in this annual six day music event. Sadly cancelled this year.
29 April 2020.
A soothing voice on the meditation App advises me to visualise my ‘happy place’. Without hesitating I imagine myself sitting on a bench in a wood. Blue tits and great tits alight momentarily on feeders hanging from the branches of a tree across the path from where I sit. I can see a nuthatch inching down the trunk, its profile resembling a miniature woodpecker. From far above me I hear the mournful high-pitched call of a peregrine falcon. I am in the Natural Area in Kew Gardens. Less than half a mile away the outside world goes about its business: traffic flows along Kew Road and golfers trundle trolleys over the pristine greens of the Royal Mid Surrey Golf Course. But here is my sanctuary, where I am cocooned from the new normal of Zoom meetings and tense grocery shopping expeditions.
Is a sanctuary a physical place or can it be a mental refuge to be visited when your spirit needs soothing? As I write this, going into the sixth week of lockdown, staying home and staying safe, I believe that it is both. Kew Gardens remains closed but in my imagination I can visit any part of it whenever I wish. In 1968 James Taylor sang ‘In My Mind I’m Gone to Carolina’ and if I concentrate hard enough I’m gone to Kew. I’m gone to green glades lined with rare shrubs and trees from around the world, to the Redwood grove or the native woodland where now, in the last week of April, the understorey is carpeted with bluebells, the blue carpet punctuated here and there with the lime green flowers of Smyrnium perfoliatum. I can go at any time of the day or in any season. I can relive a frosty winter’s morning walking through the Plant Family Beds (now the Evolution Garden) and stopping to admire the frost riming the sculpture of the gardener leaning on his spade, surveying his domain. Or I can enjoy once more a late June picnic beneath the lime trees, their pale yellow flower clusters perfuming the warm still air.
I was in my twenties when I visited Kew for the first time. I lived in central London then and Kew’s spaciousness and sense of calm contrasted with the bustle and fumes of city streets. I returned once a year at first and then more regularly, until in my mid-thirties I was fortunate enough to move to the area.
A walk in the Gardens became a weekly ritual. I would often go late on a Sunday afternoon in preparation for the working week: the crowded Tube, the targets, the deadlines. Entering at the Lion Gate, I would skirt the Great Pagoda, heading towards what was then called the Conservation Area from which I emerged onto the lawn between the Gardens and the Thames towpath at the end of Syon Vista. Across the river, I could see the Northumberland lion standing defiantly atop the ornamental battlements of Syon House and at the other end of the wide double avenue of Holm oaks the rounded glass and metal outline of the central atrium of the Palm House. My route led to the northern shore of the lake, where in April creamy bracts centred with tightly clustered green flowers decorate a large Cornus florida. Skirting the southern end of the Temperate House I would arrive at Lion Gate just before closing time, save for one occasion when I mis-timed it and had to use the yellow emergency phone beside the gate. I was hugely relieved when the kind member of the Kew Constabulary who took the call released the remotely controlled catch on the gate.
That might have remained my weekly routine had not life intervened. By 2008 I had stopped commuting into the city and had been working locally for a couple of years. When the financial crisis hit I was, as the most recent recruit to the firm, made redundant. Roles in my field were hard to come by so as well as attending a typing and computer skills course, I answered a call on the Kew website to volunteer at an exhibition to be staged in the Nash Conservatory about the work of Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank. I also volunteered in the visitor information team and by early the following year was offered a part-time job. I remember worrying if, by working there, the place I had come to regard as a place of sanctuary would lose that aura for me and become just another workplace. Yes, there were days when the relentless flood of emails and calls threatened to make me forget what a special place Kew is, but a gentle cycle ride home along Holly Walk on a summer’s evening restored a sense of calm and perspective. If time allowed, I took a longer route home, alongside the southern shore of the lake, passing the group of monkey puzzle trees, Araucaria araucana, towards the Natural Area, where I would sit for a few minutes on that bench near the birdfeeders.
A year or so after I started working at Kew my elderly and increasingly frail mother came to live with me. We used to visit the Gardens most weekends, my mother in a wheelchair, reluctantly to begin with but content to do so when she realised how much more of the Gardens we could explore. We always took coffee and a picnic and on colder days, equipped with a hot water bottle under her blanket, she was the warmest member of the party. My mother loved sitting in the sun and one of her favourite places in Kew was the sundial lawn at the foot of the steps leading up to King William’s Temple in the Mediterranean Garden. On the hottest days I fancied we could detect the distinctive scent of the Garrigue, that combination of cistus, broom, lavender and oregano which characterised the hillsides of Provence where she had enjoyed several holidays. My mother’s dementia meant she was often sad and confused but a visit to Kew would raise her spirits, and when as we arrived home she would say ‘I’ve had a lovely day’, mine too. My mother died six years ago.
I no longer work at the Gardens, but once a week I volunteer for a few hours in the plant shop and will continue to do so when the lockdown is lifted. Kew remains a deeply special place to me. It has soothed me when my heart has been broken, when I’ve raged about some now forgotten injustice, worried about a health issue or grieved the loss of a loved one. I know I am not alone in missing Kew Gardens at this challenging time of fear and uncertainty. But by conjuring in my mind’s eye its vistas and paths, stretches of water, ancient trees and the exquisite contents of its glasshouses, Kew offers me a refuge, a sanctuary. Weeds Roots & Leaves 29 April 2020