Hackney’s new off-beat National Trust garden

Next to Sutton House – the oldest house in east London, built 1535 – was a scuzzy yard where old cars rotted amid the rubbish and weedy sycamores. That was pretty typical of odd corners and backyards in suburban Hackney in the 1980s.

car lot 2003 -2
The way things were

But things are changing. This site is now becoming a wonderland of vehicle sculptures and plants to keep kids entertained.

The Breaker’s Yard will be a garden next to the Tudor brickwork of the house and is due to open at 1pm on 12 August 2014. It has been designed by Daniel Lobb, an established garden planner. The entrance will be marked by special gates, made with hundreds of old toy cars donated by local celebrities. There will be pots of plants made from old tractor tyres and a watercourse running though the length of the garden, then disappearing down an old well.

The garden also contains Daniel’s 1998 remarkable sculpture The Grange, which resembles a two-storey caravan on the outside and a mini-stately home on the inside.

Daniel Lobb’s The Grange 
Interior Grange resized2
Inside The Grange

Also in the garden is a 1980s ice-cream van, decorated by Sir Peter Blake’s daughter Rose, which will act as a playful shop and provide refreshments.

Rose’s 80s ice-cream van

The educational charity The House of Fairy Tales is to engage school children and families in the garden. Their entertainment is due to be supported by a network of “creative artists” – so let’s see what they come up with!

Of course, Sutton House has a very Hackney history. Although it started as a grand house known as the “Bryck Place”, built of brick when most places were wattle and daub, it has been through the mill over the years. It was built by Sir Ralph Sadlier, who was King Henry VIII’s ambassador to Scotland at one point and a colleague of Sir Thomas Cromwell. Besides Tudor courtiers it has housed Huguenot silk weavers, a brewery, the local church institute and squatters. All are represented in what you see in the house today, from linen-fold oak panelling to squatter’s murals. Now the garden will represent a car scrapyard of the late twentieth century!

What’s not so well known is that the soil under the site will have suffered from contamination by engine oil, brake fluid, battery acid and old asbestos brake pads. Therefore the design seals off the soil and uses imported compost to support the plants.

I look forward to seeing the plants in place. But the garden in any event represents and achievement of the National Trust, the mayor of London’s Pocket Parks project, the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts and the waste company Biffa, which have all contributed cash and organisation to the Breaker’s Yard project.

Sutton House as the backdrop to the Breaker’s Yard

Three days away from NGS garden opening!

Thu 5 June

What occurs to me close to my National Garden Scheme open day is how does the kind of frantic gardening I am doing differ from housework? Not a lot! I am doing everything I can to make every bit of the garden look as pretty as possible and to make sure there is a maximum of colour and not a single leaf out of place. I am out with the dustpan and brush sweeping up the mess and picking off every leaf that is looking dead or discoloured. In particular I’m deadheading the roses – tickling them to see whether they are about to drop petals all over the place.

What to do next? Complete the planting of those plants that should be in the borders or should be repotted into good pots. That is my first priority. I have been so busy that my lunch has been delayed to 3pm. I am sorting out the plants that are going to be for sale and those I am going to keep or plant in the borders.

I had to sort out a wild hop that was threatening my garden from the neighbour’s garden. To do it I had to stand on top of the garden wall and carefully extract it from my little mountain ash and clematis. My neighbours need a decent gardener. I would charge only £25 an hour!

The hop – for which BM is really to blame, having imported one from the Cambridgeshire hedgerows – has provided a lot of raw material for making compost, and I am trying to keep as much of such material as possible rather than give it to the council in the brown bin. I realise now that I need as much compost as I can muster. My soil needs improvement and I intend to use compost made on the allotment in the garden next year.

The miniature border

Fri 6 June

Two days to go until garden opening. A very fine day, but with the prospect of heavy showers on Saturday. Quite a lot of to-ing and fro-ing with V, who had no house keys and I only got round to doing something in the garden in mid-afternoon: attending to a border. People talk about lovely deep herbaceous borders maybe 10 or 15 feet deep. Well I have a miniature version. Two inches, which runs alongside the six-foot stone flag path between the front gate and the door steps.

Why bother? – you might reasonably ask. Well, it happens to be the sunniest place in the entire garden. South-west facing with an open outlook, protected only from the street by the open railings of the gate.

What plants can go in such a tiny border? Well plenty. At present a miniature copper-leaved weedy Oxalis with yellow flowers, varied little sempervivums of red and green with varying hairiness. And earlier in the year we have had Iris reticulata, Tulipa bakeri, Crocus tommasinianus purpureus and to come in the autumn Crocus autumnale. Of course all the usual things to do – clearing out dead material, removing surplus stones and soil, and weeding out some plants that can’t possibly continue there. Besides the usual, this also turns out to be a great seed bed for a 12ft Echium pininiana once nearby.

Then down at the allotment, I am there to collect some plants in pots which I’m planning to sell. This includes blackcurrant bushes, Schizostylis coccineus, dahlias etc. Then I am picking strawberries (Is the straw helpful?). Redcurrants also to be picked. I have three bushes of the same variety Jonkeer van Tets. But one seems to ripen well before the other two and has a paler leaf, so maybe a labelling error.

Many pressing maintenance issues for which there is little time at present – raised beds falling apart, carpeting paths and cement work needed on the shed foundation. But instead some watering for the seedlings. I’m hoping that the forecast showers will materialise for the potatoes and broad beads which always welcome more water.

A South American invader on my allotment

5 July 2014

It is always good to recognise your weeds. In my garden the worst are dog violet, Viola riviniana, and annual dog’s mercury, Mercurialis annua. These are not much of a problem and easily uprooted. At the allotment, much worse are morning glory Calystegia sepium and couch grass Agropyron repens. Both need to be dug out.

But today I managed to identify another weed on my allotment which apparently got here from South America – Galinsoga parviflora. Its English name is ‘gallant soldier’, being a small hairless herb which is readily uprooted.

I had spotted this plant growing around my runner beans last summer and it had troubled me that it looked nothing like anything I was familiar with. I also found it near in my office car park at the other side of London, so it is apparently widespread.

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The flower of Galinsoga shows it is in the Compositae

Looking closely at the flower it is clearly a composite like a daisy, and knowing that it is not too difficult to find in a wild flower book. How it got here from South America would be an interesting story!

The silk floss tree

There are many fabulous trees in the world but we can grow only a small proportion of them in our British temperate climate. Here’s the tropical silk floss tree, Ceiba speciosa, which originates from Brazil and Argentina, but can be seen growing on streets in Barcelona. What a lucky city that is!

There’s something prehistoric about the silk floss tree. Its trunk is swollen like a bottle and armed with the most vicious looking spines. You could never climb it without serious protection! Perhaps they evolved to protect the tree from giant South American sloths, which are now extinct.


The leaves are glossy and palmate, and the flowers fabulously exotic. They are about 12cm across with 5 pink petals joined to an orange and red centre. There are huge sex organs (styles and stamens) which stick proudly out of the middle.


And the fruit too is strange, bursting open with silky hairs and seeds.


It is of course a relative of the kapok tree which produces a fibre used for stuffing cushions and a member of the notable tropical tree family Bombacaceae. This is a remarkable group in itself including many strange members such as the baobab, the durian, balsa wood and of course kapok. The trees often have swollen trunks or even massive elephantine trunks and branches which help store water, and I guess that is what the soft balsa wood is designed for. Other members of the family such as Bombax and other Ceiba species have light timbers which are used for making matchsticks.

The trees are also deciduous, so may lose their leaves in the dry or colder seasons.

In Barcelona you can see these trees where the major boulevard Avinguda del Parallel reaches the port – close to the bottom of the famous Ramblas. There are several of these marvellous trees in this park amongst the palms. If you’re lucky they will be in flower and fruit at the same time.

Barcelona has a favourable climate and a great collection of street trees. The city council’s website goes into some detail on its street trees and reveals that these silk floss trees are believed to be 80 years old, but were only planted in their present location in 1992 for the Olympic games. Fortunately they are doing well!

A summer visit to Beth Chatto’s gravel garden

Situated in the not-so-pretty village of Elmstead Market, between the Essex towns of Colchester and Clacton, Beth Chatto’s marvellous garden is a great day out. The gravel garden alone, which is just a part of what is on offer, is a morning’s entertainment in itself.

Beth, now aged 90, began the garden with her husband in 1960. They owned a fruit farm nearby and started the garden on what they called “wasteland”. Beth was a flower arranger and speaker at that point and began with an interest in unusual plants. She built up a collection which led to the nursery in 1967 and then began writing books, including The Dry Garden, The Damp Garden, Plant Portraits  and The Green Tapestry.

The gravel garden is not irrigated; indeed Beth says that the original idea was an experiment to see what can be done on an unpromising former car park. Miraculously, you don’t even need to pay to go into the gravel garden, whereas there is an entry fee for the lush water and shade gardens. The tempting and well-stocked nursery is also free to visit and there is a reasonable café which offers meals and cakes.

In July, the gravel garden looks almost like an Australian landscape with the dominant Eucalyptus tree and waving grasses. It was a windy day the movement of the trees and the flowering grasses was magnificent. But there are many plants flowering away, not least the Mount Etna broom (Genista aetnensis) with its scented yellow pea flowers reaching up to 4m above the ground. Other highlights are the tree poppy (Romneya coulteri), standing up to 1.5m high with its large white blooms and the yellow centres, so attractive to hover flies:

Romneya coulteri

But the garden is a lesson in the variety of different plants all in flower: the grasses, the salvias, thymes, oreganos, the yuccas, the mulleins, hollyhocks and umbellifers. Among the grasses I was particularly impressed by Stipa gigantea and more unusually Stipa barbata which has wispy spikes which were fluttering in the breeze, and furry Stipa tenuissima.

Stipa gigantea
Stipa barbata
Stipa tenuissima

Another genus well represented is Sedum: the dramatic ‘Dragon’s blood’, the dark ‘Bertram Anderson’ and the tall ‘Purple Emperor’.

Sedum spurim ‘Dragon’s blood’
Sedum ‘Bertram Anderson’
Sedum ‘Purple Emperor’

The variety of the plants that do well in the garden is immense. I love the giant yellow-flowered umbellifer Ferula communis and Beth even has an unusual Ferula tingitana ‘Cedric Morris’ which has fat seed heads.

Ferula tingitana ‘Cedric Morris’
Ferula tingitana seed heads

To pick out just a few more favourites, I would chose the lovely Verbascum chaixii ‘Album’, and the gorgeous furry rosettes of the big verbascums, probably V. bombyciferum, now developing where they have seeded.

Verbascum chaixii ‘Album’
Verbascum rosette

Two more glories are Onopordum acanthium – the so called Scottish thistle, a lovely big glaucous blue plant with the characteristic mauve flowers, and a subtley beautiful sage Salvia sclarea var turkestanica, which forms tall stands in the garden.

So called “Scottish” Thistle
Onopordum flower
Salvia sclarea
Salvia sclarea blooms

Putting the straw back into strawberries

Thu 29 May

There’s glorious weather down on the allotment and the strawberries are beginning to ripen. They also need some weeding and I have a bale of straw that came from a pet shop whichI have kept for trying out on the strawberries in the traditional way.

I’ve been round my strawberry patch, weeding out the rogue plants such as raspberries shooting up from the next bed, speedwell, annual dog’s mercury, dandelions and little euphorbias. Then carefully with my left hand I lift up the swelling green fruit off the ground, then with my right I grab a bunch of straw from the bag and lay it as a collar around the plant roots. The developing fruit can then be just laid back onto the straw. The fruit then sit protected from the sometimes wet soil and hopefully are a bit more difficult for slugs and snails to munch on.

Let’s see whether it works! I also pick my first crop of strawberries and realise I must clean out the freezer by making jam with the strawberrries left from last year.