London’s Open Gardens reveal havens of calm and community hubs

The gardens of London’s Middle Temple have come a long way from the “slow vegetation”, “smoky shrubs” and “uncongenial pavement” portrayed by Charles Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit, his 1844 picaresque novel.

Now, under head gardener Kate Jenrick, the various spaces are vibrant, diverse and an idyllic backdrop for barristers taking a break or for one of the many social events that the Middle Temple hosts. Dickens, briefly a member of Middle Temple who drew much literary inspiration from London’s four historic Inns of Courts, or professional legal societies, would be impressed.

The gardens feature in the capital’s Open Gardens event this weekend. Jenrick will be busy, taking hundreds of visitors on guided tours on Sunday. For avid gardeners keen for practical tips and urban enthusiasts who appreciate the restorative role of green space, the programme reveals the capital’s most interesting hidden gardens.

Held by London Gardens Trust, a small, mostly volunteer-run charity which is affiliated with the nationwide Gardens Trust network, such events help build compelling cases for why these spaces matter. They bear special significance for workers returning to the city who covet oases of calm away from the office.

Since 1999, the weekend has been “the event we rely on” for meeting its remit to “celebrate, cultivate and champion the green spaces of London — with a particular interest on the historic spaces”, says trustee Nathan Oley.

Kate Jenrick, head gardener of Middle Temple Gardens
Kate Jenrick, head gardener of Middle Temple Gardens © Leo Goddard for the FT

The list of more than 100 spaces open to the public extends well beyond the more renowned sites. From corporate rooftop gardens to community allotments, Oley says “it is about access” to all sorts of cultivated spaces, their differing forms and functions offering a range of inspiration and ideas.

The event really helps to “ground the experience” for gardeners, adds Oley. “Whether at workplaces or on council estates, shared gardens are very democratic and very special. There aren’t many other contexts in which people from all walks of life come together to care for something.”

At Middle Temple, which like the other Inns of Court is often used as a backdrop in films, horticulture must work with architecture without stealing the show. Therefore, Jenrick says, plants need “to be restful on the eye” and “not following a trend”.

In the main space just south of the mulberry trees guarding the temple’s fountain, a knot garden leads on to a shapely but inobtrusive bay tree, planted by the late Queen Mother. Long-flowering or perennial plants such as agastache, penstemons and scabious populate nearby beds. Jenrick enjoys a fair degree of autonomy from the Inn’s master of garden, but these meet the remit to “provide colour all year round”.

Middle Temple Gardens
Middle Temple Gardens © Leo Goddard

At Elm Court, salvia bushes on one side bask in a suntrap while taller shrubs on the other offer shade. Beyond Temple Church, a small styrax tree with its distinctive snowflake flowers is the focal point of the Inn’s newest feature, a stylish vegetable garden housed in four asymmetrical black metal beds.

The challenges Jenrick faces are those of many gardeners — plants struggling to adapt to changing weather patterns and root diseases such as honey fungus. But she realised long ago that she could not “improve it all at once”. Now 13 years into the role, Jenrick takes on one big project at a time. Back on the Inn’s western side, just beneath the chambers of Dickens’s protagonist Pip in Great Expectations, she is experimenting with a meadow, replanting achillea around a central Chinese dogwood tree.

In the novel, Pip used the boat he kept moored on the Thames to aid Magwitch’s bid to escape. But with so many gardens centrally located, visitors’ itineraries should be a lot more leisurely. We took a short walk across the river to the residence of the dean of Southwark, part of the short terrace of homes now sandwiched between the rebuilt Globe Theatre and Tate Modern.

Accessed by Cardinal Cap Alley, one of London’s narrowest streets (albeit one usually closed off to the public), the deanery’s rear garden is a fine transformation of what was formerly a working dockside yard. Tangles of bright shrubbery including camellia and philadelphus dominate, blocking out the brick walls behind. In such a secluded, even secretive corner, only the Tate’s towering chimney reminds visitors of the central London location.

The “Dog House”, a hut at the southern end allowing views across the garden, is the happy place of the dean, the Very Reverend Andrew Nunn. He has the impression that the “plants are enjoying themselves” too.

Choirs and recordings of bee sounds will add to its ambience during the event, but this cute hideaway’s value lies in showing what can be done in a tight, enclosed space — a challenge familiar to many gardeners. “People like to see what others are doing with small spaces.” says Nunn. Oley agrees: “The inspiration they get from small spaces helps them to think that their balcony or their little garden has potential.”

The Very Reverend Andrew Nunn, dean of Southwark.
The Very Reverend Andrew Nunn, dean of Southwark © Leo Goddard

The Deanery garden, 51 Bankside
The Deanery garden, 51 Bankside

Approach Gardens, in Bethnal Green, east London, provide a contrast to the private sanctuary of Nunn’s space. They serve as a true community hub, bringing together residents from the social housing blocks nearby. Established in 2010 on a patch of land once used mainly by dogwalkers and half the size of a football pitch, the community garden and allotment has about 40 raised beds — including ones for a primary school and day care centre. Members pay an annual fee of £25 and must grow some vegetables; the rest is up to them.

On the FT’s visit, there is a lovely buzz about the place as a steady flow of members tend to their beds, or simply choose a nice spot to have lunch. Here “hardly anybody owns a garden”, says Approach Gardens’ chair Margaret Wilson, so “the sheer joy of the place” is palpable.

Approach Gardens, Bethnal Green
Approach Gardens, Bethnal Green © Leo Goddard

The good vibes rest on the easy interaction the space allows for members. “Without this space how would we all know each other?” asks Wilson. She adds that it was “a lifesaver for mums and kids during lockdown” even with the restrictions on attendance.

Approach is much more than just a “lovely haven”, says Oley, who secured Lottery funds to refresh the space. “With rising food prices, people are thinking, ‘Are there things that I can grow?’ We’re conscious of that very practical benefit.”

Indeed, among the artichokes, onions and tomatoes, some Bengali residents grow kodu (bottle gourds) on vines, allowing them to make a saving on import prices for a fruit used in curries. The garden is enclosed by a fence but, surrounded by busy hedgerows, a wildlife meadow and bee-friendly echiums, the boundary feels welcoming rather than restrictive, a zone for children to explore.

Margaret Wilson, chair of Approach Gardens
Margaret Wilson, chair of Approach Gardens © Leo Goddard

 foxgloves in Approach Gardens
Foxgloves in Approach Gardens

Green spaces’ role goes beyond the mental and physical health benefits that have been readily acknowledged since lockdown. As well as being habitats for wildlife and absorbers of carbon dioxide, Oley says “natural” cladding like ivy on walls can act as heat insulators.

In her 1835 poem “Middle Temple Gardens”, Letitia Elizabeth Landon, an early influence on Tennyson and Poe, described the Inn’s green spaces as “still and lone ’mid the tumult” of a bustling London. It’s that notion of a garden as a timeless oasis amid an ever-changing city that informs Gardens Trust’s campaigning role.

Its current focus is on Westminster’s Victoria Tower Gardens, where the government wants to build a Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre. In April, the trust secured a High Court ruling that quashed planning permission for the site — a decision that ministers are seeking to overturn. Although supportive of the need for such a fitting memorial, the trust opposes the choice of location. Parks should not be seen as “a blank sheet for development”, says Oley.

With this weekend’s event the trust’s key means of protecting such spaces, both in terms of the ticket sales’ funding of campaigns and increased awareness, he hopes visitors will continue to find “real joy” in the open gardens on show.

Five must-see spaces

Garden lovers can visit a range of sites, many of which are not usually open to the public, Here are the FT’s picks.

Nomura Roof Garden
Stunning and diverse riverside space on the Japanese bank’s sixth floor.

Cable Street Community Gardens
Well-used organic garden created on derelict land in historic east London area.

Eccleston Square
Mexican dahlias and Guatemalan white sunflowers feature in 18th-century Pimlico gardens designed by Thomas Cubitt.

Ismaili Centre Roof Garden
Granite and greenery combine in this South Kensington space celebrating Islamic architecture.

Barbican Wildlife Garden
Discover meadows, orchards and bird hides among the Brutalist residential and cultural complex.

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