Let’s get physical!
The Chelsea Physic Garden is a modern marvel, and an inspiration for gardeners great and small
A secret garden, drenched in both scholarship and tranquillity, the Chelsea Physic Garden, London’s oldest botanic garden, occupies four beautifully tended acres leading down to the River Thames. The garden was founded by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries in 1673 for its apprentices to grow medicinal plants and study their uses.
The site appealed for its southerly aspect and free-draining soil, and a microclimate tailor-made for the cultivation of tender species. The river at the bottom of the garden provided a home for the painted barge used for royal pageants and for expeditions to collect plants.
As you step into this magical garden, whose exterior walls reveal no clue as to the glories within, narrow rectilinear beds, part of the original design, reveal that this is a place for study as well as sheer enjoyment. And everywhere there are trees, more than 100 different types, many rare in Britain – pomegranates, an outdoor grapefruit tree, a venerable yew and a magnificent Indian Bean Tree.
Next to the Grade II* listed rock garden is a statue of Chelsea Physic Garden’s greatest benefactor, Sir Hans Sloane. He acquired the freehold of the Garden in 1716 and granted the Apothecaries a lease on the land for a rent of £5 a year in perpetuity, on condition ‘it be for ever kept up and maintained as a physic garden’; this covenant is still in place. In 1983, a new charity was set up to manage the garden and for the first time in 300 years, it opened to the public.
Mindful of their remit, the Trustees, with the energetic involvement of Nick Bailey, who took over as Head Gardener in 2010, are embarking on a gentle renewal of the garden, enhancing its original purpose.
The Garden of Edible and Useful Plants is the first fruit of this, a new half-acre garden displaying the extraordinary range of plant species on which the human population depends. It is handsome to look at: raised beds connected by handmade brick paths, each bed copiously interpreted, and with lots of places to sit.
Two long beds in the shadiest part of the garden demonstrate the increasingly popular forest garden system, based on the layers in a natural forest, with a canopy of mature fruit trees at the top, small nut and fruit trees on dwarfing rootstocks, shrub, herbaceous and ground cover layers, a rhizosphere of plants grown for their roots and tubers, and a vertical layer of vines and climbers.
Forest gardens are biologically sustainable, able to cope with climate change, be productive and low maintenance. The principle can be applied to private gardens, open spaces and industrial wasteland. Here, the forest garden plants include damsons and ornamental quinces, apples, Amelanchier lamarckii, the elegant June berry, Japanese wineberry, the decorative Claytonia sibirica (pink purslane), wild chicory – a mass of piercing blue flowers – and many more.
Then there are the beds of unusual vegetables and fruit, the circular vitamin beds, edible oils and the alcohol bed, which includes juniper for flavouring gin, and ground ivy, used for clarifying beer before hops were introduced. Among the useful plants, bamboo is pre-eminent – for flooring, fabrics and, in Asia as scaffolding, pipe work and guttering. Another winner is burdock, whose prickly seedheads latch on to fur and clothing, and inspired the Swiss designer of Velcro.
There is a perfumery, a vineyard, and plants for making paper, rope and ink. The common sunflower (Helianthus annuus), features for its role in decontaminating soils after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and recently at Fukushima in Japan.
Delicious food is on offer in the Tangerine Dream Café and there are plants for sale and a delightful shop.
Chelsea Physic Garden, 66 Royal Hospital Road, London SW3. Open until 31 October, Tuesday to Friday 12 noon to 5pm. Sundays and bank holidays, from 12 noon to 6pm: 020-7349 6458, www.chelseaphysicgarden.co.uk
Jobs to do this week
Keep pinching out the side shoots on cordon tomatoes and remove leaves up to the second truss. This allows light to reach ripening fruit and, according to some, helps ward off disease.
Keep sowing oriental salad leaves – mizuna, mustards and tatsoi. You will have a cut-and-come-again crop in just a few weeks.
You may have lost the habit after all that rain, but in warm, dry spells, keep containers and new plants watered, preferably from the water butt or with grey water from kitchen or bathroom.
Collect seed from favourite herbaceous plants to sow next year.
Deadhead flowering plants regularly to prolong the season – time-consuming, but it makes a difference.
Plant of the week
‘Pink Tanna’ is the height of fashion, popular in prairie planting and to add vertical interest in a herbaceous bed. Dark-pink flowers like small bottle brushes, with paler stamens, appear in profusion from June to September. H: 90cm, spread, 50cm. £5.99 for a 9cm pot; three for £15: www.rhsplants.co.uk
Daily tip from the lady archive
"BE careful with your mouth make-up. By careless work you may obliterate well-cut lines, and you will always achieve a badly groomed look if your lipstick is smudged and badly applied."The Lady, Make-Up for Mouths, 8th January, 1942