Open Garden Squares Weekend 2006

Sights and Scents

CATHERINE MILLER visits a pot-pourri of communal gardens during Loire Valley Wines Open Garden Squares Weekend 2006

What could be more pleasant than to taste wines while enjoying some of London's beautiful gardens? Thanks to Loire Valley Wines, this was the opportunity on offer at this year's event.

(Click on a garden name for further information.)

Canonbury Square Loire Valley Wines' sponsorship included refurbishment of part of Canonbury Square, and this is where I started the weekend, on a baking hot day. Vines have been laid out as an unusual feature in the middle of this square, and new herbaceous planting is establishing nicely. Low walls double up as seating, creating a very pleasant city space.
Culpeper Community Garden Culpeper Community Garden was looking beautiful and the air was filled with the scent of roses. It looked as if every flowering plant in the garden was in bloom, including yellow flag irises in the pond. This garden has 46 tiny allotment plots for local people, and grassed areas for community events, or just for the local office workers to eat their sandwiches. On my visit a cabbie was showing the garden to his family - he was returning to investigate, having recently spotted the garden, and told me he had lived in the area for a dozen years without knowing it was there.
Camley Street Natural Park Camley Street Natural Park has managed to coexist with the largest engineering project, and the biggest building site in the capital. The huge new St Pancras terminal is a few yards away, yet sitting with a view of the large pond, with its dragonflies, bogbean, and lazy sunbathing terrapins, I felt instantly relaxed. The Regent's Canal is on the other side of the site, doubling the calming effect of water and green space. There is good information detailing plants currently in flower, and an exhibition of creatures to be found in the pond.
The Academy Garden The back garden of  the Academy hotel in Gower Street provided welcome shade on this hot day. There was a large-leaved vitis coignetiae over the entrance, and I met several enthusiastic veterans of the Open Gardens scheme, busy tasting the wines in one corner.
The Phoenix Garden  I could not resist popping into The Phoenix Garden, which has come on in leaps and bounds since I visited a couple of years ago. In mid-morning the garden was filling with visitors. There were big bananas, cardoons and thistles in an exotic bed, and everywhere little corners of imaginative planting. I was too polite to mention to Chris Rayburn, the gardener, that there had been a bit of a pong as I passed one flowerbed, but he mischievously pointed out the 11 'specially fragrant" dragon lilies, which I discovered to be the source of the smell.
The Natural History Museum Wildlife Garden At the Natural History Museum Wildlife garden fair, so busy last year, there was an eerie sense of emptiness. (Of course - it was England's first World Cup match!) This was a good opportunity to look at the other stands. There was the London Natural History Society, where you could get a map of London's surface geology for 1; Ethnomedica, recording herbal remedy use in the UK; and the all-important tea and cakes stand.
Lexham Gardens There was time to look in on a party at Lexham Gardens. Leaving the busy Cromwell Road, I followed the sound of jazz through an area with a pleasant neighbourhood feel to a smallish square, long and narrow, including several different spaces linked by arches, giving the sense of a much larger garden. Big planes and ailanthus shaded the site, and sitting in the circular rose garden I could hear robins feeding their young in the hedge behind me. In another part of the garden was a delphinium border, and a pond with formal planting of darmera and osmunda, slug-free hostas, and ligularia, complete with an unusual slumbering hippo sculpture. There was an air of celebration with plenty of children and families enjoying the summer heat.
Red Cross Garden On Sunday I paid a visit to the Red Cross Garden, recently opened by HRH the Princess Royal after a careful refurbishment. This garden is situated in an area of dense local authority housing, but has retained the character of its origins in Victorian philanthropy. Octavia Hill, one of the founders of the National Trust, wanted a space to "bring nature and colour to the lives of the working poor". This is reflected in the planting which is positively un-municipal - when was the last time you saw flax and poppies in a public park? The recent refurbishment has recreated the pond and planting to provide a garden for local people. As there were many visitors by mid-morning, this approach appeared to be successful. This is one of several sites run by Bankside Open Spaces Trust, which sets out to involve local people in their parks.
Merrick Square Finally, a short walk from the Red Cross Garden was Merrick Square, where there was a summer event and enticing smells from many interesting stalls including a proper Italian food stall, and a gardening group from St Mungo's called Putting Down Roots. There is a central box-edged bed, with grasses and Mexican daisies softening the formal edge. Traffic patterns have recently changed, leaving peace and quiet in the square. The residents' association of this square is obviously very committed, and you get the feeling it would be a good place to live.

As usual, I felt I had enjoyed an interesting weekend, finding out more about our great capital city and its precious green spaces, and unearthing an abundance of ideas for new gardens to explore. But was the wine any good? Well, Touraine 2004 was a classic sauvignon blanc with typical pronounced gooseberry character, and the Domaine de la Palaine Rouge Barrique Saumur 2000 had a very good bouquet, with rich and savoury character. Judging from these two, I will definitely be looking out for wines from this part of France.