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Guardian | frothy but thriving

August 6, 2012

This article was originally written for the Guardian

Ruth Yeo is so excited she could explode.  Months of hard work mean a makeover of Battersea Park’s Old English Garden is complete.  Built in the early 1900s and tucked away behind high brick walls, the garden had fallen into disrepair.  But ideas from a bright young thing designer, combined with the skills of some talented trainee gardeners and a pot of cash from a London perfumery, mean the garden is looking lovely again.

Ruth works as a horticultural therapist for Thrive, a charity that uses gardening to support and empower people with disabilities.  They’ve had a base in Battersea Park for almost 30 years and took on the upkeep of the walled garden six years ago.  “It was run down and neglected – there were lots of plants in here but it had all got very overgrown” explains Ruth.  A lack of money meant the garden never really got back in its stride.

Fast forward a few years and things couldn’t be more different.  Sarah Price – who just won gold at Chelsea – has developed what she describes as a frothy and romantic planting scheme for the space.  A team of Thrive gardeners have been making her designs a reality since January.

For someone who’s just emerged from the heady excitement of making a temporary garden for a famous flower show, how does Sarah feel about working on something that has history – including 100 year old box hedges – and will be much more long lasting?

“Part of the charm is that we’re not planting for instant effect” says Sarah.  “The project has been a complete collaboration – we had a fantastic brief from the funders Jo Malone London to create a garden that references its rose garden history.  I did outline plant lists for each bed before Thrive decided how things should be positioned.  It’s been hard to lose control, but fantastic to see them rise to the challenge and put their own mark on it.”

The garden features lots of different types of salvias and long flowering valerian, plus various scented herbs.  Low growing thyme creeps out of the beds and onto the hard landscaping, playing with the architectural lines of the geometric space.

“The plants create textural swathes through the garden” explains Sarah. “Because there are so many beds, I’ve made sure that a couple of plants are dominant each season, so there’s a sense of visual continuity within the space.  Added to that frothy backdrop, we’ve planted special things like regal lilies, peonies and roses.  The roses may not be obvious yet, but next year the space will be frivolous with them.”

Despite being called the Old English Garden, the look isn’t all that traditional.  The overall effect is hazy and fluid, almost wild.  Lea, one of the Thrive gardeners, describes it as “like walking through a big bouquet.”  She remembers visiting the garden as a young girl and is pleased to be back as part of the gardening team.

“I started in January.  It was bare and patchy then but, with all the rain and sun over the last few weeks, everything has grown” says Lea.  “You get told where something needs to be and you visualise it from the plan.  To see it planted is an amazing thing.  We’re learning as we go – I want to learn as much as I can.”

The idea was to create something high maintenance – a fairly unusual brief for a designer.  It’s because the garden will be an ongoing teaching aid for Thrive’s ‘Working it out’ scheme, which focuses on helping to get people into employment.

“We’ll end up with a group who’ve worked with a gold medal winning designer, who have taken her designs and created a real garden that’s seen by a lot of people” says Ruth Yeo.  It’s her job to translate Sarah’s design into practical tasks each week for the Thrive team.

“Now we’ve got the hang of the design, we love it.  When we started it was scary.  It looks casual but it’s actually very managed.  It’ll be different every year and it’s different every season.  It’s a learning process for all of us.  As a horticultural therapist, I ensure that each day includes something of benefit to everyone, as well as the gardening.”

Such a high profile and professional project shows that the Thrive team take themselves seriously.  “We’ve upped our game enormously in the last few years” says Ruth.  “We insist on high standards from our gardeners and we get them.  One of the big things that we’ve learned is that everyone can do a very good job.  People deserve us to expect that of them.”

The other key thing about this garden is that it’s free and open all year round.  Throughout the renovation, members of the public have wandered through and kept a check on its progress.  For Sarah Price, the community nature of the project is significant.  “It’s really important that the public see people gardening” she says.  “Part of the gardener’s role is to answer questions and encourage interaction.”

Get the look – Sarah Price’s advice

  • Select a couple of long flowering plants and use these to create visual links across your garden and a continuous wave of colour.
  • Plant white Centranthus ruber Alba with the deep purple spires of Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ and the shocking magenta of Geranium psilostemon.  They’ll bloom all summer if you dead-head them.
  • Combine old fashioned roses with ornamental grasses. The tall misty plumes of Molinia ‘Transparent’ will add height and structure, while the arching, fluffy flower heads of Calamagrostis brachytricha will contrast beautifully with the velvet flowers of Rosa ‘Cardinal de Richelieu’ or Rosa ‘Charles de Mills’.

Variety is good for wildlife as well as good looking. The flat open umbels of Cenolophium denudatum look great combined with the spires of perennial foxglove Digitalis lutea.

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