On moving into Mackintosh House in August 2013, Marylebone Library staff discovered a raised earth bank behind the building. Rampant ivy and buddleia had been strimmed back, leaving bare earth which is surrounded by high walls and overhung by an overgrown privet bush. Fittingly, as the library stands on the site of the 17th-18th century Marylebone Pleasure Gardens, staff decided that rather than leaving it bare we would create a garden.
A collection of potted houseplants, transferred from the previous library, were lined up on top of the front retaining wall. Behind them, happily rooting around in the soil, two pig statues mysteriously appeared overnight. Around them the blank canvas awaited plants…
It has been quite a challenge to create a garden on this site due to its situation at the bottom of a ‘well’ which receives little direct sunlight and sports ‘unfriendly’ soil conditions. A clue to what we were facing was the rather fine carpet of moss covering a heavy clay soil more suitable for brick making than supporting plants! In addition, after attacking this ground with a trowel it became very apparent that the bed was riddled with roots. All in all there was the temptation to put the entire garden to a spreading ground cover thug such ivy.
Undeterred by these conditions, over the last two years various plants have been added and some even thrived.
Sources include staff donations and purchases from a pound shop: don’t scoff! We had a welcome early splash of colour from a large bag of crocus bulbs which competed with grape hyacinths followed by Narcissus Golden Dawn all obtained from the same shop. One introduced plant which thrives in this heavy soil is Primrose.
The bluebells in front of the Narcissus predate our arrival and so they were a pleasant flowering surprise in the following spring.
It should be said that this is a very haphazard type of gardening with no real design element or planned planting. Any donated plants are introduced and left to sink or swim in these challenging environmental conditions.
I am also in the fortunate position of running a plant stall for a local gardening club and a number of unsold plants have come from this source, including the tough-as-old-boots orange flowing Crocosmia. This plant is rather shy in flowering, I suspect due to the lack of sunlight, but the plant does its job in covering a sizable area in green leaf. It is noticeable that due to the situation a number of plants do grow tall and spindly as a reaction to the relatively low light conditions.
Amongst the crocosmia, to contrast with that plant’s narrow leaves, I have planted male ferns. These take an age to burst into leaf so I am always convinced that they have given up competing with the heavy soil conditions.
In fact this plot is rather “top heavy” with narrow strap-like leaved plants which include a military line of garlic which for some reason was not harvested last autumn. Optimistically I hope they will produce some flowers.
I have also planted three Acanthus mollis plants from side roots hacked off from a parent plant.
From This… to This?
In addition to my library colleagues, other wildlife has been spotted in the garden. A regular visitor is a solitary pigeon attracted no doubt by left out bird food. It also makes use of a recently added birdbath. Other regular visitors are female and male blackbirds searching the ground for worms. On two occasions a small flock of great tits descended upon the buddleia searching for insects. In the summer the large privet bush is covered in white flowers. This attracts a number of bees; presumably from a nearby hive situated on some one’s rooftop garden. All these creatures have found their own way over the surrounding buildings to the garden.
One invertebrate deliberately introduced are Tiger worms for a wormery, which was bought to cut down the amount of food waste (cooked food and raw leftovers such as banana skins) which would otherwise be added to unrecyclable rubbish.
A rather disgusting smelling by-product of this compost making is the liquid drained from the container. However, suitably diluted, this liquid ‘rocket fuel’ did give an excellent boost last year to some malingering tomato plant seedlings.
Finally for any frustrated local gardeners you are welcome to join in a community gardening project at the library. Just turn up at Marylebone Library on Wednesdays between 10.30am and 12.30pm to help grow a variety of vegetables and flowers in containers.