Celebrating gardens we will start with the one well known to all of us – the Geffrye almshouses’ garden. In our front garden we have cultivated plants that adorned Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian city gardens. Gold-laced primrose (with golden centre, brick-red, mahogany purple to black little petals and with golden ‘lace’ stripe around the bloom), fast-spreading periwinkle, adorable sweet violet, black hellebore and French marigold were some of the plants grown in a Georgian garden.
Simple and tidy, small gardens of the period featured gravel paths and geometric beds with box edging. Evergreen shrubs like yew were convenient and often clipped in shapes, and kept distinct from one another. Plants were spaced regularly, with expanses of exposed earth between them. Bulbs and annuals, planted in neat groups between the perennials, were prized for their colourful, delicate or scented flowers. Potted plants, which could be moved around as desired, were popular. At this time gardener Thomas Fairchild studied plants close by the Geffrye almshouses and Captain James Cook contributed to importation of new species.
In 1714, when the first twelve Geffrye almshouses had been built, topsoil was brought in and the front garden was laid out with lawns and trees: 90 lime trees were planted at the front of the almshouses, by a Mr Longstaffe. They were to be: ‘… four foot high at the least and in girth or thickness about the bigness of Mr Longstaf[f]e’s leg in the small part thereof’. In the following years elder trees were added and the walks were laid in with gravel so the garden had a formal layout, with gravel paths, lawns and some beds, a typical combination for the time.
In the eighteenth century the narrow strip of ground behind the almshouses was used by many of the pensioners for growing vegetables, keeping livestock and drying laundry.
Canna, geranium Mrs Pollock and lobelia Crystal Palace can be seen in our planter filled in with plants grown in Victorian times, together with silver dust, native to the Mediterranean region. The Victorian era was famous for a gardening boom and ornamental gardens became very fashionable and were put on display. Their owners searched for a wide variety of colourful plants, and some were now being grown in greenhouses. For middle class women working in a garden became a form of expression and exercise and gave them great pleasure. New habits required a lot of hand watering and a major innovation in watering cans took place when an Englishman, John Haws, introduced a new design. While the previous design had only one large front to back handle, Haws’s design had a carrying handle on top and one more on the back of the can to allow a more even distribution of water. His design also called for a spout located at the bottom to allow for easier watering of plants on high shelves.
By the 1860s the Geffrye gardens had assumed a different guise, the scheme having progressed from a typical formal style during the eighteenth century to a softer one, with the added variety and colour of bedding plants and bulbs. At this time it was described as consisting of ‘pathways, shrubberies, four large grass plots, flower beds and herb garden’. In the autumn of 1885, 30 London plane trees, valued for their ability to withstand high levels of pollution and to thrive in city settings, were planted.
In the nineteenth century the Geffrye front gardens were used for recreational pursuits such as reading, sewing and group gatherings.
‘View of a garden in Bedford Park’ is a watercolour on paper by F. Hamilton Jackson, 1885. Watercolour captures artistic Victorian garden design. The curved borders are filled with blooms in a variety of species and colours. This style of planting was more naturalistic than the formal flowerbeds which were typical of the more mainstream taste at this time.
This home is in Bedford Park, a garden suburb established in west London in the late nineteenth century. Perched on the edge of the city, these new homes were built in the Queen Anne cottage style and many were sold to writers, designers and artists. The poet W. B. Yeats spent part of his childhood in this suburb from 1876 to 1880 and described the area as a ‘romantic experiment’.
Gardens and their flower beds were always an inexhaustible well of inspiration for artists, novelists and poets.
Servant: Have mercy upon your servant, my queen!
Queen: The assembly is over and my servants are all gone. Why do you come at this late hour?
Servant: When you have finished with the others, that is my time.
I come to ask what remains for your last servant to do.
Queen: What can you expect when it is too late?
Servant: Make me the gardener of your flower garden.
Queen: What folly is this?
Servant: I will give up my other work.
I throw my swords and lances down in the dust.
Do no send me to distant courts; do not bid me undertake new conquests. But make me the gardener of your flower garden.
Queen: What will your duties be?
Servant: The service of your idle days. I will keep fresh the grassy path where you walk in the morning, where your feet will be greeted with praise at every step by the flowers eager for death.
I will swing you in a swing among the branches of the saptaparna, where the early evening moon will struggle to kiss your skirt through the leaves.
I will replenish with scented oil the lamp that burns by your bedside, and decorate your footstool with sandal and saffron paste in wondrous designs.
Queen: What will you have for your reward?
Servant: To be allowed to hold your little fists like tender lotus-buds and slip flower chains over your wrists; to tinge the soles of your feet with the red juice of ashoka petals and kiss away the speck of dust that may chance to linger there.
Queen: Your prayers will be granted, my servant, you will be the gardener of my flower garden.
(Excerpt from ‘The Gardener’ by Rabindranath Tagore)
The rain to the wind said,
‘You push and I’ll pelt.’
They so smote the garden bed
That the flowers actually knelt,
And lay lodged–though not dead.
I know how the flowers felt.
(‘Lodged’ by Robert Frost)
What tambourines the silence of this room!…
The walls are in Andalusia…
There are sensual dances in the steady glare of the light…
All space stops short…
Stops, slips, unrolls…
And in the corner of the ceiling, much further away than it is,
White hands open secret windows
And there are bunches of violets falling
Because it is a Spring night outside
Above me with my eyes closed…
(Excerpt from ‘A Centenary Pessoa’ by Fernando Pessoa, edited by
Miss Jekyll (love-in-a-mist), rock rose Silver Pink, snowball bush, mallow, globe thistle and bellflowers inhabited Edwardian gardens. Gardens had informal planting designs with unstructured beds and well defined paths. The work of garden designer Gertrude Jekyll and architect Edwin Lutyens, and the influence of motifs of Arts and Crafts movement were essential. The interest was in British plants, local materials and traditional crafts skills. Pagodas, levels and stone terraces, formal ponds, box edge borders full of herbaceous and traditional cottage garden plants, with an artistic array of colours were all incorporated in Edwardian gardens. Pagodas could be covered with wisteria and plants, and were used to soften architectural structures.
At this time families began to spend more time outdoors enjoying picnics, afternoon teas, social events and playing with children, and gardens were designed to accommodate outdoor activities. Tea in the garden was a common activity and games such as croquet were played on the lawn. An increasing number of books meant access to information about new plants and garden design ideas.
But no matter of period, roses and herbs were always dear inhabitants of every garden, and gardens stay small oases of nature in the midst of a city, highly regarded for their looks and scents, and peacefulness that they bring. Our gardeners have created mini period gardens, which can be found on our front lawns.
‘As a writer, I find gardens essential to the creative process; as a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible.’- writes neurologist Oliver Sacks. ‘All of us have had the experience of wandering through a lush garden or a timeless desert, walking by a river or an ocean, or climbing a mountain and finding ourselves simultaneously calmed and reinvigorated, engaged in mind, refreshed in body and spirit. The importance of these physiological states on individual and community health is fundamental and wide-ranging. In forty years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical “therapy” to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.’
‘I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically. In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.’
‘Clearly, nature calls to something very deep in us. Biophilia, the love of nature and living things, is an essential part of the human condition. Hortophilia, the desire to interact with, manage, and tend nature, is also deeply instilled in us. The role that nature plays in health and healing becomes even more critical for people working long days in windowless offices, for those living in city neighborhoods without access to green spaces, for children in city schools, or for those in institutional settings such as nursing homes. The effects of nature’s qualities on health are not only spiritual and emotional but physical and neurological. I have no doubt that they reflect deep changes in the brain’s physiology, and perhaps even its structure.’
For the end, I am bringing you few photographs of our front garden. I have been volunteering at the Geffrye for past 14 months and my first days’ excitement hasn’t changed at all. What has been changing were seasons.
 Sacks, O. (2019). Why We Need Gardens. In Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf