I first came to the moorings where I lived for a few years to look after the unique gardens that were there. The series of seven 23m floating barge gardens at Downings Road Moorings in London, SE1, were devised by architect and moorings owner, Nick Lacey. The gardens have community value as the beautiful living walkways that link the various barges on the moorings together. Horticulturally they are fascinating as living (and floating) roofs, which demonstrate that it is possible to grow a mature garden in relatively little soil (not more than 30cm). They are also valuable to nature by providing habitat for a range of wildlife including marine and land based birds, pollinators and other insects and invertebrates.
Collectively the gardens contribute to the unique personality of the moorings. They are much valued by the residents as well as by the wider public who have the opportunity to visit the gardens several times a year during open garden days. Walking through a mature garden in the middle of the Thames is a remarkable experience, which inspires people time and time again to see the world through new eyes.
As well as nectar producing flowers and sheltering shrubs and trees the gardens are managed organically to have as much interest for wildlife as possible. Bird species spotted in the last year include a pair of blackbirds, a group of chattering goldfinch, robins, wagtails, coal tits as well as nesting geese, ducks and moorhens. Other wildlife includes a variety of butterflies, bees, ladybirds and other insects. Some spots are left to grow wild and there are other devices to encourage wildlife such as small piles of logs and branches for insects and clumps of nettles for butterflies to lay their eggs.
No chemicals are used in the gardens at all and weeds are either tolerated if they are not invasive, or hand picked or hoed out if they are. Caterpillars and insect pests are also tolerated, within reason, to attract natural predators or else are given a blast with washing up liquid or squeezed out if they become too invasive – which is rare. The gardens are fed with home made nettle fertilizer, farmyard and chicken manure, powdered seaweed and seaweed drenches. Organic peat free horse manure mulch is laid down each year to retain moisture, suppress weeds and nourish the soil.
The plants on the barges display year round seasonal interest with a variety of blossom, berries, flowers, evergreen foliage, colourful stems and attractive seed heads. There are several well established trees including native birch, false acacia, a winter flowering cherry and a weeping ash, which show how well larger species can grow in a limited soil depth albeit with some growth restriction. All barges feature some degree of Vinca major and minor and ivy groundcover, as well as repeat plants for visual continuity such as choisya, hebe and nepata. Self sown annuals such as poppies, marigolds and nasturtiums are very much encouraged to add to the naturalistic effect.
I managed the gardens for a year while I was finishing my Landscape Architecture Masters degree and before joining London Wildlife Trust full time. The basic planting structure was already well in place but I tidied and moved plants around a little and planted up one new barge, which was called Sabu. It was hard but rewarding work, which gave me a lot of satisfaction and taught me a great deal about plants, community gardens and being the boss of a reasonably big garden. I still visit the gardens frequently when visiting my bargee friends. I am very attached to them as I see echoes of the work I have done as well as their change with the seasons and evolution under new gardener management.
In responding and developing the gardens I especially continued to learn about trying to create a sense of naturalistic planting where plants grow in and around and through each other throughout the seasons with a range of texture, colour, form and, of course, value to wildlife. It is a technique that requires a certain amount of management to create the right balance as well as being tolerant and ruthless with plants in equal measure. It is something I am still ever mindful about when developing planting schemes.
My time managing the garden barges also enhanced my knowledge and fascination for plants by continuing to surprise me how varied and tenacious and beautiful plants and their multiple combinations can be.
I am still not entirely sure who managed who. On a good day I suppose that I think I managed the gardens with quite the iron fist; enhancing textures and combinations, tweaking and pruning to suit, creating spaces and encouraging development. On other days? Truthfully? The gardens may have taken a different form but they probably would have done just fine without me and perhaps I had more to gain from our time together than they did.