Surrounded and protected by mature trees, the garden is a quiet retreat with little sound except birdsong and the central trickling fountain, set in an ornamental pond. It’s the best kind of perfumed pleasure garden London has ever seen, and it’s free.
Though this large garden — about 45m by 65m — has, in the main, been planted in the past four months, it is an old garden, The Old English Garden in Battersea Park, that was set out by the Chief Officer of London Parks, Lt Col John James Sexby, just under a century ago. With no money or much TLC it had succumbed to a surfeit of acanthus and bindweed, though the bones — brick pathways, pond, oak arbour and pergola, as well as generous box-edged beds — stayed sound.
Fresh life has been breathed into it from two unlikely partners: perfume house Jo Malone Limited, and Thrive, the charity that uses horticultural therapy to benefit disabled people. Jo Malone Limited was seeking an urban community garden to fund as the first part of an initiative to regenerate green spaces, and approached Thrive, which is based in Battersea Park.
It was agreed that the garden would be developed and maintained by a team of trainee gardeners under Thrive’s Working It Out programme, which would give them the opportunity to gain a vocational qualification and enter paid employment in the horticulture industry. So far, so brilliant. Did Thrive know of a garden designer who could make the dream reality? Enter Sarah Price, who donated to Thrive the plants in her Chelsea Flower Show garden four years ago, and has supported the charity ever since. It was the best choice.
Price, at 31 the co-designer of the Olympic Park’s 2012 Gardens, bagged a gold medal for her sublime garden at Chelsea Flower Show this May and is renowned for her feather-light touch that brings the magic of the countryside into the garden. Which is precisely what she — with the help of 30 Thrive dedicated gardeners as well as the Jo Malone team, who waded in to the pond and pulled out the duckweed — has done here.
The main flower beds, occasionally veiled with tall stems of Verbena bonariensis to add, says Price, an extra note of romance, are stuffed with cottage-garden perennials as well as lesser-used wild flowers such as white Centranthus ruber, double-layered with the taller, airy heads of white Valeriana officinalis. Smokey lilac poppies, the seed gathered from Thrive’s superb herb garden, a few steps away, form lazy drifts. The shadier beds on the outer fringes of the garden are planted with woodlanders such as bluebells, astrantia, aquilegias and primroses, to flower in spring. Right now, the shaded area beneath the pergola is a sea of perennial foxglove spires, Digitalis lutea, flanked by mock orange blossom.
The brief given to Price was to create a classic fragrant garden that would give stressed-out townies a space to sit and smell the roses — as well as many other perfumed plants. The creative director at Jo Malone gave Price her ingredients list for inspiration, hence the inclusion of lime basil, tarragon, violets, rhubarb — the heart note of Jo Malone’s English Pear and Freesia cologne — and a pomegranate tree, well-suited to the garden’s microclimate.
Philadelphus, mock orange blossom, stands in for Jo Malone’s celebrated Orange Blossom — and trumpet-flowered white regale lilies, considered to have the richest perfume of all lilies, pop up all over the place, giving the garden an Alice in Wonderland quality.
There is perfume at all levels, from trails of golden honeysuckle Lonicera Graham Thomas to 70 glorious old roses such as plum-coloured Munstead Wood, right down to the cushions of Corsican mint and lemon thyme that spill onto the old brick path.
Says Price: “It’s a balance of choosing plants for their scent, like the old English roses, the lilies, the lavenders, thymes, jasmine, honeysuckle, but also selecting plants that will flower all through the summer — Geranium Patricia, Centranthus, Salvia nemerosa — the long players, too.”
There are wonderful ideas here for Londoners: look for a mouthwatering sage, prune-coloured Salvia Schwellenburg (from crocus.co.uk); a better-behaved and more beautiful version of cow parsley, Cenolophium denudatum (from hortusloci.co.uk).
Price’s clever, contemporary take on an old English rose garden is to combine antique roses such as Charles de Mills with delicate ornamental grasses like Molinia Transparent and Calamagrostis brachytricha.
Next spring and summer, when the roses and climbers mature, the garden will be even better, even more beautiful — if that is possible.
Photographs by: Marianne Majerus