On a clear and frosty morning in mid-January, I walk into a mews in one of London’s most glamorous neighbourhoods. Minutes earlier I had come through the busy noise of traffic around Harrods. Now I am in what feels like a pretty village street where seemingly little has changed for hundreds of years.
David and Caroline greet me and immediately begin to tell me stories: the stories of their plants. We are standing in the cobbled cul-de-sac outside their front door. It’s bitterly cold, but also gloriously sunny, a picture-perfect winter’s day. A row of planters fills the narrow strip between the house and a yellow line. This is as far as the council allows residents to put plants into the street, apparently they even encourage it. First my attention is directed to a hawthorn tree. It looks healthy and very large for its terracotta pot. About three decades ago David dug it up from a friend’s garden. The friend had passed away shortly beforehand and house and garden were about to be sold. Since then the potted tree has moved with David and Caroline from property to property. I get the sense that they would never part with it.
Caroline almost apologises that they have so few flowering plants at the moment. Well, it is the middle of January. There is something wonderful though: a little self-seeded plant. She points to the ground and then I see it, a tiny red cyclamen that somehow manages to grow in-between the cobbles, perfectly healthy and protected by the planters around it.
In the pot to the right of the little cyclamen is an oak. Its story is similar to that of the hawthorn. Here the connection is not a person but a place. David collected the sapling in Epping Forest about forty years ago. “Do you know what this is,” asks David and points at a small, wooden sphere that is attached to one of the thin branches. It looks nothing like an acorn, so no, I have no idea. David explains it is an oak gall, the now empty housing of a gall wasp (Cynips quercusfolii). The insect inserts a chemical into the wood which reprograms the tree to grow the ideal shelter for its offspring. For almost 1500 years, until the early 20th century, galls were collected and used to make writing ink.
While I follow David and Caroline inside and up the stairs I keep wondering why I have never heard of galls. But then my attention is needed elsewhere. I am shown a beautiful, plant-filled rooftop terrace. About 10 years ago the house was rebuilt to David’s design. Mews houses were originally built as stables with the coachmen’s living quarters above. Today these properties are very popular because of their central London location. However, their small footprint makes it necessary to carefully consider the use of each square foot. This terrace occupies almost half the top floor and runs along the full width of the house. If architectural evidence of David and Caroline’s love of plants were needed, this terrace would be it (along with all the balconies one floor below, but we’ll get there later).
There is a comfortable bench on either side of the door to the terrace. Beyond, at the far ends of this narrow space, are plants in pots, lots of them. More planters are placed all along the front railing. I immediately notice three rectangular alpine troughs. David explains they are the newest addition to the rooftop. He points out their salt-glazing, a very old technique. Details like this matter to David. Two of the troughs are filled with classic alpines, the third one has a more adventurous planting: small olive trees stand above lots of spring bulbs.
At such close proximity even the tiniest plant detail can be appreciated. I feel very close to plants here. Caroline agrees and guides my view to the left. A rosemary bush has the first tiny buds. She predicts it will be covered in bees soon. I am amazed it is about to flower, in the middle of winter. This terrace strikes me as very exposed to the cold. It faces south east, so particularly at this time of year it doesn’t get a lot of sun. But my assumption seems to be wrong; this is no frost pocket. In a planter on the other side of the terrace Caroline shows me the fresh growth of a sweet pea. Then I see a nasturtium in the next pot. It even has a flower. Maybe the location of this terrace right in the middle of London influences its climate more than I thought.
By now we have been outside for over an hour and I gladly accept the invitation to come downstairs into the warm lounge for a cup of tea. The room has five balconies along the front of the house – each full of plants, of course. There are still fuchsias in bloom on one of them. On another balcony, in a large planter, hidden in-between out-of-season perennials there is the most amazing little Algerian iris (Iris unguicularis) in bloom.
Before I sit down for tea I notice the elongated green cone of an Irish yew (Taxus baccata ‘fastigiata’) on a balcony. Another tree. Trees strike me as an odd choice for a small space. Yet David and Caroline grow so many; on the pavement, the terrace, the balconies, there are trees everywhere here. But then I forget to ask them why. Instead we talk about the practicalities of gardening. Caroline says it is mostly David who gets his fingers into the soil. Yet it is clear that Caroline is just as excited. Their small outdoor space does not limit their passion for plants. On the contrary, it seems to fuel their endless curiosity and patient observation of every detail of every plant.
I look forward to returning in a few months’ time to see how David and Caroline’s garden changes through the seasons. And then I shall ask them about their trees.