I, Phytophilous

This summer I spent much of my spare time in London visiting gardens and parks. I’ve lived in this city for almost two decades and I think it’s time to get to know the local flora in the area. 

My observation started at public places such as the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Walk rose garden in Hyde Park. Then I’d visit smaller, niche sites such as the Battersea Park Herb Garden, Chelsea Physic Garden and Kew Botanical Gardens. I live in the southwest London by the river Thames, so once in awhile when I do my riverside walk I’d try to observe the grass and weeds along the way. It’s like learning a new language.

Rose garden at Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Walk, Hyde Park. Photo © Zarina Holmes

Rose garden at Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Walk, Hyde Park. Photo © Zarina Holmes

In bloom. Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Walk, Hyde Park. Photo © Zarina Holmes

In bloom. Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Walk, Hyde Park. Photo © Zarina Holmes

Observing different types of medicinal plants at Chelsea Physic Garden. Photo © Zarina Holmes

Observing different types of medicinal plants at Chelsea Physic Garden. Photo © Zarina Holmes

I have a decent size balcony with plenty of east and south facing light, so I thought why not see what I could grow successfully within the urban environment. So last summer, I bought a tiny growhouse, a thermometer and bag of dirt – and my urban gardening experiment took off.

In the beginning, I was a disaster. I didn’t know which plants should stay indoor or outdoor, so I killed many before I got it right. Thanks to Google, my iPhone and friends on social media, I gradually learned how to recognise and care for plants. 

My nursery, where I try to rescue my unhappy plants all summer. Photo © Zarina Holmes

My nursery, where I try to rescue my unhappy plants all summer. Photo © Zarina Holmes

To my surprise, there are plenty of good plants you can grow in a small space in a city dwelling. If like me, you want to avoid the usual suspects such as begonias and petunias, you could find inspirations from the London parks itself. Certain type of roses, for example, can be grown in modest sized pots and left outdoor in a sunny spot. Spider lily ‘sweet kate’ are sensational looking perennials that give generous bouquet with minimal care. 

My biggest success are succulents and roses. Succulents are cute, available in myriad of jewel colours and super easy to care for. I propagated many pups from the two plants I bought last summer – one from a specialist garden centre, and another from Marks & Spencer.

Simple Peach (Harkness Roses) from my balcony garden. Photo © Zarina Holmes

Simple Peach (Harkness Roses) from my balcony garden. Photo © Zarina Holmes

Simple Peach (Harkness Roses) and Generous Gardener (David Austin Roses) cuttings from my garden. Photo © Zarina Holmes

Simple Peach (Harkness Roses) and Generous Gardener (David Austin Roses) cuttings from my garden. Photo © Zarina Holmes

I have a few trusted plants suppliers around London. For slightly exotic houseplants, I’d go to my local the WestSix Garden Centre at Ravenscourt Park. If I have work meetings in Shoreditch, I’d stop by The London Florists at Exit 1, Old Street tube station to check out new arrivals. 

Now I’m starting to look at wildflowers and medicinal plants. One of the best places to buy wildflower species are Kew Botanical Gardens. Wildflowers are fun, because they attract various type of bees. I go to Chelsea Physic Gardens to seek ideas for medicinal plants that are suitable for London’s climate.

Picked up my winter rose (rosa chinensis x odorata) from the Chelsea Physic Garden. Photo © Zarina Holmes

Picked up my winter rose (rosa chinensis x odorata) from the Chelsea Physic Garden. Photo © Zarina Holmes

My prized succulent, which I bought from the local Marks & Spencer, is now triple the original size. Photo © Zarina Holmes

My prized succulent, which I bought from the local Marks & Spencer, is now triple the original size. Photo © Zarina Holmes

My latest beauty, oenothera stricta (Evening Primrose) at West6 Garden Centre & Cafe, Ravenscourt Park. Photo © Zarina Holmes

My latest beauty, oenothera stricta (Evening Primrose) at West6 Garden Centre & Cafe, Ravenscourt Park. Photo © Zarina Holmes

You must think that I have plenty of time to devote to my urban gardening. I don’t, in fact my life is the opposite - hectic, crammed with work appointments and running my business. My plants help me to slow down and heal my soul. They remind me of the natural pace of life, which I wasn’t in sync with for a long time. 

One of my houseplants. Photo © Zarina Holmes

One of my houseplants. Photo © Zarina Holmes

Great places to visit for urban and newbie gardeners in London:

Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Walk (Royal Parks)

Chelsea Physic Garden

Battersea Park Herb Garden

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

West6 Garden Centre & Cafe

Words and photography by Zarina Holmes. All photography © Zarina Holmes

Borough Market is back

Yesterday I decided to have lunch at Borough Market. It was re-opened again for the first time after the Saturday evening attack last week. The place was packed and people were enjoying their lunch and drinks in the sun. Most of them were wearing office suits, which was an unfamiliar sight to me because I usually frequent Borough Market on Saturdays with my photography students.

The first place I headed to was the Black and Blue Restaurant at Stoney Street. The entrance was heaving with customers. The manager spotted me and spontaneously gave me a hug. “Are you okay?” I asked him. He smiled and told me that he is fine, although last week had been very stressful for him. Black and Blue was one of the places that sheltered Londoners during the night time attack. I’ve been frequenting Black and Blue for four years with my students after their photography session inside the market. The staff always gave us “our usual” space to sit, which is the long table near the main entrance.

I sat and ordered lunch; sea bass with baby potatoes, and a non-alcoholic apple juice. Delicious. I remembered many inspiring conversations about photography here. And students that were converted to shoot in manual mode for the first time. Before I left the manager offered me a complimentary drink. I laughed and declined politely. “I’ll tell everyone to come here. That this place is back to normal now.” He gave me another hug.

Then I decided to photograph around the market. There were other photographers too, which were either tourists with DSLRs or street photographers. They seemed to be careful not to intrude the traders too much. Not that anyone minded. Borough Market is popular with photographers. 

At one point I felt slightly overwhelmed with emotion, because everything looked so peaceful despite what had happened. I composed myself and continued, because a photographer has to be objective about the subject after all.

I ran into another photographer, Phil, who wanted to find a bakery worker who saved the punters and say thank you in Romanian. He was practising how to say “mulțumesc” using Google Translate. Londoners are wonderful like that.

I’m fortunate to be able to do a job I enjoy. Teaching photography at one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I feel solidarity with the weekend workers here, because I am one of them. I am proud to be a part of the small businesses that keep London ticking.

I ended my tour at Stoney Street again. I did what I normally do when my photography class ended, I stopped being a photographer and became a tourist. I went Chez Michele florist to buy a few little plants for my balcony in west London. I hope the plants will thrive and create a new happy memory of Borough Market.

Words and photography by Zarina Holmes. All photography © Zarina Holmes