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.

"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."

 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