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The RCP Garden in lockdown

To help mark World Environment Day 2020, the RCP’s head gardener Jane Knowles has a story to tell for all those who have missed our garden and those who haven’t had their own to enjoy during lockdown. Nature, it seems, has flourished when so much else we hold dear has been lost.

Our Regent’s Park building has been closed for more than two months now and the garden open only to NHS workers, few of whom have had time to visit. It is rather like a fishbowl, overlooked on all sides by offices, and with people constantly passing through there is normally little sense of privacy while working here. The roar of traffic from the busy Marylebone Road is usually hard to ignore.

So, I have appreciated the unusual feeling of peace and the company of the blackbirds, especially when they are singing.

Back in March we would normally have had a team of three professional and four dedicated volunteer gardeners rushing to get ready for spring, but on the 23rd of that month I found myself alone, on reduced hours to minimise risk, with 2 tonnes of mulch sitting in the car park and 300 pea sticks (hazel coppice) still tied up in bundles for staking all the herbaceous plants in the garden. No seed had been sown, no plants potted on, and soon the pests as well as the plants were going to re-emerge.

As a dilemma this may not rank highly compared to the life or death scenarios faced by many people (and certainly many members of this College) but it was a difficult one for a gardener.

Pea sticks

A couple of weeks later the mulch was down and the pea stick staking done. What a relief. The garden was ready for spring, and also ready for lockdown. The ground was covered; moisture would be retained and weeds suppressed. The plants were supported and could do their growing without squashing their neighbours or collapsing. I sowed the seed that could be sown outdoors and postponed sowing the seed of more tender plants which require starting off under glass.

Tulips and Peony

In April, all the tulips and peonies started to flower and the garden burst into growth with the beautiful freshness of spring. The air was clear and clean and the birds began to sing. The RCP garden has in recent years had a healthy bird population with wrens, robins, tits and blackbirds all nesting and goldfinches and thrushes coming to feed here but this year has been exceptional. For the first time there are dunnocks in residence and a song thrush appears to be nesting. The birds have filled the garden in the absence of people and once or twice I have almost fallen over the blackbirds as they forage around my digging fork. They also love to take showers underneath the sprinklers and chattering groups of blue, great and long-tailed tits flit delightedly around the droplets.

Hatched egg of a thrush

The tits are also a great help with the aphids, which have been enjoying the warm weather as much as all the other insects. We would usually treat these pests on a regular basis (with an environmentally friendly product called SB Plant Invigorator) but I have had to prioritise tasks and this is one I have not had time for. If you are patient (and do not have to worry about visitors commenting on an infestation) you will usually find that the natural balance of pest and predator will assert itself in a healthy garden. Some of the roses have been covered in greenfly (aphids) but, looking closely, I am pleased to find that many of these pests have been parasitized by their natural enemy, a tiny native wasp, or are being munched by ladybird larvae. The rest provide food for the birds. 

Rosa mundi with aphids

The garden is usually very busy with staff, conference guests, tours and general visitors who congregate on the main lawn. Their absence has allowed me to conduct an experiment with the mowing regime. Prompted by an initiative called ‘No Mow May’ launched by conservation charity Plant Life, and further persuaded by the lack of rain and my own shortage of time, I have left some areas of the grass uncut. This enables it to withstand drought conditions better while also providing habitat for invertebrates and food for insects. For many years I have been developing a wild garden of native plants at the base of the Oriental Plane which grows in the middle of the lawn and these new patches of long grass offer yet more diverse habitats.

The hot dry weather has been challenging for a single-handed gardener as much precious time has been spent on the end of a hose - my happiest day this spring was the day after the one weekend of heavy rain – but, the warmth has been great for insects. I have rarely seen so many: enormous bumble bees, honey bees, mining bees and bee flies all tirelessly foraging in the heat alongside hover flies of all sizes.

Alchemilla [left], Rosa ‘Ispahan’ [right]

Despite the lack of rain, the plants are flourishing in the cleaner air. They will all be here to be enjoyed again by our staff and visitors, when the time is right.

Buff-tailed bumble bee foraging on Cistus ladanifer

Find out more about RCP's medicinal garden here.

Keep up to date with the garden on Instagram via @rcp_garden.

The RCP is working to support the environment and promote sustainability. Find out more here.