City Planters: West Ham Park Nursery
by Abigail Willis
The merry month of May is a busy one for nurserymen and Paul Harwood is no exception. As the supervisor of West Ham Park Nursery, Paul is responsible for producing the bedding plants used in the gardens and parks run by the City of London Corporation (which manages 11,000 acres of open space in and beyond the Square Mile) and several Royal Parks – and the end of May is when his clients come knocking for their deliveries of summer bedding. And it doesn’t stop there – no sooner have the summer plants left the nursery, than the young spring bedding plants arrive to take their place.
Tucked away in the north-east corner of West Ham Park (itself run by the City of London Corporation), the nursery is a remarkable operation. It’s a self-funding enterprise, run as a separate charity from the City of London, and its 8 glasshouses and 1 poly-tunnel annually nurture over 350 plant varieties and 150 cultivars, for summer and spring bedding respectively. And just to keep everyone on their toes, it’s a selection that is never the same from year to year since the park managers who plan the bedding schemes don’t like to repeat themselves.
As Paul shows me around I get a sneak preview of the treasures that lie in store this summer for visitors to City gardens such as Postman’s Park, Christchurch Greyfriars and Cleary Gardens, and Greenwich, Bushy and Richmond Royal Parks. The Royal Parks are recent clients of the nursery and Paul is enjoying their unusual bedding choices – he points out serried ranks of plants such as Agastache, Alstroemeria and Hibiscus ‘Mahogany Splendour’ as well as cottage garden favourites Moluccella laevis and humble nasturtiums, none of which has he grown at the nursery before. Dahlias are also going to be a big presence this year and Paul is growing about 20 varieties, from cuttings sourced from the Dahlia Society. Although yet to be hardened off, these are doing so well that some are already in flower – not a problem Paul assures me – as long as they are deadheaded they will keep going all summer long.
Plants destined for the City gardens reflect some of the challenging growing conditions of the Square Mile. The City environment is generally dry and planting depth scant, and it can be difficult to get water to sites such as the Barbican, so drought-resistant plants such as Guara and Cordyline are popular, along with grey-leaved plants such as Leucophyllum Brownii, Cineraria ‘Silver Dust’ and Plectranthus ‘Silver Shield’. “These are especially good for tubs and containers – they help cover the ground and keep the moisture in,” notes Paul. Another good ‘city’ plant – and a particular favourite of Paul’s – is Lantana and this year ‘Lucky Red Flame’ will feature in the City gardens as well as Golders Hill Park.
A plantsman’s paradise, the nursery offers fascinating insights into planting trends and ideas for urban gardeners. There’s Heliotrope (3,000 of them!) whose scented blue flowers will be gracing the City this summer, Verbena Bonariensis (another good city plant, whose drought- tolerance and airy qualities are appreciated by park managers), and Petunia ‘Black Velvet’ whose tactile, inky flowers live up to their name and would look sensational paired with silver foliage plants. Eye-catching ‘dot’ plants include Millet ‘Purple Majesty’ as well as more traditional bedding choices such as Lobelia ‘Queen Victoria’ and Canna ‘Canary Yellow’ and ‘Durban’. Geraniums are also present in quantity, but not, Paul reports, in the same numbers as in earlier years, having been overtaken by Osteospermums (which Paul prefers as they offer greater colour range – such as the stunning pink and orange hues of ‘Serenity Bronze’).
As we tour the greenhouses, it’s hard to believe it when Paul tells me that “10 weeks ago these were empty”, such is the sheer abundance of plants now on display. Plants are grown on from plugs, and their tangible vigour is an endorsement of the nursery’s environmentally- friendly approach. Peat-free compost is used throughout, a bought-in mix of pine bark and wood chip customised with lime and Osmocote. It’s a green choice that – container gardeners take note – requires 50% less water than peat. Incredibly, the West Ham greenhouses are only watered once a week – a saving on resources both planetary and human, and the water itself comes from the nursery’s own borehole. Even the computer-controlled, gas-fired boiler is ultra-efficient, ensuring the glasshouses have exactly the right levels of heat, light and ventilation.
With 1 acre under glass, Paul deploys biological controls such as Encarsia formosa, Cryptolaemus and Spidex on a weekly rolling basis from weeks 8/9 to keep the usual greenhouse bugs at bay. Paul finds them highly effective, observing, “it’s better for the plants and better for the people who look after them, and cheaper too, since we would have to pay for chemical controls to be disposed of”. As far as mammalian pests are concerned, mice and fox containment comes courtesy of a free-range stray tabby cat (known simply as ‘the cat’) who has made the nursery her own. And making a virtue out of hygienic necessity, plastic pots are returned to source after use to be recycled back into pots for reuse the following season.
With 250,000 plants passing through the nursery every year, this is an operation run with mathematical precision by a small team (just one other full time gardener, plus seasonal contract staff and a student). “For me”, says Paul, “the biggest challenge is timing, getting plants stopped-out and ready to the right spec, on the right day”. Park managers send their summer bedding lists into him by November, while spring lists have a longer lead time, and need to be with him the previous March. There is no margin for error but Paul is a safe pair of hands – he has been at the nursery for 31 years and is a past master of the spreadsheet – every cultivar in his care is listed on an enormous print out, as is the weekly programme of biological controls.
Plants on display
A horticulturalist, Paul is also a trained florist and his flower-arranging skills are put to good use by the City of London Corporation, who commission him to create the sumptuous floral displays that grace official banquets and state visits to the Guildhall and Mansion House. It’s a part of his job that he loves, not just for the creativity involved but also for the pleasure that it gives other people – “the scent of flowers filling the air is something else!” Proud moments include doing the flowers for Nelson Mandela’s visit to the Guildhall as well as visits by the Queen (“she loves scented roses”, Paul reveals, showing me a photograph of Her Majesty beside a bouquet of fragrant roses). Flowers are bought for such displays but the exotic palms and ferns which provide the background foliage are supplied by the nursery, and housed in a dedicated greenhouse.
Every July, Paul tours London visiting ‘his’ plants after they have left the nursery and seeing them in situ. Raised to the highest standards, his plants play a vital role in the City’s regular golden successes in London in Bloom and Britain in Bloom competitions. Indeed the City gardens are such horticultural powerhouses that this year they have been put forward to Britain in Bloom’s prestigious ‘Champion of Champions’ category.
West Ham Nursery is open on 14 June as part of Open Garden Squares weekend (www.opensquares.org) and tours of the nursery are also available by appointment for groups. For those unable to visit in person, the nursery’s online plant catalogue (see webpage below) is a great resource for urban gardeners, packed with inspirational plant varieties to copy – after all, if these are the plants that London’s top park managers are growing, chances are they’re definitely ones worth trying at home …
West Ham Park Nursery
West Ham Park
Main Gate, Upton Lane
Abigail Willis is the author of The London Garden Book A-Z (which includes an entry on the City of London gardens). Available from all good bookshops and online from www.metropublications.com