London mews’ olive grove oasis
by Abigail Willis
Once the epitome of 60’s cool, the London mews has lost none of its allure since the dashing days of Simon Templar and John Steed. Prestigious locations and picturesque architecture add to the cachet, as does the prosaic fact that mews houses often come with a garage, the holy grail of central London housing stock. What they don’t tend to have is gardens – a bit of a downer for the horticulturally-inclined resident.At Bathurst Mews, W2,Tony Heywood isn’t letting a little thing like that get in his way. Since 2000 he has gradually been ‘foresting’ his pretty mews with giant containerised olive trees, in the process transforming the entire street into not just a magical city oasis, but also into a more sociable, community-minded place to live.
Initially Tony and his partner Alison Condie started with the space outside their own house, populating it with a gnarly old olive, a pyracantha, a Japanese maple and a regularly changing assortment of interesting potted exotics, such as Cardiocrinum giganteum (giant Himalayan lily), Colocasia esculenta (Elephant Ear) and Equisetum. A Parthenocissus, planted some years earlier, had already powered its way over the nearby mews entrance arch, creating a lush green proscenium against which other plants, such as a scarlet-flowered bottle brush, could be placed to create a living picture.
Tony and Alison soon realized that lovely as it was to have a garden outside their home, it would be even more fantastic to be able to see gardens elsewhere along the mews. Luckily their fellow residents felt the same way and were already asking Tony to source olive trees for their houses. As the olive population grew, Tony hit on the idea of ‘zoning’ individual trees to create a woodland landscape, with a variety of containerized plants forming a colourful forest floor.
Olives make the ideal foundation plant for this urban forest, chosen by Tony for their sculptural qualities (“like giant bonsai”), evergreen habit, hardiness and readiness to live in containers. Indeed so happy are the olives in west London that they fruit, producing a small harvest that is painstakingly preserved in jars by Tony and Alison. The forest is necessarily containerised since the mews’ foundations are too shallow to tolerate direct planting, and plants must be easily portable to allow maintenance contractors access to buildings. Although Tony’s idea of ‘easily portable’ is probably not yours or mine – moving a mature olive tree requires advance planning and a crane or, when needs must, a car, a tow-rope and plenty of willing muscle. The equine residents of Bathurst Mews (www.hydeparkstables.com) haven’t yet been co-opted for olive-moving duties, but provide assistance in other ways, generating a handy local source of manure.
Fully grown olives are eye-wateringly expensive but as a professional gardener (more of which in a later post) Tony is able to get the olives at a trade discount from suppliers such as Villaggio Verde [http://villaggioverde.co.uk/]; nonetheless the trees represent an extremely generous personal contribution to the streetscape. Plant arrangements for the Mews are generally masterminded and maintained by Tony and Alison (no small task given that watering alone can take all evening in the summer) but residents are free to add their own personal touches.
Nasturtiums, alliums and lilies have proved successful companion plants, as have fragrant herbs such as lemon verbena and prostrate rosemary; tomatoes and strawberries however were just too tempting for the local foxes. A recent mass planting of 3,000 tulips (including fringed, parrot and Mendel varieties) was a big hit, resulting in what Tony calls ‘an insane blaze’ of colour and crowds of camera-toting sightseers. Less flamboyantly, he is also introducing native deciduous trees to the forest, with containerised birches and copper beeches being deployed alongside the olives.
Over a decade on, Tony is able to credit the forest with some powerful knock-on effects, “You start with a tree and that supports a whole host of other activities”. Attracted by the trees and well-stocked feeders, birds such as robins, blackbirds, greenfinches, great tits and even a tawny owl have flocked to the mews. The forest has also eroded the usual city reserve between its human occupants, with al-fresco dining and socialising beneath the illuminated olives becoming something of a way of life. Neighbours support each other more now and residents at the far end of the street (beyond the reach of Tony and Alison’s hard-working hosepipe) have set up their own watering rota to ensure their bit of the olive grove thrives.
Perhaps the most surprising forest by-product however is the tranquil car-free aesthetic that has evolved symbiotically in this mews. According to Tony, the mews is largely devoid of vehicles for most of the week because residents don’t want cars blemishing the woodland vista. Taking this to its logical conclusion, Tony is even thinking about asking the council to stop weed killing in the street, so that prostrate plants can grow between the cobbles. Containerized it may be but this urban forest looks like it has really taken root.