Twice a year, a unique barge community of barge gardens floating on the Thames is opened to the public to raise money for charity. Known as the Downings Road Moorings or Garden Barge Square, the gardens can be viewed from the shore or river anytime but for a close-up view, you’ll need to visit on an open day. These occur annually in May and June, once for the National Garden Scheme (during the Chelsea weekend in May) and again in June for the London Open Squares weekend.
There are other barge gardens in other European cities, notably Amsterdam, but they are generally individual efforts. What makes these London barges so interesting is the fact that this is a real plant community with a consistent themed planting. There are about 30 floating barges, all modified Thames lighters. On the moorings only 7 of the boats are actually planted.
It hasn’t been an easy ride for the residents. Started in the mid-1990s by architect and mooring owner, Nick Lacey on the barge, Silo, they were subjected to intense pressure from the local Southwark Council which tried to shut them down in 2003 and 2004. Concerted action by residents and supporters led to their retention and survival. Now, the mooring is part of Thames-side folklore and with about 70 people living here, and it seems the community and the microclimate created is there to stay. And with a backdrop of Tower Bridge, who would blame them.
The technology is simple. Gardens are built across the tops of barges with a central pathway edged by 40cm deep metal trays. Residents use roof garden techniques to grow quite large shrubs and small trees in a limited amount of soil mix, a blend of 50% topsoil and 50% manure making it quite a fertile blend – ideal for rapid growth.
Over the years, the plantings were gradually extended so the plant community now forms an open-ended square with a square of quince trees at the centre with herbs like mint, oregano and borage. There’s a nice mix of edibles and ornamentals. Shrubs can grow too quickly and easily overwhelm smaller plantings but are carefully managed with an underplanting of ferns and perennials to create a woodland effect. Among them are senecio, shasta daisies, cerinthe, bergenia, iris and geraniums. Others have Euphorbia characias ‘Robbiae’ and Artemisia and foxgloves. Trees found on the barges include weeping pear (Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’, Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’, quinces, medlars, holly and holm oak (Quercus ilex).
Each barge has a different planting scheme but they are linked by common planting with annuals, herbs and unified by rows of lavender or box hedging. The annuals and shrubs give the gardens seasonal interest and the succession of flowering and cropping provide a vital refuge for wildlife including insects and birds.
A few areas are left wild with self-seeding annuals such as calendulas, poppies and nasturtiums, even nettles, are allowed to spread. These provide nectar and pollen for insects which are encouraged with insect “houses”, carefully constructed twig structures that provide homes for beneficial insects and wasps. Gardeners here do not use chemicals. Caterpillars and aphids are food for birds or picked off by hand.
The establishment of a natural ecosystem, however, has not been entirely successful. The barges act like an island in the city and because they are isolated from the shore, many predators have not found permanent residence here. Snails for instance have periodic explosions but nighttime forays by residents helps reduce their numbers. Waterbirds like moorhens and ducks do help a bit.
During dry times, water is hauled from the river. This part of the Thames is known as the Upper Pool and salinity is extremely low so the plants do not seem to suffer. Beds are annually dressed with organic peat free mulch, fed with nettle fertiliser, animal manures and seaweed applications. Worm farms and beehives are also found in secluded corners of many barges.
The Thames Lighters
Up until the 1950s, shallow draught barges transported goods from ships moored in the river. Overcrowding in the upper Thames meant many ships could not be accommodated at covered wharves and the barges allowed goods to be unloaded and loaded quickly. Containers made both the docks and the lighters redundant in the latter part of the 20th century. The barges here are mostly of Dutch origin, brought from the Netherlands and restored as homes.
Open twice a year at 31 Mill Street, London, SE12AX (Close to Tower Bridge and Design Museum)
Mill Street is off Jamaica Road, between London Bridge and Bermondsey stations, close to Tower Hill. Buses: 47, 188,381, RV1
1) National Garden Schemes – Sunday 25 May, 2014
2) Open Garden Squares weekend – 14 and 15 June, 2014
NOTE: There is just one proviso on these opening dates. The future of Downings Roads moorings is uncertain as a result of litigation initiated by the Port of London Authority. Judgement is expected some time in the late autumn – but provided that the moorings and floating gardens still exist next year, they will be open to the public on those dates!