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We were asked to refurbish a challenging site with extremely exposed conditions, passed by thousands of people every day, outside North Greenwich tube station.

desert greenwich before
The site we were asked to improve.

The long, narrow, sloping site had always suffered, and the management company wanted something that would look good all year round, with minimal maintenance – easy!

desert greenwich after installation
The site on completion.

It has since been featured in the Journal of the Society of Garden Designers.

 

The location is in full sun, made stronger by huge panes of curved glass which refract the afternoon beams onto the ground, baking everything. Added to this, wind can be a serious problem in this area, due to its proximity to the river and tall skyscrapers. Lastly, it is sloping, so rain runs off into a drainage gutter instead of soaking into the soil.

There was no option for irrigation. So we felt we had to go for a desert-style landscape, using xerophytic plants. Luckily, our favourite plant nursery, the Palm Centre, have loads of amazing specimens perfect for this situation. We went on a staff trip to pick them out personally, to ensure we knew exactly what to expect when the truck arrived on the other side of London.

agave in a truck desert greenwich

choosing plants at the palm centre

We had never worked with such large plants needing such specific conditions. Most of these plants, coming from desert environments, need slightly acidic conditions, and all need extremely free draining soil. They hate wet feet in winter as much as any sensible person does!

So, we had to remove over 20 tons of soil by hand, and brought in gravel, grit and composted pine bark to provide a low-nutrient, free-draining and acidic medium.

Apart from the compost, all the growing media came out of storage from round the corner, where it had been stored since its original deployment at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2017. We also used cobbles and small boulders that had appeared in Chelsea that year. We were delighted to be able to re-use these materials, giving them a new and lasting purpose, reducing the carbon footprint as well as the budget of the build!

All of the long, spiky blades of the plants had to be tied up into ponytails until the last moment, because their lance-like leaves could cause serious damage. They were the only plants we have had to wear safety goggles while handling!

All of the plants are so static, we felt that some motion was needed on the site, especially with the benefit of such consistent wind in the area. So we created a spine of our favourite Stipa tenuissima down the middle of the plot, dividing the white- and black-pebbled zones, also with the intention that the roots would help to stabilise the terraced levels we created.

The main plants we used were:

Agave cordifolia, Agave parrasanaDasylirion longissimumDasylirion miquihuaensisYucca aloifoliaYucca carnerosanaYucca filiferaYucca rostrata

A final charming element of the garden can be seen in the video below: the effect of water on the fine, black gravel that we used.

When wet, it is pitch black, but slowly as it dries it becomes light grey. This makes the site look radically different depending on the conditions, while the static, extremely-slow growing xerophytes provide stability and architectural dynamism. The huge Agave cordifolia undeniably echoes the yellow spikes on the Millennium Dome on the other side of the walkway.

Agave with the Dome

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