by the Bow Churchyard gardeners:
You will know St Mary & Holy Trinity as ‘Bow Church‘, the one you pass as you negotiate the Bow flyover or the
adjoining roundabout. It is hard to see in summer but, behind the screen of huge plane trees, the church is a thriving community with concerts and events raising funds for the church and various charities, as well as its regular services. Since March 2014, it has also run a weekly food bank in conjunction with the nearby Catholic Church of Our Lady & St Catherine of Siena, supported by a range of other local churches, groups and organisations.
The church as you see it dates largely back to the late 19th century, but there has been a church on the site for 700 years. Parts of the bell tower are from the 15th century, and this is due for restoration and repair work, which should begin in 2017.
The churchyard was first designed as a public space in 1895 by Fanny Wilkinson of the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association (MPGA), and we are fortunate that a number of monuments and table top tombs remain in situ. Many other burial grounds were ‘laid out’ as public parks by removing all the tombs (and their occupants) and setting the headstones around the edge. The West churchyard, at the front of the church, was redesigned in the late 20th century – when the main path and benches were added – and now we are embarking on further changes. Our aim is to make it into a welcoming space to enjoy as well as to contemplate.
Once the restoration to the building is complete, we will start the task of transforming the churchyard into a garden. For now, we are working on the parts of the site which will not be affected by the restoration. We are clearing some old and diseased shrubs and planting some new ones which will cope with dry, shady, conditions (those plane trees again). We work with volunteers who join us on the first Saturday morning of the month to help with basic weeding, tidying and (especially now) leaf clearing. It’s a social time as well as a working morning, with tea and coffee supplied – and cake too if we are lucky.
We have had financial and practical help from the MPGA and Tower Hill Trust, enabling us to buy basic tools, plants and compost. Tower Hamlets Council has provided raised wooden planters near to the main gate, which we have used to grow basic vegetables for the food bank which the church hosts every Monday morning. We are planning to expand the food growing in this area and welcome any help and ideas for creating a ‘kitchen garden’.
A difficult site
The church has always been situated ‘in the King’s highway’, but the flyover (1967) has made the site seem more isolated from its surroundings. The planting at the front of the church includes some old evergreen shrubs – recently trimmed to open up the site – and some good climbers on the metal arch over the path. While the shade from the enormous plane trees makes grass impossible, the dryness of the soil is the more taxing problem.
In the East churchyard there are a number diseased Viburnum bushes which will be removed and replaced with something smaller (and not prone to the same diseases). Otherwise there are some trees and shrubs which can be rejuvenated and we have started underplanting with groundcover plants and bulbs.
We have done some good work already, especially in the west. In Autumn 2015 we planted 1500 bulbs, donated by MPGA and Taylors of Spalding (alliums, daffodils, hyacinths, dwarf tulips). And with an MPGA grant we have planted new shrubs and perennials along the path to the church door. The low rainfall in the late summer has made establishing them a bit of a trial. And passing dogs do not help…
There are other problems, not least the use of weed-suppressing fabric or a bark as a mulch – the latter acts as a barrier which even bulbs struggle to cope with. The falling plane leaves – which decompose slowly – affects the whole site from June onwards, and in Winter, emerging bulbs are subject to damage in the clearing of leaf litter.
The way forward
The overall approach to the planting of the site is to choose varieties which suit the soil and growing conditions and
– produce flowers and give visual interest for as long a season as possible
– provide pollen, nectar and fruit for a wide range of wildlife.
We have just been awarded a Tower Habitats biodiversity grant from the Tower Hill Trust to buy some of these plants to grow on, ready to be planted in the West churchyard once restoration work to the church is completed in around 18 months.
The West churchyard is light and sunny until late Spring, so there we would add early flowers and bulbs (hellebores, primroses, violas, Cardamine). Once the canopy of leaves appears most of these rest quietly until Autumn when they would begin to stir again. Woodrushes and grasses would fill the space and produce subtle flowers later in the year, and others perennials which would cope with the shade include liriope, Gladwyn iris, even some lilies.
In the East churchyard, we plan to add native shrubs such as hawthorn, dogwoods and hazels. At ground level we have added geraniums and foxgloves, and will add primroses and primulas, cowslips and spring bulbs.
Growing flowers for cutting in the churchyard is a sensible idea, saving money and ensuring that the church flower arrangements are in season. We have planted gladioli, dahlias and other bulbs in an area on the North side of the church where there is sun and light at various times of the day.
How can you help?
if you would like to help us with developing the churchyard as a garden, there are a number of ways you can become involved.
• pledge a plant – if you have plants which are enthusiastic and produce unwanted clumps and seedlings, we can re-home them for you!
• give some time – we have volunteer gardening sessions from 10.00-12.30 on the first Saturday of the month.
• make a donation – plants can be bought cheaply in markets, most of them raised abroad in polytunnels, whereas would like to source locally grown plants where possible. Small local community projects such as St Mary’s Secret Garden in Hackney are a source of plants and inspiration.
• lend us some growing space – If you have some space in garden or greenhouse, you might be able to grow plants for us.
If you would like to join us gardening in the churchyard or help by donating or growing plants for the garden project, please contact us by e-mail.
If you would like to support or volunteer at the foodbank please contact us on 07930 527 167 or via the foodbank website.