Photograph looking through stone framed entrance to College Garden at Westminster Abbey

Features of College Garden

Jan Pancheri, Head Gardener at Westminster Abbey, shares her experience and insight about how the team care for England's oldest cultivated garden.

Photograph of two gardeners working with compost in front of the greenhouse in College Garden

Care and Compost

We garden organically here and do all we can to encourage wildlife. This includes using nematodes instead of pesticides, and we use lots of home-made compost instead of chemical fertiliser. We try to provide food for birds in the form of berry-bearing trees, and our hedges are used as nesting sites. Many garden birds now bring up their families in this garden.

We have four gardeners working here today, who benefit from using mowers instead of hand-tools. When the monk-gardener worked here, a scythe would have been used, or in enclosed areas, sheep or rabbits were employed to keep the grass short. In medieval times a lawn that was full of flowers such as daisies, buttercups and clover was much preferred to plain grass.

Photograph of the greenhouse in College Garden with the medieval wall wrapping around it

Walled Garden

The old wall around College Garden forms a useful barrier against the worst of the weather and keeps us a little warmer in winter. This means that we and the plants enjoy more temperate times than we would if we were on the North side of the Abbey.

The garden now supports plants from Australia and South America, which might not otherwise survive a cold winter. Over the last 25 years, there have been only two occasions when we lost plants due to cold weather.

The monks would have made use of south-facing walls by training vines on them. Growing grapes for wine was a vital part of monastic life. They could have also been used for growing peaches and apricots, whose blossom comes out early in spring and is easily damaged by frost.

Photograph looking up to one of the plane trees within College Garden

Plane Trees

The tall trees in the garden are London Plane trees. Being deciduous, they have the advantage of letting in the sunshine in winter and providing shade in hot weather. Without these mature trees, it would be almost impossible to hold summer events in the garden.

The London Plane is a hybrid of two plane trees, one from North America and one from South Asia. These trees were specially bred to be resistant to pollution, because of their habit of shedding bark, at a time when many coal-powered factories in and around London, killed almost every tree. Since the Clean Air Act of 1956, and the advent of lead-free fuel, the air is far cleaner.

Photograph looking down on the herb garden in College Garden

Herb Garden

The Herb Garden is a lovely sunny part of College Garden to visit, especially in spring or summer where lots of butterflies and bees help themselves to the flowers. Many herbs are also wild flowers, so by growing them we are helping nature. Some of the most delicious herbs we grow, such as marjoram, lovage and sorrel can’t be found in the supermarket, and yet are easy to grow.

The monks grew hyssop which is an ingredient of Benedictine – an herbal digestif. In the vegetable section of the Herb Garden, we grow leeks and cabbages or kale, which were the staple food of medieval people.

The garden is designed in six sections. The round central area represents ornamental beauty with roses and sweet peas. There are quadrants around it: Medicinal, Culinary, Dye Plants and Vegetables. The outer borders contain plants used for strewing indoors (a kind of air-freshening procedure, which also protected clothes from moths) such as sweet woodruff and southernwood.

Photograph of the meadow area within College Garden

Meadow

A Meadow Area is long-established here, and it is an attractive sight in spring, when it is full of crocus, daffodil and snakes-head fritillary. Even the long grass that takes over in summer makes it seem as if you could be in the countryside as opposed to one small corner of Central London.

By encouraging native flowers and letting them seed, it provides food for insects and birds, either as nectar or forage. When ducks or geese come to the Garden, they head straight for the long grass!

Close-up photograph of roses within College Garden

Rose Garden

The Rose Garden was designed to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee. Encircled with a hornbeam hedge, it features a pergola, topped with a golden orb, where pink roses climb in June. The circular border features many shrub roses.

With their perfume and cultural significance as a flower of love, roses have been essential in gardens since Roman times. They were used in medieval gardens as a symbol of courtly romance – and of course there is the Tudor Rose. 

Photograph of the fountain and grass in College Garden with Westminster Abbey in the background

Fountain

The Fountain represents the ponds the monks made using puddled clay from the Thames. These ponds contained waterlilies as well as freshwater fish. Monasteries kept stew ponds, which you can still see in some places, such as Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire, which contained carp for eating. This fountain is in roughly the same area as one of these ponds.

In large ornamental gardens such as Versailles, fountains were there to provide a spectacle, and indicate vast amounts of wealth. Sometimes they are be used in conjunction with music and fireworks. In the monastic garden, there would probably have been a more basic version featuring a water spout, like the one in the Garth.

Aerial photograph of College Garden in Westminster Abbey

Beyond the walls

The Monastery had connections to the world outside. The Infirmarer used herbs grown in the garden to treat the sick locally – common herbs such as mint were used to cure stomach ache and freshen breath, while feverfew was given to treat headaches and fever. Illness was often treated by diet, for instance taking wine instead of beer, or dove meat instead of fish, was thought to aid recovery. In addition to this, the Abbey gave away surplus fruit on St James’ Day, 25th July, every year.

Naturally Westminster Abbey had close associations to Parliament and Royalty. The Jewel Tower, which can be seen above the garden wall, was built by Edward III in 1376 to house his jewels and fine clothes. We can also see Victoria Tower from College Garden, part of the Houses of Parliament.

Find out more

Discover more about the various gardens and green spaces at Westminster Abbey.