Temple Gardens

9 May 2024

The sun shone as 18 MPG members met Sean Harkin, head gardener of the Inner Temple Gardens, at the impressive iron gates. Sean trained at Wisley and has worked for the RHS, National Trust and Kensington Palace before joining Inner Temple six years ago. He gave us a brief illustrated history from 1307, when garden records began, to today’s verdant site. The garden is surrounded by buildings on three sides with the Thames flowing along its fourth southern edge.

Elements of the garden’s past can still be seen, for example the plane trees which still line the Broad Walk were planted as part of Joseph Bazelgette’s project creating the Embankment in the 1870s.  A hundred years earlier plane trees were planted on what would have been the riverbank. These impressive trees are now encircled by wild meadows and ferns and capture Sean’s naturalistic approach to planting which was evident throughout the garden.

We started our walk through the garden at the High Borders, as they are known. This south-facing border makes the most of the microclimate that gives an extended growing season, very rarely do they have frosts. The sunbaked bed was spilling over the path with rambling euphorbias, melianthus and highlights of colour from the alliums, digitalis and spires of echiums. We progressed past the sundial to well established beds flanked on either side by wild meadow planting before walking across the lawns to the newly renovated pond area.  The greenhouse was a delight of succulents and the promise of dahlias being encouraged into growth. After a peek into the beautifully ordered toolshed, we walked back through the gardens now open (12.30 – 15.00, Monday – Friday) and abuzz with human as well as insect life.

We made our way to the Middle Temple Hall for lunch. This magnificent 16th century building was like a scene from Hogwarts, surrounded by coats of arms and under the double hammerbeam roof we were served a fine meal which prepared us for the second half of the visit which was to the Middle Temple Gardens.

Kate Jenrick, head gardener of the Middle Temple Gardens for 16 years, met us after lunch in the bustling thoroughfare in front of Middle Temple Hall. With responsibility for several areas with quite varied aspects, her brief from the Master of the Gardens is to have year-round interest and colour.

Starting in the Fountain Court, Kate explained that she had inherited beds with just ceanothus and hydrangeas, and she has actively opened up the area with more light and introduced greater diversity. Moving on through Elm Court towards the main garden we heard of the challenges they are facing with honey fungus.

These gardens are possibly the longest continually cultivated in London and, despite the challenges, were full of texture and flower. Kate brought us across the lawns to her newest planting, a gravel garden which was already coming to life and into flower.

Behind the Temple church we discovered a potager garden area. This was the passion project of Fiona, one of Kate’s team: a previously undeveloped site now supporting a range of intermingled fruit, vegetables and flowering plants in beautifully maintained raised beds.

Unplanned but a bonus we were next introduced to Bob the gardener for the Master’s Garden. This garden, hidden behind high gates and hedging, is an elevated plateau sitting above the church catacombs between the Temple church and the Master’s house. A tranquil haven, the garden has well established trees and shrubs and mixed herbaceous borders. Unfortunately, we were just too late in the season to see the wisteria, which adorns the front of the house, in flower.

Progressing around the garden we came to an area at the side of the house with a distinctly contrasting style.  Both Echium candicans and E. pininana scrambled over raised beds, with Verbascum punctuating the swathes of erigeron and sedum tumbling across cobble and gravel paving. Bob explained that this area had been created by bomb damage clearance. Damaged tombs and gravestones with associated contents had been piled into this area as it was part of the church grounds. Considering this environment probably most like a Mediterranean garden, Bob asked the group if they had any suggestions for planting. Without hesitation we suggested Miss Willmott’s ghost (Eryngium giganteum).

A fitting end to a most interesting day of gardens, I thought.

We thank the gardeners who gave us their time and in addition MPG member Stefano Ciabo, an MPG bursary recipient, for the introductions.

Text and images: Denise Lewis