Following on from last month’s column on front gardens, how we benefit from them and what to grow in your patch inspired by daily commutes around the neighbourhood, here’s a round-up of Forest Gate’s best trees, shrubs, and blooms for April and May. If you don’t have a garden, you can
still help establish and improve green corridors across the borough by planting up window boxes, containers, or pots.
Plus, there’s lots of pleasure to be had from eyeing up the fruits of someone else’s labour from well-gardened borders to jumbles of floral colour to pockets of wildlife-friendly guerrilla gardening.
This month, a shout out to Garden Centre at The Old Slate Yard at 460 Sebert Road (by the junction with Balmoral), now stocked up with bedding plants, perennials, small shrubs, herbs, edibles and pots and planters for those who want to shop local (they also do a free delivery service within 3 miles for orders over £30). There’s also a donation-based community plant nursery at the Forest Gate Community Garden at 136 Earlham Grove (open 10–5pm Friday; 10am–3pm Saturday; and 10am–midday Sunday). Their Garden Trail is also set to open on the 18 and 19 June, with some participants selling plants to help raise funds. Plus, find indoor/outdoor container plants and pots alongside cut flowers and bouquets at Molly & Bill Stevens at 22 Woodford Road.
· Scented beauties
Spring arrives as a waft of mood-boosting scent as well as a feast for the eyes, with some particularly alluring specimens captivating whole streets with their heady fragrance: purple-white cascades of wisteria (Wisteria spp.) atop charming front doors (there are a few in the Woodgrange Estate; a beauty at the top of Tylney); once-bare fences now heavy with the sweetest white jasmine (Jasminum officinale) flowers (pick a sprig and stick in in your t-shirt, it will keep you uplifted for hours); the insistent olfactory reach of a lilac bush (Syringa vulgaris) and the citrussy promise of honeysuckle.
Not forgetting of course the rose, a timeless flower the front gardens of Forest Gate North and South have in abundance – if you’re stuck on what type or colour to get just take yourself off on a rose tour of the neighbourhood.
These are then joined by the shooting up of fragrant herbs and perennials such as rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus), lavender (Lavandula spp.) and my favourite, cat mint (Nepeta spp.), which reaches up and out in lemon-scented spires of purple, ideal for pots as well as borders.
· Show-stopping bulbs
Tulip season came and went in a flourish of many shapes and colours from the creamy-green Tulipa ‘Spring Green’ (this is perennial so will naturalise and come back year after year for the cottage garden look) to the satiny black ‘Queen of the Night’, with a spectrum of orange (‘Princes Irene’; ‘Rasta Parrot’), red (‘Flower Power’; ‘Dutch Dancer’), pink (‘Mistress Mystic’; ‘Double Sugar’), purple (‘Continental’; ‘Purple Heart’) and multi-coloured (‘La Belle Epoque’; ‘Green Wave’) in between.
Make a mood-board now ready to order more bulbs in autumn.
Next up are irises (technically growing from rhizomes not bulbs) – I’m loving our random pop-ups of vibrant purple Iris hollandica ‘Discovery’ against clumps of lime green euphorbia but like tulips, there’s a whole world of them to explore. The same goes for Alliums (Allium spp.) from the tennis-ball-sized ‘Purple Sensation’ to the ballerina-like A. neopolitanum or the small-headed, blackcurrant-tinted A. sphaerocephalon. Or the even showier peonies (Paeonia spp.), of which a friend currently has a beautiful front garden show on Tylney Road; it’s worth investing in some supports for these so they can turn their frilly heads to the sun rather than droop down and get squished. ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ is a pale pink beauty, ‘Red Charm’ a classic crimson, and ‘Le Cygne’ an alluring white.
Looking ahead to late summer blooms, it’s also a good time to tuck dahlia (Dahlia spp.) tubers straight into the ground (now it’s nice and warm and there’s no chance of frost), plant them out if you started them off in pots, or source some pre-grown plants. I’m adding the pollinator-friendly, single-flowered ‘Totally Tangerine’ to my collection of deep red ‘Bishop of Auckland’, peachy ‘Nicholas’, and the pink-tinted, milky coffee tones of ‘Café au Lait’. There’s also just about time to get your agapanthus (Agapanthus spp.) rhizomes in for a tall-stemmed eye-catching burst of purple or white through July, August, and September. I love vivid blue ‘Charlotte’ and delicate ‘Windsor Grey’. I’m also determined to slot in a couple of heads of peacock orchids (Acidanthera murielae) – a relative of the gladiolus – for its starry white, purple throated blooms. Grown from corms, they can be direct sown/planted out until July and flower from August until October.
· Filler foliage
All the flowers described above can be grown as cut flowers but also dotted throughout a cottage garden scheme, teamed with filler foliage such as the pale-green bell-flowered Tellima grandiflora; diversely coloured heucheras (from green to brown to burgundy and black); verdant lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) or diamond rain-catcher as I call it for the leaves’ ability to hold raindrops like fat jewels; the prettiest mounds of Mexican daisy (Erigeron karvinskianus); tender geraniums (Geranium spp.) – the purple-blue ‘Rozanne’ is a must but there are also cultivars in shades of pink, maroon, white and red; and luscious ground cover such as the male fern (Dryopteris filix-mas) and hart’s tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium).
If you’re low on budget, ask a friend if they would be happy to split a clump of something with you.
Lots of plants can be shared this way or grown from seed.
· Wildflowers and weeds
Finally, May is the season to celebrate all our wildflowers and weeds (see also the April/May issue of Nature Connections about the wildflowers of Wanstead Flats and Park). Having lived here for over 14 years, I’ve noticed a few ‘usual culprits’ on the ‘weeds’ front, with the ubiquitous dandelions (Taraxacum officinale), daisies (Bellis perennis) and buttercups (Ranunculus repens) joined by the pretty-blue-flowered-but-impossible-to-pull-out-by-hand green alkanet (Pentaglottis sempervirens) and diminutively stalwart herb Robert (Geranium robertianum). I’ve been inclined to leave most of these this year, for the pollinators, but also as an antidote to the locked-down rigidity of the past few years when I felt like the sowing of seeds and the weeding of weeds would at times save my life (in terms of mental health anyway). As they start to set seed, however, I’ve begun to furiously pull them out as I also know how quickly they can take over.
As fellow plant lover and neighbour with knowledge Veronica Jeans reminded me: ‘One year’s seeds, seven years’ weeds.’
I’m leaving the rogue foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea), aquilegia (Aquilegia spp.), poppies (Papaver spp.), forget-me-nots (Myosotis scorpioides), dog violets (Viola riviniana), and ox-eye daisies (Lecanthemum vulgare) where they are though. Some I sowed, some appear to have jumped over a wall, most will have moved position by next year, but all are a much-loved sign that summer days are just around the corner and – for me – represent a little bit of what Forest Gate is all about: a diverse community with ornamental potential and a little bit of necessary wild.
Sonya Patel Ellis is a writer, editor and artist exploring the interconnectedness of nature. Author of Collins Botanical Bible (Harper Collins, 2018), The Heritage Herbal (The British Library, 2020), Collins Garden Birdwatchers Bible (Harper Collins, 2020) and The Modern Gardener (Harper Collins, 2022) she is often to be found roaming around nearby Wanstead Flats or in her garden for botanical inspiration. See www.abotanicalworld.com for more details plus signed books and botanically inspired prints.