With my head still buzzing I quick step back to the Victoria Gate to meet my guide Jane for the tour of the Great Broad Walk Borders, just reopened this summer after a 3 year renovation project. To get both history and perspective of the borders, at 1,050 ft. long purported to be the longest double herbaceous perennial border in the world, Jane starts our tour at the Palm House.
Standing on the steps of this immense glasshouse Jane told us the origins of Kew can be traced to the merging of the royal estates of Richmond and Kew in 1772 and that until 1840 is was primarily a pleasure garden for the royals. In that year Queen Victoria agreed for the park to be taken over by the state and be opened to the public. William Hooker was appointed as director with the mandate to develop Kew for public use. By 1844 the arboretum had become overcrowded and landscape architect William Nesfield was commissioned to redesign the landscape. The Palm House was to be the focal point of the gardens with vistas radiating from it and a parterre to be built between the house and the existing pond. The basic structure of his redesign still exists today.
The Parterre Garden spans the length of the Palm House and is planted twice annually. Nesfield’s redesign of the formal gardens coincided with the time Victorians were in love with elaborate displays of bedding plants and the Parterre was considered to be such a display for those who did not have the resources for their own. The word parterre means ‘on the ground’, these gardens being meant to be viewed from above. I am holding the photo on the left in my arsenal for whenever Dave gets really cranky about garden maintenance–I will tell him that he is a lucky man as he could be trimming the grass around all THESE elaborate beds by hand!
As we move away from the Palm House toward The Great Board Walk Borders a question is asked about how the tropicals were kept warm in the glasshouse in the 1800s. Jane points out a tall brick tower far across the pond (really a lake) and relays that a tunnel was built from the tower to the ground beneath the glasshouse where the coal fired boilers were located. The tunnel acted as a passageway for coal to be delivered and as a flue to carry the smoke underground and out through the tower acting as a chimney.
The brick tower is highly decorative. The right side photo was taken from about 20 feet in front of the chimney–an amazing distance away from the glasshouse across the pond!
As The Great Broad Walk Borders were designed to be a grand processional to the Palm House from the historical main entrance at the Elizabeth gate our group swings wide through the surrounding trees to reach the top of the border and make our approach as if we were visitors to the gardens in the 1800s. This gives Jane an opportunity to tell us that the border was originally rhododendron and small seasonal plants in kidney shaped beds with a backdrop of Deodar Cedar (Cedrus deodara) trees. The Deodors gradually died out (only 3 remain) as they were just not suited to the English climate and were replaced with American Tulip trees in the 1930s. All but two of those trees were lost, along with over 1,000 others, in a huge storm in 1987. In 2000 the avenue of cedars was restored, this time using Atlas Cedar (Cedrus atlantica), which is more drought tolerant. Various border planting schemes had been tried in the late 20th century but none had achieved the desired effect. In 2013 the current design was finalized and the restoration project begun.
The Broad Walk path is 26 feet wide. A series of 8 circles, bisected by the path are joined to form one continuous planting area down each side of the Broad Walk. The shape is like a bean pod and inspired by the largest seed pod in the legume family, Entada giga, commonly know as the Sea Bean. Each circle bed has a different theme and all are planted with a variety of herbaceous perennials. Topiary yew trees (Taxus baccata) were included along each side to emphasize the perspective as you look down the path from either side and to bring some formal evergreen structure to the borders.
This photo from the Broad Walk guide was taken in autumn 2015 after the yews were planted but before the perennials had established and gives you an idea of the perspective the designer was seeking to establish.
As we neared the top of the Broad Walk my guide pointed out two trees of interest, neither of which photographed really well but I want to share them with you even if you have to use your imagination a bit:
This Japanese Pagoda tree (Styphnolobium japonicum) dates to 1760 around the time the Pagoda folly was added to the gardens. It has grown in a horizontal fashion and has been propped up by various methods for more than a hundred years–can you see the brick support in the picture on the right? That one was added in the 1840s. The supports at the top end are steel and much more recent. It is fenced now for its preservation and protection.
The Weeping Birch in this photo is a single tree, planted in 1846, rather than the colony of trees it appears to be. The tree’s graceful branches cover the ground of an area over 100 feet across. In the photo on the right I am standing under the tree near its main trunk and you can clearly see that it is now being supported with steel beams to relieve the tree of the weight of its many branches. It is underplanted with thousands of shade loving bluebells and must be quite a sight in the spring.
Let’s take a walk down The Great Broad Walk Border! The first and largest of the circles is planted with long swathes of colorful CULTIVARS that have been well-proven as garden worthy plants. It is a nod to botanists and hybridizers whose goal was to bring easy to grow and care for plants offering bold blooms, forms or scents.
Left: Aster ‘King George’ in the foreground, Kniphofia ‘Tawny King’ just behind then Rudbeckia fulgida var. deamii and Euphorbia palustris
Right: Penstemon ‘Firebird’ in the foreground, Geranium ‘Orion’ and many more
The next circle is planted with members of the MINT family (Lamiaceae), such as sage (Salvia), lavender and catmint (Nepeta). Many contain essential oils that give them aromatic foliage, and also have medicinal and culinary uses.
Left: Agastache ‘Firebird’ in the foreground, Salvia ‘Maroon’ and Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’ in the background
Right: Salvia ‘Serenade’
Just a note about plant identification–Kew has not marked individual plants in these borders. Instead they have colorful identification guide plaques for each section like the one below. Unfortunately they picture the bed vertically rather than having the photo run the same way as the bed and so I found them really hard to read. I did my best to get the right names for you!
Members of the DAISY (Compositae) family fill the next circle. This family has over 25,000 species and includes asters, daisies, sunflowers and more.
Left: Helenium ‘Loydser Wieck’ in the foreground, Aster x frikartii ‘Monch’
Right: Eurybia divaricate (White wood aster) cloaks a young climbing rose
Take a look at the finials which top the climbing rose support whose base you see in the above right photo. Their cedar cone shape plays homage to the original avenue of cedars planted along the walk.
The fourth circle is devoted to plants classified as MONOCOTYLEDONS, or monocots. Research at Kew on monocots, whose seeds germinate with only one seed leaf is wide ranging. Daylilies (Hemerocallis), Crocosmias and many summer flowering perennials fall into this group.
Left: Alstroemeria ‘Indian Summer’ Right: Echinacea ‘White Swan’
Circles 5, 6, and 7 highlight different plant characteristics. PLANT LIFE CYCLES are the focus of circle 5 which features a variety of annuals, perennials and biennials.
BEE FRIENDLY specimens fill circle six.
Circle seven features flowers with varying types of SEED DISPERSAL mechanisms. Finally, in the last circle, in the SHADE on the only two remaining American Tulip Trees are plants that are tolerant of lower light levels such as ferns, anemones and hellebores.
We’ve come to the end of The Great Broad Walk Borders all too soon for me. There is so much more to see here at Kew Gardens and it deserves another day I just don’t have! I’ll leave with with these vignettes from around the grounds.
NEXT UP: The Cotswolds and Stratford-upon-Avon