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The floating barge gardens of London

Paul Urquhart

Paul Urquhart

August 4, 2013

Twice a year, a unique barge community of barge gardens floating on the Thames is opened to the public to raise money for charity. Known as the Downings Road Moorings or Garden Barge Square, the gardens can be viewed from the shore or river anytime but for a close-up view, you’ll need to visit on an open day. These occur annually in May and June, once for the National Garden Scheme (during the Chelsea weekend in May) and again in June for the London Open Squares weekend.

London Barge Gardens31

London Barge Garden

There are other barge gardens in other European cities, notably Amsterdam, but they are generally individual efforts. What makes these London barges so interesting is the fact that this is a real plant community with a consistent themed planting. There are about 30 floating barges, all modified Thames lighters. On the moorings only 7 of the boats are actually planted.

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London Barge Garden

It hasn’t been an easy ride for the residents. Started in the mid-1990s by architect and mooring owner, Nick Lacey on the barge, Silo, they were subjected to intense pressure from the local Southwark Council which tried to shut them down in 2003 and 2004. Concerted action by residents and supporters led to their retention and survival. Now, the mooring is part of Thames-side folklore and with about 70 people living here, and it seems the community and the microclimate created is there to stay. And with a backdrop of Tower Bridge, who would blame them.

The technology is simple. Gardens are built across the tops of barges with a central pathway edged by 40cm deep metal trays. Residents use roof garden techniques to grow quite large shrubs and small trees in a limited amount of soil mix, a blend of 50% topsoil and 50% manure making it quite a fertile blend – ideal for rapid growth.

Over the years, the plantings were gradually extended so the plant community now forms an open-ended square with a square of quince trees at the centre with herbs like mint, oregano and borage. There’s a nice mix of edibles and ornamentals. Shrubs can grow too quickly and easily overwhelm smaller plantings but are carefully managed with an underplanting of ferns and perennials to create a woodland effect. Among them are senecio, shasta daisies, cerinthe, bergenia, iris and geraniums. Others have Euphorbia characias ‘Robbiae’ and Artemisia and foxgloves. Trees found on the barges include weeping pear (Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’, Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’, quinces, medlars, holly and holm oak (Quercus ilex).

London Barge Gardens46

London Barge Garden

London Barge Gardens35

London Barge Garden

Each barge has a different planting scheme but they are linked by common planting with annuals, herbs and unified by rows of lavender or box hedging. The annuals and shrubs give the gardens seasonal interest and the succession of flowering and cropping provide a vital refuge for wildlife including insects and birds.

London Barge Gardens02

London Barge Garden

A few areas are left wild with self-seeding annuals such as calendulas, poppies and nasturtiums, even nettles, are allowed to spread. These provide nectar and pollen for insects which are encouraged with insect “houses”, carefully constructed twig structures that provide homes for beneficial insects and wasps. Gardeners here do not use chemicals. Caterpillars and aphids are food for birds or picked off by hand.

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London Barge Garden

The establishment of a natural ecosystem, however, has not been entirely successful. The barges act like an island in the city and because they are isolated from the shore, many predators have not found permanent residence here. Snails for instance have periodic explosions but nighttime forays by residents helps reduce their numbers. Waterbirds like moorhens and ducks do help a bit.

London Barge Gardens

London Barge Garden

During dry times, water is hauled from the river. This part of the Thames is known as the Upper Pool and salinity is extremely low so the plants do not seem to suffer. Beds are annually dressed with organic peat free mulch, fed with nettle fertiliser, animal manures and seaweed applications. Worm farms and beehives are also found in secluded corners of many barges.

London Barge Gardens01

London Barge Garden

The Thames Lighters
Up until the 1950s, shallow draught barges transported goods from ships moored in the river. Overcrowding in the upper Thames meant many ships could not be accommodated at covered wharves and the barges allowed goods to be unloaded and loaded quickly. Containers made both the docks and the lighters redundant in the latter part of the 20th century. The barges here are mostly of Dutch origin, brought from the Netherlands and restored as homes.

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London Barge Garden

If you want to learn more about each of the barges, and the people who live there, go to the website Tower Bridge Moorings or on Facebook
For open squares weekends, see Open Squares Weekend

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London Barge Garden wreath

Visitor details
Open twice a year at 31 Mill Street,  London, SE12AX (Close to Tower Bridge and Design Museum)
Mill Street is off Jamaica Road, between London Bridge and Bermondsey stations, close to Tower Hill. Buses: 47, 188,381, RV1

Find our more National Garden Scheme 


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sandra Pullman
10 years ago

Great blog, Paul, really interesting.

10 years ago

Fascinating story, Paul. Saw these barges from the river bank last year but never got close up to see the incredible plantings.

Catherine Stewart
10 years ago

Alas I arrived just too late in the afternoon to get on to the barges and had to be content admiring them from the shore. I loved the way they looked like a small island paradise in the middle of such a busy city. I hope they survive the Port of London Authority court challenge. No doubt they think they get in the way of something,

Paul Urquhart
Paul Urquhart
10 years ago

Just a quick note to say that the Downings Rd Moorings gardens are open this year 14th and 15th June. See http://www.opensquares.org/detail/GardenBarge.html?lang=en for details.