A Year at Westminster Abbey, the Queen’s Church

APL Awards 16 March Special Guest Talk by Chris Collins 


Chris introduced himself and talked about the time when he was Head Gardener at Westminster Abbey where he was appointed and worked 2001 - 2005. 

The Gardens are 900 yrs old and have had an interesting and varied history commencing in Medieval times when they were run by Benedictine Monks.  

His initial assessment of the state of the Gardens in 2001 concluded that the soil was very poor and powdery, and that few plants of interest were growing in them.  As they were a blank canvas he commenced by working on the lawns.  This included lightly scarifying each week to encourage the grass to tiller up and become thicker as well as reseeding where needed.  A new grass cutting regime was introduced - cutting in circular patterns to improve appearance and to ensure strong growth removing some of the ridges in the lawn.   The grass was mowed to 2.5cms in length minimum to create a thick sward.  

At the same time he commenced growing thousands of plants for use in bedding and other longer lasting planting schemes.  These plants were started off as seeds and included lots of heritage varieties.  Hot boxes and cold frames were created too.  Exotics were added to some of the planting schemes too to add colour and interest.  

With the soil structure being so poor Chris started a mass composting project.  He says that the secret to creating compost quickly is turning it frequently and watering it copiously.  The Gardens contained many London Plane trees which were very dry so their leaves were shredded to speed up the composting process.  Additionally 12000 worms were brought in to work!!

During the Spring any necessary construction work was done in the traditional manner using lime, not building sand and cement.  

Then the vast number of young bedding and perennial plants which Chris had started to grow in early Spring for Summer colour were planted.  

Where he found particularly poor soil (eg where areas contained large amounts of stone and clinker had been deposited over many years) he set wild flowers to grow.  This area has now become very valuable in terms of biodiversity of plants and insects. 

Not content with instigating all the changes above, Chris also installed a knot garden in the grounds.  He used a variety of shrub named Lonicera nitida instead of the popular Buxus sempervirens as it is resistant to Box Blight - Lonicera nitida does have its draw backs though as it grows extremely fast and requires a lot of cutting!   Different coloured varieties of sage were used as infill for the knot garden.

A herb garden was also planted up with Strawberries, Hyssop, Yarrow, Helichrysum to name but a few.  

His planting style for the borders included planting in drifts, for example using Alliums to grow up amongst Aquilegia in the Spring - with the Aquilegia covering the Alliums leaves.

Chris’ top tip for getting enormous hanging baskets by the way, is to spray the plants in the early morning with dilute seaweed foliar feed foliage.   The timing of the foliar feed is particularly important as it is when the stomata of the leaves are open and receptive to the feed.  


Footnote: Chris was invited to Buckingham Palace to receive a Medal for Contribution to Horticulture