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What Is the Garden Museum?

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  • Written By: Cynde Gregory
  • Edited By: PJP Schroeder
  • Last Modified Date: 20 November 2016
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Visitors to London who love history and gardens might want to include the Garden Museum on their itineraries. The museum is located in the Church of St. Mary at Lambeth and features three annual exhibitions that revolve around gardening in England as well as important British gardeners throughout history. The garden portion of the museum boasts a 17th-century-style knot garden that was designed by the Dowager Marchioness of Salisbury in 1980 and that celebrates the tomb of the 16th-century master gardener and plantsman John Tradescant. The Garden Museum is in the heart of London on the Thames south bank and is maintained by volunteers as well as a small but dedicated horticultural staff.

At the time the Garden Museum was established in the late 1970s, St. Mary’s was scheduled for demolition. Creating the museum saved the abandoned structure as well as the burial grounds of Tradescant. Tradescant is considered one of the most important among British gardeners and plant hunters. His son, also a great plantsman, is buried in the tomb beside him, and the knot garden that memorializes them includes some of the plants Tradescant collected and kept in his own garden.

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Tulip trees, red maples, and scarlet runner beans, now very well known and widespread, were introduced by John Tradescant the Elder. Even sightseers with no particular interest in gardening are drawn to the museum’s lush, unique garden to rest their eyes as well as their feet from shopping and museum hopping. Those who enter the museum’s interior will find displays that explain and celebrate British gardening from its long-ago past up to the most contemporary styles. Historic artifacts, hand tools, and other pieces are on permanent display.

There are a number of very old graves, so plans for the garden that was constructed in 1980 and 1981 were difficult. Footpaths had to circumvent gravestones that were embedded horizontally into the ground. Knot gardens are formal in nature, which is appropriate given the intention to both honor and replicate 17th-century gardens, and were particularly popular during the Tudor and Elizabethan periods.

The Garden Museum’s knot garden makes clear its dedication to the Tradescants with cotton, lavender, initial Ts at each end. It is enclosed by the walls of St. Mary’s church and the Lambeth Place wall. Planted for year-round interest, it includes winter and early spring bulbs, such as snowdrops and crocus, late spring tulips, and fritillaria. Visitors will also find lilies, a range of herbs, and pedigreed roses. In 1978, Queen Elizabeth participated in the Garden Museum’s formal opening by cutting the ribbon.

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