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In conversation with Sean Harkin, Head Gardener at The Inner Temple.

The first in our new monthly interview series where we chat to celebrated industry figures and lesser-known creatives. First up, the head gardener at London’s esteemed Inner Temple Gardens, just a hop, skip and a jump away from Cool Blue Interiors HQ…

As much as we’re about homes and interiors, we’re just as obsessed about the great outdoors. And seeing as we’re stepping firmly into spring, who better to talk to for our debut Tête à Tête than the man behind the glorious grounds at London’s Inner Temple? The highlight of the Cool Blue Interior team’s lunchtime strolling circuit, we sat ourselves on a hydrangea-backed bench to steal an hour with Sean to talk all things historical and horticultural. And let us tell you, if we could have, we would have, wiled away the hours digging deeper and deeper into the garden’s detail-laden story.

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Q: Tell us about the garden! What makes it so special?

A: “Inner Temple is the biggest green space in the City of London, and one of the oldest too. Our archives show records dating back to 1307 where we can trace how it’s evolved over the centuries. It was even once the site for the RHS – the records show Queen Mary and King George visiting in 1911 before the show outgrew the gardens and relocated to Chelsea.

“Back in the early 1700s, The Thames was significantly wider. You would have stepped off at the mooring point and come directly into the gardens. That was before Blackfriars Bridge, roads and traffic changed things, of course. The oldest trees in the gardens were brought in later in the 1700s too – the earliest of the Planes.

“A century on, the great gardener Robert Marnock multiplied their numbers and introduced the avenue of Plane Trees and the circular pathways that we still walk today. He also established the ethos that we honour to this day – to follow formal plans but celebrate naturalistic planting.”

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Q: Tell us what a typical day looks like for you and your fellow gardeners?

A: “It all kicks off at 7.45am where we assemble in the Tractor Shed to map out the plan for the day. Different members of the team look after different areas of the garden, so that structure largely dictates our days. 

“The seasons also shape what we’re up to. For example, all the hard work happens in autumn and winter. We plant thousands of spring bulbs and are constantly raking or taking a traditional scythe to the meadow grasses. By contrast, summer is about making sure what we’ve got looks as good as it gets, deadheading and staking.

“Right now, we’re also doing lots of daily work with Pollinating London Together – an organisation creating spaces in central London where all the natural pollinators can thrive. I had no idea there are 277 or so types of bees, and it’s species like the Mining or Masonry Bees that need our help. We’re putting bee hotels into the garden to give them a place to call home.”

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Q: Why Inner Temple? What brought you here?

A: “As a head gardener, there’s only ever a handful of places on which you have your eye in London, and Inner Temple’s one of them. I was at Kensington Palace, but when this opportunity came up five years ago, I leapt at it.”

 

Q: What’s happening in the pots and beds right now? What’s been the most exciting addition of late?

A: “As we tiptoe towards early summer, we find ourselves in a really lovely moment of anticipation in the garden. The late tulips are here but will soon dwindle to make way for Cow Parsley, Foxgloves and Euphorbia that makes the garden smell like sweet honey. The meadows will soon come into their own too. I just love their soft, rolling waves.”

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Q: Is there a species that you’re most looking forward to coming into bloom this month?

A: “In May specifically, the wisteria in the Peony Garden; I’m impatient for its heady scent!

“More generally though, I’m looking forward to our very first summer opening on 27th May. Not only to welcome in the masses but because it’s the rare calendar moment when everything in the garden comes together to create the most magnificent whole. The shrub roses are out, there’s a huge number of foxgloves, and we all take a moment to simply stand back and feel proud of what we’ve cultivated together.”

 

Q: In which season do you think the garden is at its most beautiful?

A: “I’d say early spring when everything is starting to wake, but early and late summer are big wow moments too. Even winter has something to offer at Inner Temple. Because of our long season and how we prune our Dahlia Trees, they offer up bright pink daisy-like flowers in the late November, giving us a dose of Mexico even in thick fog.”

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Q: What’s the most fragrant flower in the garden?

A: “I love the Mock Orange Philadelphus that you’ll find just behind the hydrangeas where we’re sat. It’s not a showstopper in looks, but it more than makes up for it with its fragrant orange blossom scent.”

 

Q: And finally, if you had to give three bits of advice to beginner gardeners (like us!) what would you suggest?

A: “Get yourself down to other gardens and trawl Instagram to observe, explore and be inspired.

“Go slowly and get to know your garden.

“And don’t be afraid of trying. Learn and adapt. And if at first you don’t succeed, you know what they say…”

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Quick-fire: Sean’s Five Faves. 

Favourite flower?

“Succulents – the more, the merrier.”

Favourite tree?

“Prunus sargentii – for its weeping habit, and delicate pink flowers that fall like spring snow and create a blanket of blossom on the garden pathways.”

Favourite bird song?

“Wren – we get so many of them in the garden. I love how feisty their song is for such a small, sweet bird.”

Favourite thing to plant now?

“Summer annuals – Cosmos Seashells and Zinnia Purple Prince are two personal favourites.”

Favourite harvesting period? 

“Early autumn – sloes to make gin, quince to set jelly and mulberries for jam. We don’t have a kitchen garden per se but we do our best.”

Visit Inner Temple Gardens on its summer open day on 27th May from 12-4pm. For all the details, click here.

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