Battle stations in bloom

When it comes to horticulture, some London Underground stations are just the ticket. And there's fierce competition to reach the top of the floral tree in the annual competition. Michael Booth went to measure the marigolds and root out the winners
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If you think you've got problems with greenfly and acidic soil, spare a thought for Arthur Louth. Arthur has far more to contend with than most gardeners. Several thousand members of the public troop through his garden at London's Morden underground station each week, using his tubs as rubbish bins, his trees as urinals, and even occasionally stopping to uproot some marigolds and pinch a cutting or two on the way.

"The wall on Platform Five gets terribly abused," says Arthur, a station assistant, "the contractors dump their rubbish there, and what the late- night revellers do ... well, it's better not to go into details." Add to that the amount of depot-bound trains that rumble through each day just yards from his delicate hanging baskets, a budget of less than pounds 150 (a third of it coming from his own pocket) and, this year, several last minute disasters, and Arthur's preparation for the final judging of the 1997 London Underground Station Gardens Competition, hasn't been ideal.

"A tree fell through my greenhouse at home so I couldn't grow any seeds," says 62-year-old Arthur, who has been at Morden for five years. "And I went on holiday and asked Dennis (another station assistant) to water the plants, but when I came back I had 10 hanging baskets filled with straw. You could have crumbled my lobelia in your hand. It's a crying shame, they would have been something: trailing lobelia, alyssum and a fuchsia in the centre. Beautiful."

Arthur was understandably distraught. He'd spent hours on the baskets, preparing them on his patio at home - "I deliberately bought them in after I'd been in hospital because I knew no one would water them while I was having my operation" - but more worrying was that the first round of judging was to start in three days time. Morden, at the grim end of the Northern Line in south London, was entered in three of the competition's four categories: Tubs, Hanging Baskets, and Mature Gardens (the fourth being New Cultivated Gardens), as well as being in contention for the pounds 100 prize for Best Overall Station. "Panic stations! Me and my wife came back for the next three nights until after 11. We had to go and buy more plants, mostly with my own money, though I did twist the big white chief Miss Hudson's arm for a bit more cash."

Arthur is an old hand at gardening competitions having been awarded the Merton In Bloom diploma by the mayor last year, as well as winning second and third prizes in the London Transport competition in previous years. "But this is the furthest I've got," he tells me, fire in his eyes. "And I'm going to retire in 20 weeks so this is my last chance. Last year I got two firsts and a second; this year I thought to myself, `This is my final year, I want three firsts'."

But a dark cloud looms over Arthur's raised beds. Preston Road station, near Neasden on the Metropolitan line, seven times winner of the competition (including the last four years), are hot favourites once again. But not even the best can afford to rest on their laurels in the gardening game - since last year's triumph Preston Road have added a pond and ornamental lawn.

London Underground have held their gardens competition since before anyone can remember. During the war, stations were judged on vegetables, not flowers, but Preston Road's beds were there even before that. Three staff tend its beds, packed with marigolds, gladioli, pansies, roses, begonias, salvias and busy lizzies, in spring they're awash with daffs, tulips and primroses. The tubs, made out of old sleepers, are a riot, but the centrepiece is a 16ft pond with 40 or so fish, in the middle of the platform.

The garden has cost pounds 750 of the staff's own money this year alone (the company gives an additional pounds 250), but come the autumn it will all be replanted; there are radical plans for a Mediterranean garden, and waterfall. This utopia has attracted coach parties from Doncaster and Japan, as well as donations from regular passengers, as Christina Barnett, station supervisor, explained: "One Japanese gentleman gives pounds 50 every year, we call him our benefactor. We make sure we buy something special, last year we bought a statue of a little boy and a dog." Unfortunately that was stolen, though its replacement shouldn't be so easy to pilfer: "We've put a concrete block with a 2ft-chain on this one."

This is effectively Christina's back garden as she lives above the station. "I came down last night at eight o'clock and went back up at midnight, and I was back at work at 5.30 the next morning," she says. The passengers share her enthusiasm, as evidenced by the many letters Christina has mounted on the platform wall. (One from ex-local MP Rhodes Boyson, while a Shirley Stanford writes: "Your garden is a delight, like an oasis in the desert. I am now retired so no longer travel through twice a day. It is the thing I miss most.")

"They are always asking about the competition, `When's the judging?' `Have you heard the results yet?' Many come early to sit by the pond or walk to the end of the platform, there's something to see all the way along," says Christina.

Morden and Preston Road are up against two others for a cash prize of pounds 100, and I detected a little tension as the day of judgement approached. "With the heat everything's dripping, the flowers aren't going to be in their prime," frets Christina. "Because it's an island platform it's open to the weather. You can't water in the day because it's too hot and it'd burn the flowers. You've really got to douse them down at night, but if it rains the weight of the water can crush them, which it did last night. At least we don't get cats. They'd have to cross the track and they don't like getting juiced, cats!" Christina also has concerns about the impartiality of the judges. "I've said all along that they shouldn't have business managers judging because they've all got vested interests in their lines, I know I'd be biased to my own line."

Despite these trials the Preston Road crew affect disdain of their rivals; Christina fears no one and hasn't even bothered to visit other gardens in the competition. Arthur, however, has been to suss out the opposition. "I said to my wife, we'll go and look at the other three in the Mature Gardens section, so on my day off we went. Have you been to Preston Road? Now I'm going to speak my mind here. We used to have a judge come round, Janet, she's retired now, and the other year she said to me that she thought it was a bit over the top - with a pond and whatever, `It's ridiculous', she said. And I agree, how can I compete with that? It's like Manchester United playing a Sunday league team."

When I tell Arthur Preston Road's budget his despair is tangible, and I feel a little guilty. "There you are! pounds 1,000! I get pounds 150. Preston Road's alright, but it's an established garden. Know what I mean? No wonder they were in the London Evening Standard with their coach loads of tourists. As for the other two, I wasn't impressed. I didn't get off the train at Willesden Green. Rickmansworth - take it or leave it. The only one I'm concerned with is Preston Road. They've won it so many times, I think the name wins it. Foregone conclusion."

Foregone conclusion or not, Arthur will be trying his damnedest to present his garden at its very best right up until the judges arrive, but sadly the Morden legacy is unlikely to continue once he retires. "No one at this station cares about the garden, it's just been me," he said. "When I'm gone it will be a bed of weeds down there. It won't last long, there'll be nothing."

Judgment day arrived on Friday, 28 August, and Morden came second in the Mature Gardens section - predictably won by Preston Road. The best news of all was that Arthur had the honour of winning the special award for Best Overall Station. An exultant Arthur said: "I'm very happy with the outcome, I couldn't wish for a better leaving present, but I'd like to congratulate the other winners. I'm going to miss the gardens when I go." !