The gardens serve the traditional collegiate function of providing an amenity for the College’s members and a setting for its buildings. They owe something to the history of the site, but this fact is largely disguised by the change of use to which the Observatory has been put, and the way in which the gardens have been redesigned and almost entirely replanted since Green College's inception.
The front or Lankester quadrangle (converted from the Observatory's stable yard) is given design strength by the arrangement and materials used in its paths and paving. There is permanent planting in the borders, containing a variety of subjects with an interest in leaf and form as much as flower, while seasonal variety is obtained in the choice of subjects grown in stone troughs.
The main garden
Beyond the Lankester quadrangle, in the shadow of the Observatory itself, lies the main garden. This area was previously the private garden of the Radcliffe Observer and the sense of enclosure, self-containment and domesticity is still pervasive. The three-quarters span greenhouse is prominent as you enter. Its glass, curved on the leading edge, is designed to take rainwater away from the timbers. The house functions mainly as a winter garden for tender plants and a propagation house for summer flowers.
Now that the Observatory is being restored to its former glory there is a temptation to perceive it as a garden building for a designed landscape, but that particular flight of fancy should be resisted. The garden is not a landscape park (although there used to be one in miniature to the south of the Observatory during the 19th century) but an acre or so of intricately-wrought space that contains detailed foreground planting for close inspection from the main access paths, as well as broader-conceived shrubberies towards the margins.
The College did not inherit many mature trees and, by and large, a grand scale is not aimed at, but an island bed containing an aspiring group of Sequoiadendron giganteum (Wellingtonia), Calocedrus decurrens (incense cedar) and Betula utilis (Himalayan birch) has been putting on substantial growth for a generation now, thereby counterbalancing somewhat the height and mass of the Observatory itself.
Various types of colour combinations have been used in the garden, from complementary silvers, greys, purples and blues in one bed, to a sequence of planting in the long borders, designed to reflect (roughly) the colours of the rainbow.
A medical connection
Of interest to some members of the College is the medicinal and herb garden, which has been maintained and adapted over several years. Originally seen as necessary adjuncts to medical studies, physic gardens became sidelined by the advent of scientific pharmacology and the synthesizing of drugs, but the use of plants as a valuable resource in the search for beneficial treatments has renewed in recent years.
Medicinal plants in the garden include Digitalis purpurea (purple foxglove), containing the cardiac glycoside digitoxin which is used to slow and strengthen the heart rate, and Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade) containing the alkaloids hyoscyamine and atropine, used in contrast to speed the heart rate. Poisonous plants include Conium maculatum (hemlock) and Ricinus communis (castor oil plant) used to despatch Socrates and Gyorgy Markov respectively. Of benign use exclusively is Camellia sinensis (tea plant).
The kitchen garden
The area occupying the north-east corner of the College, once the domain of the Observer’s kitchen garden, has been the province of the racquet sports of squash and tennis since the foundation of Green College.