If I asked you to conjure up an image of a person in their twenties who lived and worked in a huge city, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they’d not be that interested in gardening. And you’d probably think that for lots of good reasons – lack of time, space and money perhaps, if not a lack of inclination. But actually huge numbers of young Londoners are really into gardening.
Growing your own is extremely popular in the capital at the moment, whether you have a traditional garden space or not. From flats and houses to tower blocks and boats, there’s much urban space that’s currently playing host to a plant pot or three.
Aerial, edible gardening
Happily moving back to London after a year working away, I spent a few long months hunting for a place where I could make myself a home. I finally moved into a tiny flat in Islington in late 2008, which came with a roof terrace, accessed through a narrow door in my bedroom. I knew immediately that this was a special thing, my very own little aerial garden, but it took me a year to decide to do something with it other than use it as a place to sunbathe in the summer and generally ignore in the winter.
2009 was the year I decided to turn it into a wildlife friendly veggie garden. I had no idea what I was doing, I still don’t really, but with a little bit of determination the roof has been transformed from bare and bleak into a thriving jungle, where I’ve harvested strawberries, tomatoes, beans, herbs and salads, and hosted all kinds of birds, bees and butterflies. It’s hard express how joyful the experience has been.
Green eyes and fingers
As a faintly impoverished twenty something in rented accommodation, it can be a challenge to be a grower. It’s the challenge that makes it exciting though, that ‘against the odds’ element and the fact it’s perhaps slightly surprising even to try. What I love most about London is its endless capacity to surprise me. With my new interest in urban gardening has come the wonderful discovery that I’m not alone, that loads of people are getting creative with the most interesting of spaces.
I have new eyes now I’m officially a London gardener, eyes that are attracted to pots balancing on roof tops and that see every spare space as a potential flower bed or vegetable patch. London is absolutely full of green spaces. There are the glorious parks that mean the UK capital is known as one of the greenest cities in the world. But there are also hundreds of smaller scale, more secret gardens that the discerning urbanite can seek out – community gardens and orchards, allotments, local nature reserves and borough growing projects.
‘Get Growing’ (www.getgrowing.org.uk) is such a project based in the London borough of Hackney. Set up at the start of 2009 by Hedvig Murray and her friend Sara, it gives people who sign up the equipment, guidance and moral support to start growing vegetables in their outside space, whatever shape or size it may be. They worked with ten households in Hackney last season, whose growing spaces ranged from window boxes and roof terraces, to front steps and back yards. The people involved were novices or gardeners who’ve become disheartened due to a lack of success.
Hedvig and Sara taught the group the principles of permaculture and gave them one-on-one practical tuition. Their enthusiasm for the project is infectious, Hedvig glows with the sheer joy of sharing growing know how and watching the people who’ve signed up become confident gardeners. It’s a community building scheme too – through it they’ve linked up with various local projects, all devoted to urban growing and outreach work.
Hedvig took me to visit one of the gardens that’s part of the ‘Get Growing’ project – a front yard belonging to a lady called Joanne, a ten minute cycle from Hedvig’s own house. Joanne’s front garden and steps were dripping with veg. There were beans, courgettes, aubergines, strawberries, tomatoes, herbs and salad. Neighbours had started shouting compliments across the street. She plans to install a wormery and a compost bin next. Suddenly her street seems a much friendlier place and she’s bubbling with creative confidence.
I’ve stumbled upon various little growing projects over the last year. Peering through a fence in King’s Cross recently, I saw that several skips had been planted with vegetables. Daydreaming on Waterloo Bridge, my attention was caught by a scrap of green space where supermarket trolleys have become planters. The Radical Nature exhibition at the Barbican saw a slice of wasteland in east London turned over to wheat last July and August. The temporary installation came complete with a working windmill. Fresh flour was milled and bread baked on site and shared with visitors.
Turns out everyone’s at it. One of my best friends has just moved to west London after spending most of her post university years on the road, most recently in Africa. In need of adventure and her own a little bit of wilderness, she’s taken to climbing out of her bedroom window and has been gradually turning the flat roof of her house into a plant nursery. Last summer she successfully grew everything from aubergines to marrows out there, though apparently the cabbages were a disaster!
Another friend created a heaving tomato plantation in a glass laundry room down in south London. While a friend in a Camden flat, with no outside space but lots of windowsills, tells me he’s been growing strawberries. Another friend has a gorgeous floating deck-top garden aboard her boat on the Thames, which boasts views of Tower Bridge. I even had the pleasure to explore a roof top garden recently that’s home to three chickens. London is turning into a city of young farmers, nurturing land and livestock in all kinds of strange spaces.
This article appears in the April issue of Kitchen Garden magazine (page 38!)
You can read more about my roof garden on the Kitchen Garden website and at www.aerialediblegardening.co.uk