This article appears in the spring issue of Lost in London magazine
My Holloway flat is truly tiny. It’s home sweet home but postage stamp sized. I moved here to escape a hellish house share and so I’ve always seen it as a retreat. For my flatmate and me it’s our most peaceful place, despite being sandwiched between the Camden, Holloway and Seven Sisters Roads. What makes my part of this paltry palace extra special is the fact my bedroom has a door that opens out onto a fenced-in flat roof.
When I moved in it was almost winter, the days were short and the rooftop damp and rather bleak. It was a three metre square patch of grey, albeit one that boasted surprisingly green views of gardens running wild and grand old trees. It felt like London, framed by the backs of classic town houses and edged with the outline of chimney stacks.
In spite of inevitable sirens, helicopter buzz and bus roar, the space is calm. Attached to me and my space, it floats somehow separate from the seething urbanity that surrounds it. I would stare at it through condensation curtained windows that winter and think I’d like to get to know my square of grey better.
A city girl, I also love the outdoors and nature. London has vast swathes of green space and supports much wildlife. At the same time I inherited a potential roof garden, I was also becoming more and more intrigued by urban ecology. Fascinated by the richness of London’s wildlife, I was starting to understand the importance of conserving and creating more natural land within the city.
So, full of the joys of nature, and being a fan of food as everybody is, I decided to get acquainted with my rooftop by turning it into an aerial, edible garden. It was to be organic and wildlife friendly, full of flowers that would attract bees and moths. It was to be low maintenance and done on a budget. It was to be an allotment of sorts, as well as providing me with some extra space in which to daydream and entertain friends.
It ended up taking me another year to get my act together and really start growing in earnest. My second winter in the flat found me reading gardening books, drawing strange diagrams and heading off to seed swaps and garden centres. I even started a blog, thinking that if I made my intentions public, I’d be more motivated to actually get on and do it.
After just one growing season I felt like I’d genuinely earned myself a set of urban green fingers. I’ve successfully grown and harvested potatoes, beans, tomatoes, courgettes, garlic, strawberries, herbs and salads up there. I’ve developed a night corner with flowers like tobacco plant, evening primrose, lavender and jasmine that are gloriously fragrant after dark. I’ve hosted small home grown supper parties and lost many hours to sun dozing and moon bathing amongst the foliage.
Wildlife wise, destructive snails and squirrels visit regularly and often, plus much loved and tuneful Cockney sparrows, blackbirds and robins. I’ve even spied a great spotted woodpecker in my neighbour’s sycamore tree. I get many bees, butterflies and moths. My aerial gardening adventures have opened my eyes to a new side of London life, and the project has been the force behind new friendships far beyond the rooftop.
My book based on a year on the roof, and adventuring off into London’s wild spaces, is published this June. My Garden, the City and Me: Rooftop Adventures in the Wilds of London – ask for it in your local bookshop!
High up horticulture – a how to
Lacking a conventional garden is no reason not to grow things. There are numerous plants, including edible ones, that will happily endure an entirely container bound life. That container could be a basket full of tumbling tomatoes hanging beside a shared front door; a kitchen ledge window box planted with culinary herbs; or larger troughs and pots sitting on a balcony, hosting anything from courgettes to potatoes and everything in between. Now is the time to get your hands dirty.
Line a large hessian sack with a plastic bin bag that you have punched with a few pin sized drainage holes. Fill it up half way with good organic, peat-free compost and plant two or three seed potatoes. As green shoots start to burst through the soil, top it up with more compost. Gradually keep adding compost to cover the shoots as they grow, until the sack is full. Allow the plants to grow, flower and then die back. Have a root around to see if the potatoes are ready. Leave alone if you can’t find any. Harvest the crop by pouring the soil out onto a sheet and having a good sift for your spuds.
Start off planting your seeds in small containers inside – empty yoghurt pots and fruit punnets are perfect for propagating seedlings. Once your plants are starting to look strong and sturdy, introduce them to the outside world by leaving them out during the day and bringing them in at night. After a week or two they should be able to move out permanently. Plant a single courgette in a decent sized container and watch it grow. You can eat the flowers as well as the vegetables. Protect young plants from slugs with cloches made from old clear plastic bottles, and by spreading gritty gravel on top of soil.
Upside down tomato
Start your tomatoes from seed inside, growing them the right way up and in small pots. Once they’re looking strong, harden them off before moving them outside permanently. Find an empty, litre sized plastic bottle and cut the bottom off. Place a small piece of cardboard, with a stalk sized hole cut in it, in the bottle opening. Thread the tomato seeding through the cardboard so it’s poking out of the opening and its roots are inside the bottle. Fill with soil and then water. Attach some string to the bottom, hang it up and watch it grow, flower and fruit.
Buy one or two small strawberry plants and plant in a hanging basket, filled with good compost. Hang and keep well watered. The plants will grow and flower, before producing glossy berries. They will send out runners, which turn into whole new plants. A home grown baby strawberry plant gift will always be appreciated by a friend.
Runner bean living wall
Soak your bean seeds overnight in water, then plant in small pots inside. Support the plants with sticks. Wooden coffee stirrers work well for tiny plants or collect sticks from the woods. Harden the beans off and then plant them out in a decent sized container beside a wall. Support each plant with a long cane and hang netting between them. The beans will weave a leaving wall around the netting and canes, before flowering and fruiting. Protect young plants with cloches and grit.