Category: gardens

Gardens Illustrated | nature’s palette

Katelyn Toth Fejel (c) Rachel Warne 01

This feature appears in the June issue of Gardens Illustrated
Photography by Rachel Warne

Dyer and designer Katelyn Toth Fejel hails from America but currently lives in Hackney Wick. As well as acres of urban grit, this part of east London also has a river, the Lee, and a modest tangle of woodland called Wick Woods. In the summer it’s tempting to get a little bit lost in its lushness. Sadly, I meet Katelyn on a day that’s less than perfect.

How many people in the fashion industry aren’t a little bit allergic to rain? Katelyn has excellent couture credentials but constantly craves the outdoors. Persistent drizzle, and the subsequent waterproofs it requires, doesn’t put her off. A walk in Wick Woods with Katelyn, her local dye foraging spot, involves getting down on your hands on knees to peer at things in intimate close up, whatever the weather.

Inspired by permaculture, Katelyn is part of the Permacouture Institute, works for the London College of Fashion’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion and helps run an ethical boutique called Here Today, Here Tomorrow. She’s a nature lover and environmentalist as much as she is a designer, and these passions inform and shape her work. “I approach fashion as if it were an ecology, an ecosystem.”

She began experimenting with mail order natural dyes at art school and hasn’t looked back, quickly graduating to ones she makes herself. “I love the diversity of the experience when you pick the dye yourself. With powders you get the same result each time.” She talks of the beauty of creating a dye palette that reflects her local environment, suggesting the blur of colour you might see through a car or train window is likely a similar spread of shades you would get from dye plants sourced in that area.

Katelyn champions species that are abundant but others may see as a nuisance. “I love plants that do many things like nettle – it can be used to make soup or tea, as a fabric and a dye.” A favourite last summer was a container of cut-and-come-again pot marigolds – the flowers are delicious in salads and can also be used as a dye. She has a huge bag of frozen petals in her freezer, ready for brewing into a dye bath when the right project comes along.

Making natural dyes from plants is a lot like cooking – there’s no one way to do it. Bark likes to be cooked long and hot, whereas something light and leafy needs much gentler treatment. To turn the concoction from colourful stew into dye you may need to add a mordant like alum, which helps fix the dye to the fabric. It’s gentle enough that leftover dye can be used to water acid loving plants like blueberry or rhododendron.

Katelyn’s experiments with plants have produced hues of ombre, chestnut, rust, gold, mustard, terracotta, pink, mink and cream. The colours compliment each other and have unusual depths. “Natural dyes, like a Seurat painting, change in different lights,” she says. “They shimmer. It’s almost like an optical illusion. They have a richness and depth that synthetic colours lack.”

Katelyn Toth Fejel (c) Rachel Warne 02

For Katelyn, dock root is “an unusual blessing”. It may need to be boiled for several hours to release the dye, but the resulting rusty pinks, shimmering golds and autumnal oranges are worth it. In a world dominated by yellows, natural dyers come to prize the reds. Dock works beautifully on silk or wool, and you can achieve many more shades by adding acid or alkali to the dye. A dash of baking soda will bring out a warm terracotta. Dock leaves can be used too – young foliage produces a bright green-yellow, older leaves create more of a mustard.

As someone who loves a challenge and embraces the opportunity to experiment, cherry is a favourite of Katelyn. “It’s such a mystery, still. If I had any tree it would be this.” While some people hate the inconsistency of natural dying, she relishes the unknown. The bark from young, fallen branches can produce a dye that ranges from pinks and oranges to greens and golds. The colour achieved depends on the variety of tree and the environmental conditions where it is found, not to mention the fabric you are dying – wool and silk will turn different colours when dipped in the same dye bath.

The inner bark of the birch tree produces a pretty pink, while the outer bark achieves a paler, subtler shade. The leaves create yellow or olive green. Add iron to the dye bath – Katelyn nurtures rusty nails in jars of water especially for the task – to produce a creamy, purplish grey. A range of special effects are possible with natural dyes and specific techniques can be used to create unusual patterns. For example, Itajime – Japanese wood block clamping – leaves behind un-dyed shapes with haloes around the edge. You can use natural dyes to colour yarn and for screen-printing projects too.

The bark, leaves and berries of the elder tree can all be used as dyes. The bark creates a delicate metallic colour like the palest pink of the inside of a shell, while the leaves produce tans, greens and golds. The berries can be used to create a fugitive purple stain, which changes over time and eventually washes out. Katelyn welcomes the impermanence – “embrace unpredictably and accept change – dye a dress afresh every season.” Her foraging also embraces the edible and she advises you eat some elder berries too. The ideal plant will colour your cloth and make a meal.


Guardian | go grass free


The floral lawn at Avondale Park

This feature was written for the Guardian

Lionel Smith isn’t anti-grass, nor is he immune to the smell of it when freshly cut. But he believes it’s high time we rethought the lawn. The concept is more than 900 years old, and our modern take on it apparently lacks creativity. As lovingly well kept as it may be, your home turf has the potential to be so much more than a homogenous expanse of green blades. And let’s be honest: grass is often more patchy than perfect.

Standing by the grass-free lawn he has created for Avondale Park near Notting Hill in London, Smith can barely contain his excitement. It’s the first public outing for an idea he’s been nurturing at the University of Reading for four years. “Why do you need grass in the lawn when it can look as pretty as this?” he asks.

If we decide to take a leap with Smith and agree that grass isn’t its defining feature, what is a lawn? “It’s something very low-cut. Anything beyond here,” he says, pointing halfway up his shin, “is going towards meadow. The other thing is using a mower. It must be low and it must be mown. Do you mow your flowerbeds?”

Floral and grass lawns may have height and close cutting in common, but wildlife sets the floral lawn apart. “Other than the occasional blackbird pulling a worm, there’s not a lot that goes on. [A grass lawn’s] biodiversity value is highly limited,” Smith says. “However, when you have something like this, which is made up of over 65 cultivars and species, each with a different form and shape, there is so much opportunity. It’s a magnet for insect life. And it’s gorgeous! I wanted to create something beautiful.”

The royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea invited Smith to create the floral lawn in a spot that previously hosted a pictorial meadow with varying success. The 200 sq m space is a textural patchwork of ground-hugging burgundy, pink and green foliage and flowers, with flashes of blue, yellow and white. Taller plants form clumps throughout – a sign that the first mow is due.

The mowing is crucial, but slicing away hundreds of flowers feels brutal. “The mower will shock everybody – it always does,” Smith says. “But the taller plants will dominate the smaller ones unless they’re attacked by the mower. If it’s not mown, this will not last – it will turn into a meadow.” This tough love does make sense. Smaller plants get the light and space they need to thrive, and the taller ones will start growing again within a few weeks. And a floral lawn requires far less cutting over a year than a grass one.

The perennial plants are a mixture of UK natives and their cultivars, plus more exotic species that extend the flowering period. Rather than being sown directly into the soil, they are cultivated from seed, plugs or cuttings in seed trays. When the plants have developed decent roots, Smith lays them in a mosaic over ground where the grass has been removed.

The key is that they can multiply with runners or roots, and that they’re allowed time to knit and blend before the first cut. Species include bronze-leaved bugle (Ajuga reptans ‘Chocolate Chip’), unusual pink dandelions (Taraxacum pseudoroseum) and big, blowsy, red daisies. There’s also a smattering of Corsican mint (Mentha requienii), which releases its scent when crushed underfoot.

Walking on the lawn is encouraged, but not in excess. Light footfall is helpful, but the Avondale Park lawn is fenced off because it’s in a busy public space. I’m allowed a quick wander. It feels decidedly odd to walk over the flowers, and my stride is more cautious than confident. Apparently children have a much more animated response. And park users of all ages have welcomed its appearance.

“We’ve had lots of enquiries,” says Leanne Brisland, the borough’s ecology service manager. “Residents want to know if they can buy it, saying they’d like to put one in their own garden.” And that, of course, is the killer question: where can you get one? It’s a question Smith has been fending off with increasing regularity. He’s unwilling to commit to anything definitive until he finishes his PhD research, but he hopes to collaborate with garden centres to create an off‑the‑shelf version.

If you fancy trying your hand at a floral lawn, Smith proposes growing your chosen plants in seed trays on the space where you want the floral lawn to be. The trays will starve the grass of light and you’ll see what the floral version is going to look like in situ. Once your plants have good roots and the grass is dead, turn out the trays and establish your lawn (Smith has suggestions on his website). Then sit back, put that order for a new mower on hold and wait for the wildlife to arrive.

Guardian | growth not guns

Eufloria 03

This feature was written for the Guardian

For people who don’t play computer games – myself included – it’s easy to assume all virtual reality has to offer is the dubious opportunity to wield a weapon. Thankfully, that’s only part of the picture.

Enter planet Proteus and you’re invited to wander through a rough-edged landscape that responds to your presence with music. Eufloria blends exploration with a cultivation quest and is more aggressive, involving fighting a diseased strain of seedling that’s hindering your attempts to colonise an asteroid belt with trees. Both games are inspired by the natural world, and both are selling surprisingly well.

The first thing to ask, of course, is why bother gardening via a video game or going for a virtual walk? If these things are possible in the real world, why play a game? Well, you could say the same about books, exhibitions or films. All offer interpretations of the world but none are replacements for the real thing. Plus you’re unlikely to get the chance to cultivate an asteroid any time soon.

Proteus 02

“Proteus is a reaction to landscape and the world, and enhances and changes the way you feel about it,” explains Ed Key, one of the game’s creators. “We’re consciously trying to the mirror the feelings of observing something in the natural world. It’s impossible to have the same infinite variety but we hope that people get a sense of it. But the abstract style of graphics and sound means it’s not trying to be realistic, it’s evocative and invites you to fill in the gaps.”

The island in Proteus is user-generated, so it’s different every time, but it’s shaped by Key’s time in Cumbria, Wiltshire, Orkney and the Western Isles. The unusual colour palette is inspired by the paintings of Paul Nash and Art Deco tourism posters, where the New York sky might be yellow and the trees blue.

Proteus is structured into four seasons, the final one being winter. “It’s a carefully crafted sequence through four acts but with no pressure to go onto the next,” says Key. “There are levels and a measurable sense of progress, but it has a user driven pace. There’s no endgame or checklist, which are common in games that cater for a competitive urge.”

You don’t have to be a gamer to understand this is quite an unusual approach. “We have been surprised by its success,” admits Key. “Proteus isn’t an explicit challenge against violence but people have championed it for that. It provokes people to think there can be more to gaming than violence and military style games.”

With its simplistic version of outer space, curling tree roots and swirling seeds, Eufloria may also seem a serene place. Alex May, one of its creators, points out it’s actually “horribly violent… Its veneer is peaceful, and the violence is not explicit, but you are routinely sending hundreds of seedlings to their deaths in this game.”

Eufloria 01

Violence varies – nature has a brutality that is entirely different to the carnage inflicted by your average shoot ’em up game. May says players have told him Eufloria is a breath of fresh air in comparison, something he can appreciate.

“I attended E3 in LA a couple of years back and being in the show hall was a remarkable experience – it honestly sounded like a warzone,” he says. “There was no refuge from gunfire or some other kind of violence, and you were never out of sight of some kind of sexist iconography or characterisation. It was absolutely repellent and yes, I feel that Eufloria is a sort of antithesis to that culture.”

In both games, the soundscape is as important as the landscape and Brian Eno an inspiration. Proteus’s creators say “music is a core part of the design: the world sings to you.” Ed Key explains that his co-creator David Kanaga is interested in musical structures as play structures, and in allowing the user to influence what they hear.

“There are lots of musical loops playing simultaneously, you raise the volume of certain loops as you get close to something,” says Key. “It’s like an internal mixing board and it allows a conversation between the player and the game.”

Proteus 01

Eufloria also uses ambient music, something suggested by the game’s other creator Rudolf Kremers and composed by Milieu (Brian Grainger). “I think the music goes a long way in evoking the nature of the world we’ve depicted,” says Alex May. “The game would be extremely different without his work.”

So, what next for these nature loving game designers? Are plants the next big thing in gaming? Probably not, but both Ed Key and Alex May plan to continue with the theme. Key, an amateur botanist with a foraging habit, wants to make a hunter-gatherer survival based game next, while May likes the idea of one where you can create your own personalised vivarium.

Guardian | high rise gardening

bosco verticale_wordpress

This article was written for the Guardian

Forget London’s monolithic new Shard, all eyes will surely be on the Bosco Verticale when it opens in Milan at the end of this year. The new skyscraper promises to bring a hectare of forest into the central business district, as well as hundreds of new homes. Rather than cold steel and glass, the surface of this high-rise will ripple with organic life.

Made of two towers – one 80 metres high, the other 112 metres – Bosco Verticale is currently being planted with 730 specially cultivated trees, 11,000 groundcover plants and 5,000 shrubs. One of the principal architects, Stefano Boeri calls it both “radical” and an “experiment”; a reaction against the “high parallelepipeds, clad by glass, steel or ceramic” he’s witnessed in Dubai.

Jill Fehrenbacher, editor of Inhabitat and a follower of architecture trends, says proposals for buildings featuring copious vegetation are increasingly common. “I have yet to see very many of these ‘living building’ designs become reality, which is why the Bosco Verticale is such a big deal,” she says.

The interdisciplinary team working on the project includes botanists as well as engineers. Their research has ventured into testing the wind resistance of certain species of tree in wind tunnels, as well as finding a suitably lightweight substrate able to meet plants’ nutritional demands. The residents’ needs are also important – trees will be trimmed so foliage doesn’t interrupt their views.

Boeri explains that the Bosco Verticale “hands over to vegetation itself the task of absorbing the dust in the air and of creating an adequate micro-climate in order to filter out the sunlight. This is a kind of biological architecture, which refuses to adopt a strictly technological and mechanical approach to environmental sustainability.”

Already open, the Park Royal on Pickering hotel in Singapore is another example of a towering building-cum-garden in a dense urban area. WOHA, the architects, say it was inspired by headlands, promontories and planted terraces. Richard Hassell, the firm’s founding director, enjoys blurring the distinction between hard architecture and soft landscapes but admits that working with plants is a challenge.“For architects, it is quite a change in mindset to deal with living things,” he says.

“Normally an architect is trying to make things that are as static as possible, and resist wear and tear. But plants grow, and change, and drop leaves, and wilt and die if you forget about them.”

park royal hotel_wordpress

A ‘living building’ is never really finished. It will change over time and will require much more maintenance than one without plants. For both the Park Royal on Pickering and the Bosco Verticale, the upkeep will be centralised and carried out by specialist staff. Could such projects be called too labour and energy intensive? Jill Fehrenbacher doesn’t think so.

“Living plants…clean the air and produce oxygen, they help humidify indoor air, they reduce storm water runoff and the urban heat island effect, and they help insulate a building,” she argues. “Even though skyscrapers like the Bosco Verticale inherently use a tonne of resources and energy – simply by virtue of being a high-rise building – all of those trees and plants are going to be beneficial to the building occupants, neighbours and local environment.”

And perhaps ‘living buildings’ have worth based on aesthetics alone. “At the very worst, a garden is a delight to the users, so even if there is minimum environmental value, there is still immense value in having more green spaces in dense cities,” says Richard Hassell.

The visual impact of buildings like these certainly can’t be underestimated. Apparently Singapore’s taxi drivers now make detours to drive past the planted hotel, while Stefano Boeri talks about his structures being ‘ecology billboards’. Jill Fehrenbacher says such buildings will be everywhere in twenty years, as we “try to recreate some sort of primeval garden of paradise in our homes and workplaces.”More than mere gardens, planted high-rises have the potential to change our cityscapes.

“For sure this is an experiment but to have a sequence of Bosco Verticales, to reach a critical mass, this could be quite interesting,” says Boeri. “To deurbanise the urban environment is a radical alternative to expensive technology.”The proof of a building’s appeal is surely when the architect himself decides to move-in. And yes, Boeri has reserved himself a small apartment in Bosco Verticale, explaining he’s “extremely attracted” to the idea of living high up in these soon-to-be leafy towers of trees.

Guardian | plants are the new paint

Foraging spiral with base camp_Fritz Haeg

This feature was written for the Guardian

“My projects are never done, they send out ripples that continue, which can’t be anticipated or controlled. That’s how I like it,” says Fritz Haeg, who has made community gardening an art form that galleries find hard to resist. His Edible Estates series has taken him around America and Europe, including a commission to make an Edible Estate for Tate Modern back in 2007.

This year he created a ‘Foraging Spiral and Base Camp’ in a bowl shaped hollow of Everton Park for the Liverpool Biennial. The spiral is a wild and winding bed of tall native plants, many of which are edible or medicinal. The lawn of the hollow has been allowed to grow long. Throughout the art festival, a temporary encampment hosted conversations about the park’s future and its complicated past – it grows over an area where terraced homes and then tower blocks were levelled in the 1960s and 80s respectively.

Despite his love of working with plants, Haeg insists he is an artist not a landscape designer. “I have gradually become bored with things that are not alive – like paintings, buildings and sculptures. I like working with things that are always changing, that I am not always in complete control of,” he says.

“A landscape designer might be focused on solving problems. As an artist I might actually be looking for the problems, focusing on them, presenting them and not avoiding them… The work can be performance, political and activist, and many other things too, all at the same time.”


A hint of performance can also be found in the work of French artist Mathilde Roussel. Her ‘Lives of Grass’ sculptures are dynamic human forms – stuffed with soil and wheat seeds – that constantly change. When they are installed, the host gallery must become a plant nursery of sorts, complete with botanical lights. The living sculptures need watering daily. Their presence invites drama and ritual.

Choosing living plants over more reliable materials means opting for results that are not just unpredictable but that will ultimately die. The artwork – or its longevity – becomes less important than the process of creating it. Both Haeg and Roussel’s work has a special quality made possible by the use of plants, an ephemeral one that has something in common with performance art.

“Wheat grows very fast so you can really see the forms metamorphose through the exhibition,” explains Roussel. “After a few weeks, the wheat grass starts getting yellow and then slowly dries and dies. In this way the sculptures encapsulate the entire human and plant life cycle.” She describes time as “sculpting the forms.”

Roussel grew up on a farm in Normandy, where her family grow cereals, mainly wheat. Using wheat plants as a medium is a way of reflecting her heritage and also showing that “food has an impact on us beyond its taste.” But working with living things has huge implications for the final results.

“Because I work with organic materials, I can’t have a complete control… And this is precisely what I am interested in. Plants are a fascinating material to work with. There is something magical about the way they transform through time just like we do,” says Roussel.

Both continue to work with plants. Haeg will be planting the 13th and final of his Edible Estates for the Walker Art Center in 2013, in the suburbs of Minneapolis; while Roussel is currently working on an installation using mud and plants.

Urban Agriculture | Part Twelve | Glasgow and Edinburgh

Watering the beans at Urban Roots

The final part of my year long series for Kitchen Garden about urban agriculture

“Glasgow, or ‘Glaschu’ in Gaelic, translates as Dear Green Place. Indeed, we have more parks and green space per capita than any other European city” says Abi Mordin from Urban Roots, a project that’s at the forefront of the city’s urban growing scene. “Glasgow also has lots of derelict land although, as it was a former industrial hub, much of it is contaminated. A network of community gardens can be plotted across the city, where local people have taken over vacant land and are transforming it into beautiful, useful spaces.”

Urban Roots is made up of three community gardens that total around one acre, and they’re also currently developing a two acre site as a market garden. 40 volunteers help to grow a wide range of produce – ranging through salads, spinach, chard, peas, beans, carrots, parsnips, potatoes, kale, broccoli and cabbage. They’ve set up an apiary this year, so soon there will be honey too.

“Anyone volunteering on the project gets a bag of veg for free, and the rest we sell to local cafes or fruit and veg shops. We only use organic and permaculture methods in our gardens” explains Abi. “We also help other groups get their own community garden projects up and running, providing advice on community engagement, garden design, site development and ongoing maintenance.”

As well as giving people access to the simple pleasures of fresh food and fresh air, Urban Roots – and the wider Glasgow Local Food Network they are part of – have big ambitions for the city.  “Our mission is to make local, organically grown produce affordable and accessible” explains Abi.

“We want to reduce dependency on imported fruit and vegetables, reduce our collective ‘food footprint’ and ‘field to fork’ miles, and create an environment that is sustainable for people and planet. We are looking at how to upscale current production, and put in supply chains to work towards local food justice and self reliance.”

Woodlands_transformation in progress

“Being down the garden, just mucking in, slows me down and makes me appreciate the simple things of life – elemental and organic camaraderie, cuppas, digging with good cheer and dwelling in possibility.” So says one of the growers from the Woodlands Community Garden in Glasgow.  The garden sits on a site that was derelict for a long time, after the tenement block it housed burned down in the 1970s. In the last couple of years it’s been transformed by forty raised beds, swathes of wildflowers and a band of dedicated gardeners.

Woodlands Community Garden sits between the city centre and the west end, in a residential area. The land was owned by a community development trust and a group of locals approached them in 2009 about turning it into a garden. As well as raised beds and plenty of veg, it also boasts a stage built from palletes and hosts lots of arts events.

“The raised beds are looked after by clusters of individuals – we encourage collective growing” explains Tim Cowen from the project. “They mainly grow veg and herbs. Half the garden is communal and we grow things to encourage wildlife. Produce is shared and swapped, and volunteers who help maintain the garden take a share of the produce even if they don’t have a raised bed. Over winter, the popular crops to grow are things like broad beans, garlic and winter salads.”

What is perhaps most unusual about the garden is the fact it is completely open, with no locked gates. “This presents some challenges but it also means we’ve become more of a community asset” says Tim. “There are massive social benefits from working outside alongside people you would never normally speak to.”


East of Glasgow is, of course, Edinburgh, which Chris Macefield from Bridgend Growing Communities describes, with a whiff of romance, as a place “where the mountains meet the sea”. The city settles between the hill ranges of the Pentlands and the estuary of the Firth of Forth.

The Bridgend project is based in an allotment and supports people living in areas of high health deprivation to grow food. Not only is the allotment a training hub, it’s also where their wood fuelled outdoor kitchen resides. A pizza oven and a rocket stove allow them to create delights using home grown produce, ranging from hearty soups and healthy veg stews, to quiches and pizzas.

“The people who volunteer and garden here not only have the opportunity to cook the food in the outdoor kitchen, they also take away the produce” explains Chris. “Bridgend is open to all, and one of our real strengths is that we bring people from all backgrounds together. We look to support people with chaotic lifestyles, or varied health problems, and also provide opportunities to individuals who have a general interest in community gardening.”

As autumn edges into winter, the garden remains a hive of activity. “During the colder months we still have a dedicated band of volunteers who are keen to grow. We have two polytunnels, which helps to extend the growing season. There are always things to do, such as landscaping the plots and building raised beds, along with more artistic and craft based endeavours.”

seedlings growing at the botanic garden

The Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh is not the obvious next place you would go to if you wanted to witness more community food growing, but this traditional space has taken an unusually edible turn. “For years we have focused almost entirely on growing the rare and exotic” says Dr Ian Edwards, who is Head of Exhibitions and Events. “We feel we can do both successfully, and our experience and expertise in growing plants is something we can offer to other groups through training and informal tours and visits.”

Turns out, Edinburgh has history when it comes to community gardening, as Ian explains. “The first children’s gardens (the original kindergarten) were in Edinburgh’s Old Town, inspired by the town planner, botanist and environmentalist Patrick Geddes at the beginning of the twentieth century. I like to think our Edible Gardening Project is part of our Patrick Geddes heritage.”

The project includes a polytunnel, fruit garden and vegetable plots that are all open to the public. They grow winter salads and tender summer vegetables in the polytunnel, and a range of heritage and more modern varieties in the outside beds. The fruit garden has pears, apples, cherries, plums and common soft fruits, plus more exotic strawberry tree, honeyberries and even an Oregon grape.

“There are huge waiting lists in Edinburgh for allotments – up to nine years in places” says Jenny Foulkes, who manages the Edible Gardening Project. “There has been a peak in interest in edible gardening over the last few years. This can be attributed to themany and varied benefits of gardening and growing your own. The Edible Gardening Project aims to provide help and support for people who want to grow their own food but don’t know how or where to begin. We help people get over the initial barriers.”

Guardian | the lovely bones

This feature was written for the Guardian

“Every garden should include some plants that die beautifully.” An odd sounding assertion perhaps, but landscape designer Tom Stuart Smith believes death should be designed into our gardens – plant deaths that are graceful and heroic. Gardeners’ idea of what is good looking varies wildly but one thing on which they likely can agree is that a growing space should feel alive. But the dead and the dying have a lot to offer – both aesthetically and practically.

As summer shifts to autumn, and autumn withers to winter, green spaces bleach into metallic pale straw colours while also deepening into rich tawny coppers and rusts. Amid this complex palette of browns, sculptural features stand out. That star burst of a seed head studded with dew balls. The skeletal tree silhouetted against a bright grey sky.  Fading sweeps of long grass stiffened by frost.

It’s not all charming – a gathering slush pile of leaves on your patio or lawn is no thing of beauty. Rot and ruin has a purpose though. Gathered into black bags and left to break down, fallen leaves will slowly transform into a rich, soil enhancing mulch. The dead and dying also provide food and shelter for wildlife. A pile of old wood can be a palace for small mammals and seed heads offer substantial meals to birds. Put simply, wildlife relies on decaying matter and it’s an essential part of the lifecycle of any healthy garden.

So how does one do death well in the garden, and is it ever acceptable not to deadhead and cut back? “We used to have a very tidy attitude to gardens but that’s gradually changed” says Stuart Smith.  He singles out Piet Oudolf as the person who has made people look at dead plants afresh, and suggests a more elegiac approach to planting is an inevitable part of a shift from completely controlled gardens to something more natural. “People always ask me when they should cut things back. You should trust your instincts and just do it when you don’t like the look of something anymore.”

The key to making death becoming is to combine attractive foliage, seed heads and colour. Blend grasses like rich brown Hakonechloa macra, straw coloured Miscanthus and pale Pennisetums with the striking seed heads of teasel, Phlomis russeliana, monarda, cardoon and sedums. Stuart Smith has a special mention for tall growing Inula magnifica. He revels in its death, explaining that it ends up like a charred thing with a look of bent metal. Dramatic deaths should feature, as well as elegant ones.

“It’s about a shift in perception of what is and isn’t valuable and beautiful in the garden,” says Elaine Hughes, a wildlife garden designer who openly appreciates the decline and fall of plants. Thinking about death is a way of broaching wider questions about the point of gardens. Far from macabre, for her the vegetal die-back is actually a life affirming process and certainly doesn’t have to be ugly.

Hughes celebrates the explosive form of the alium seed head and the gobstopper like seedpods of the opium poppy, which provide a framework for spiders to weave their webs. She delights in the fact she recently found a caterpillar curled up inside a red campion seed capsule. And Hughes argues that a dead hedge – a barrier built from cut branches and foliage – is architecturally interesting as well as a useful habitat. “Wood, as it decays, can also take on all kinds of chestnut tones,” she says.

Upright trees – dormant, not dead – dominate winter landscapes and can look magnificent in their undressed states. An oak might look like a big brain, while birch can be gentle and feathery. Coppiced street trees look like huge knuckles, and deciduous shrubs and climbers can take on sinuous forms. Old bird nests stand out in bare trees like giant punctuation marks.

One thing to consider when planning your planting is how long something will look good dead for. Molinia moor grass looks lovely in winter but starts to fall apart in January, while spiky Echinacea seed heads often break apart after the first frost. Large gardens can get away with lots of death but such blankets of decay could feel oppressive in a small space. Browning highlights amid an evergreen base would work better.

Designing death into your garden is a subject often neglected by how-to books, although Piet Oudolf is the writer to seek out on such matters. Places to visit for inspiration include Pensthorpe Gardens in north Norfolk and Trentham Gardens in Staffordshire – both boast prairie style landscapes that look stunning in winter.

Spectacular seed heads
Allium Cristophii and Hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’ and ‘Globemaster’
Papaver somniferum
Giant sunflower
Wild carrot
Clematis vitalba
Sea holly
Verbena bonariensis
Phlomis russeliana

Vibrant leaves
Euonymus alatus

Stipa arundinacea
Miscanthus sp.
Hakonechloa macra

Urban Agriculture | Part Ten | Belfast

Part ten of my series for Kitchen Garden about urban agriculture

The Suffolk Community Garden is found in a Protestant housing estate within greater nationalist Belfast.  Health is poor and unemployment high; hope can be in short supply.  Yet this estate also boasts views of the Belfast hills, has a river running through it and there’s a resident rooster, which all combine to give this urban area an incongruously lush edge.  The garden itself stands in over an acre of green space, sandwiched between the waterway and a community centre.

The focus here is on food, with a wide range of produce growing in raised beds and a 60ft polytunnel.  There’s broccoli, cabbage, carrots, leeks and onions, plus tomatoes, courgettes and chillies.  As well as raspberry, white currant and blueberry bushes – and cherry, fig, peach and plum trees – there’s also exotic loquat, orange and lemon.  The produce is distributed at a community market, where residents can get hold of it for a small donation.  An area with few food options – other than the junk kind – now has a steady supply of fresh fruit and veg.

“The garden was built by a group of young unemployed men, who continue to help tend the site” explains Caroline Murphy who coordinates the project.  “They’ve also built one across the divide on the Lenadoon Estate.  It was absolutely unknown for young men to venture into that estate before. People don’t care whether something’s a Catholic or a Protestant vegetable. The gardens give people a shared interest and a little bit of hope for the future. We’re tackling social injustice through urban gardening.”

The growing and harvesting have expanded beyond the garden boundary, with foraging trips for wild garlic and rowan berries down the river path and tyres distributed throughout the community so people can grow potatoes at home.  “People are mad for potatoes – we wouldn’t be Northern Ireland if they weren’t” says Caroline. They’re even raising 25 turkeys this year for Christmas.

Growing has become a tool for promoting peace in Belfast.  The Grow Waterworks Community Garden is built on a contested piece of ground that was once a no-man’s land between the loyalist Westland estate and Catholic communities on the other side. The garden was funded through the Peace III programme, which focuses on peace building and promoting good relations.

“Here, among the peas, beans, potatoes and herbs, it’s hard to imagine that not long ago petrol bombs were being thrown over the 20ft high metal peace wall that directly adjoins our plot” says Justin Nicholl from Grow, a small charity working with communities to create gardens.

Visit Waterworks and you’ll find salads, spuds, swede, sprouts, red cabbage, artichokes, pumpkins, peppers, aubergine and lots more growing.  The produce is divvied up among regular gardeners, with surplus shared with locals and park users. They also cook at the garden in a ‘camp kitchen’, often using foraged as well as homegrown ingredients.

“All of what Grow does has community building and eco-therapy at its heart” explains Justin.  “Whether that’s working with a community to reclaim some land and create an edible organic garden; working with older people in a residential setting; or developing projects to tackle food poverty.”

15 minutes drive out of town is Helen’s Bay Organic Gardens, apparently in an area where Northern Ireland’s rich and famous live.  Despite being on the main commuting route between Bangor and Belfast, the space is a tranquil one.  “We’re on the doorstep of the city but it doesn’t feel like it because we’re also on the shore of Belfast loch and surrounded by big old trees” says Ben Craig from Root and Branch Organic, the organisation that runs the gardens.

The site consists of several polytunnels, two big fields and two packing sheds – there’s no electricity.  They grow things like broad beans, chard, spring onions, basil and edible flowers, which are packed into veg boxes or sold at farmers’ markets.  Those boxes could be picked up by customers from collection points as diverse as hairdressers, newsagents and community centres.

“We’re connecting people with the seasons and encouraging them to cook by ingredient rather than recipe” says Ben.  “From the business point of view, this is the best deal for the farmer.  We know a local farmer that supplies a big supermarket who gets less for his produce today than he did 15 years ago.  We’re also connecting rural and urban environments.  We’re able to say ‘this was grown for you, by John’.  Supermarket food is more anonymous.”

Ben’s background is in youth work and he’s developing an educational side to Root and Branch.  He’s currently running an intergenerational peace building project in north Belfast, linking a Catholic area – New Lodge – with a Protestant area across the street called Tiger Bay.  “We’re working towards a joint festival event at the Metropolitan Arts Centre, as well as designing gardens for both communities.  At New Lodge, we’ve done some vertical gardening using palettes.  Traditionally these were burned in bonfires during the conflict, so we’re reclaiming them and turning them into planters.”

Also just outside Belfast, in the seaside town of Bangor, Growing Connections is pioneering the concept of ‘care’ or ‘social farming’ in Northern Ireland.  This type of project involves a partnership between a farmer, health and social care providers, and participants – particularly those who have mental health concerns or feel socially isolated.  Their recent public health authority projects have focused on suicide prevention and how to stop smoking.

“We create a safe and stimulating environment where people can connect with nature and others to promote their physical health and mental well-being” explains Joan Woods from the project.   “We’re developing a smallholding demonstration site and running workshops on woodland management, building out of sustainable materials, growing vegetables and herbs, and farm animal management.”

They have 14 acres of mature and newly planted woodland, and four acres of community socialising and growing space.  They grow vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers as a group, which they harvest and eat together.  Group members can also take produce home.  “Our project is a means for people to rediscover that the best things in life are free – fresh air, water, the natural environment, laughing with others and sharing a common purpose” says Joan.

Urban Agriculture | Part Nine | Liverpool

Part nine of my series for Kitchen Garden about urban agriculture

“Our city is second to none, we’re very proud to be Liverpudlians. We have a great culture and heritage.” So says Donna Williamson from the Rotunda Community Garden.  “North Liverpool is a traditionally working class area.  Third and fourth generations of families still live here.  There’s very little work now – Kirkdale is one of the poorest wards in the EU, but not in spirit.  There’s energy, warmth and a great sense of humour here.”

The Rotunda garden recently moved to a derelict site donated by the Liverpool Archdiocese.  With funding and favours, they’ve put up a polytunnel and raised beds, and planted an assortment of fruit trees. They’ve also created wildflower gardens, a sloped strawberry bed and herb rockery, plus a children’s play area.

Over the last year, Rotunda has worked with the Liverpool Probation Service to create the edible garden.  “The hands-on approach works well for most people” explains Donna.  “Some offenders have little or no education but they can pass something on to the community they’ve wronged by helping to create a vital garden for all to use. They gain new skills and the community sees them giving instead of taking – it’s a win-win situation.”

Donna believes gardening can act as form of rehabilitation but offers wider benefits too.  For instance, growing your own allows “young people to connect with the earth and the seasons, to realise that potatoes and strawberries come from the earth not Asda or Tesco.”  All of their produce is shared among the gardeners or used for soups and salads in their community kitchen.

“Projects like ours allow future generations to learn from family, friends and volunteers. This supports our communities, cities and the economy.  With global shortages, this could and should be the way forward to be green and sustainable” says Donna.

Economics is a subject close to Peter Rix’s heart.  He once worked for Liverpool’s economic development company but has now turned his attention to urban food systems.  He’s one of the brains behind the fledging Liverpool Food Alliance, which is made up of stakeholders including the PCT, council and YMCA.

They’ve set up a pilot project on a five acre site in Garston.  The YMCA organised corporate work teams to clear the ground, and has put up polytunnels and greenhouses.  The ‘Food for Thought’ consortia of primary school kitchens in south Liverpool have agreed to buy their produce.

“We’re interested in creating jobs in the city and creating markets for local produce.  We think we can stimulate cottage industries and provide accessible, cheap, fresh food to local people” says Peter. “If we work together we can create an income – lots of little growing projects die because they rely on short term funding.  Cooperation is better than competition when it comes to food.

“Our mission is citywide, and we’re currently involved in another bid to create a second hub in Liverpool 8.  We want to become an urban farm dispersed across different sites with a range of outputs.”

Access to land is one of the greatest challenges facing urban growers, and Liverpool is no different.  “The council holds so much land that sits unused” says Peter.  “There’s lots of land that could be used temporarily but the council was advised not to let the community use it in case it’s hard to get back.”

Surely offering land for urban food growing makes sense in a time of recession.  Becky Vipond from Squash Nutrition certainly thinks so.  “Urban growing is about making use of gaps in the city and enhancing local areas.  As food prices go up – but wages and benefits are frozen – food growing is a useful skill to have.”

Squash have worked on numerous food-focused projects in Liverpool for ten years.  Based in an old Victorian school in Toxteh, they’ve created an urban allotment around the site and turned the school’s old rooftop playground into a self-seeding wildflower meadow.  The roof has views to North Wales and hosts three bee hives.  They’re also just starting to develop a new community garden around a disused pub nearby.

“We take a holistic view of food, so growing is part of that.  We’ve found the arts approach is a good way of connecting with people, and we’ve done everything from photography projects to sound installations. Visibility is a part of what we do – if we create things that are striking they’ll stop you in your tracks and make you want to know more.  We’ve also found that the best way to engage people is to feed them – it starts conversations.”

Squash has just secured funding for the Village Farm Orchard in Stockbridge Village, Knowsley to the east of the city.  “There’s loads of green land but mainly mown deserts” says Becky.  “The idea is to provide people with free fruit. We did a cooking project with residents two years ago and those involved came up with the idea to plant fruiting trees and bushes all around the village.

“Rather than an orchard in the traditional sense, we’re interested in creating pockets that are part of the estate.  We’re going to plant 250 trees and 200 bushes, and organise training on tree care and cooking to help sustain the project long term.  We have funding for ten beehives.  The bee products can be used to generate an income for the project.”

Hope Street Honey also sees bees as a valuable community resource.  Lesley Reith from the project raves about the delicious honey Liverpudlian bees make.  “People think city centres are barren places but they’re not.  Our car park alone has ten mature trees and there are good parks nearby” she says.

“Our bees honey is the colour of Baltic amber and tastes beautiful.  2011 was a strange year for bees – they kept swarming and we didn’t harvest that much, but what we did won prizes.  I want us to become a city centre urban beekeeping hub and to make beekeeping more accessible and socially inclusive.”

The project is based at Blackburne House and the hives are managed by four members of the local WI.  They run basic beekeeping courses and plan to set up an informal monthly bee club for people who want to be beekeepers or who are interested in helping bees.

“There are lots of elderly beekeepers – we need younger beekeepers to come onboard and become experienced” says Lesley.  “I want to mentor people who can then become mentors themselves.”

Urban growing does more than put food (or honey) on people’s plates.  Projects can offer people in need of support a safe haven.  Jennie Geddes explains how Family Refugee Support is quietly using gardening as a way to help families in Liverpool find their feet.

“Our clients are refugee and asylum seeking families who live in the worst quality housing in the city.  Few have any outside space they can use.  They have the lowest income of any population, often existing below benefit levels, which impacts on their ability to access fresh and healthy food. We’re able to offer them space to grow fruit, vegetables and flowers on three different sites.  All the produce is used by the families.”

“We’re privileged to be able to engage with families who’ve survived tough situations and who bring us a richer understanding of the issues facing people in the world today. Projects like ours provide people who are often excluded from society with a chance to engage with nature and benefit from a sense of empowerment and ownership.  We’re quite quiet about what we do, as our clients often experience judgement and racism” says Jennie.

One asylum seeker explains how important the project is to her. “I feel very lucky to have my own garden because it makes you feel like you are normal.  You feel like a useful person – not like a burden to other people but that you can also produce something.”

Urban Agriculture | Part Eight | Manchester

Part eight of my series for Kitchen Garden about urban agriculture

“There’s a huge amount of food growing going on in Manchester, and demand for allotments is high.  It’s a good way to make communities more resilient, especially at times of high unemployment” says Chris Walsh from the Kindling Trust.

Kindling is the organisation behind various projects designed to ensure the city’s food supply becomes more sustainable.  Urban growing may be increasingly popular, but it would be foolish to assume every urbanite has green fingers, or that all growers have the same goals.

“There’s a new generation of gardeners – they tend to be graduates and public sector workers – who are joining an older generation of allotment holders who continue to grow in the city.  But there’s a gap – lots of people don’t see growing as something they want to do” says Chris.

The Land Army

“It feels like there are two food movements – one focussed on community and health projects, one on organics and environmental issues”, he continues.  “There’s a funny separation between the two and the Greater Manchester Land Army is about trying to bridge that perceived gap.  We’re also creating solidarity between deprived rural and urban communities.”

2011 was the Land Army’s pilot year.  They bus groups of volunteers from Manchester out to farms in Cheshire where they can learn about commercial food production.  Volunteers do everything from weeding leeks to planting garlic and harvesting potatoes. Chris describes them as “a group of people who want to increase food production in the city.  We’re still learning and there’s no guarantee that what we’re doing will work, but there’s a real buzz about it.”

The idea is to provide training and encourage people to think about perhaps becoming commercial food growers themselves.  “Urban growing as a career is in its early stages – it’s still hard work, poorly paid and under-appreciated.  But that is changing.  I think there’ll be 40 to 50 part time growers on the scene in Manchester within the next four to five years” he predicts.

Feeding Manchester

The Land Army was born out of Feeding Manchester – a loose network of groups that bond over food.  “Food is complicated – you can’t focus on issues in isolation.  We’re taking a holistic approach, sharing and swapping ideas, and working out how we can influence policy.  Food is about relationships, trust and getting to know people” says Chris.

Out west is the Unicorn Grocery’s land project, part of the Feeding Manchester network.  They have 21 organic acres in an area of peat land that once was full of salad and vegetable crops. Stuart Jones works in both Unicorn’s shop in the city and at the farm in Glazebury.

“Our soil is great for growing vegetables. We have a six year rotation in place including two years fertility building with red clover, white clover and chicory, followed by brassicas, beets, alliums, umbellifers and lettuce.  We also have a rotation for overwintering green manures like rye and crimson clover, to keep the soil covered between cropping” says Stuart.

“We’re passionate about producing food in a more sustainable way to feed the city. That means working with nature rather than against it, feeding the soil with good compost, boosting organic matter levels and creating healthy, biologically active soil. There’s plenty of good growing land that could be providing Manchester with veg, but at the moment most comes from Lincolnshire or even Spain.”

Not wanting to step on anyone’s toes and keen to pool knowledge, Unicorn is part of Manchester Veg People – a cooperative with buyer and grower members.  “We meet buyers when we are planning our crops and they let us know the quantities they want” explains Stuart.

“The growers work out their production costs and then set the prices. We get a fair price and the buyers know they’re supporting a more sustainable way of doing business, sourcing food grown no more than 20 miles from Manchester Town Hall.”

Growing to eat

“Everyone eats. We’re all united by food” says Amanda Woodvine from Didsbury Dinners, a group based between Manchester and Stockport.  “An easy, but often overlooked way of reducing our carbon footprints is considering the food on our plates.  We want to make it easy for people so we published a ‘low-carbon’ community cookbook last year.”

As well as sharing recipes, Didsbury Dinners also grow food in various spots around town.  Planting projects include 40 fruit trees on land at the back of local rugby pitches and a landshare-style plot, where four growers share a privately owned garden rent free. A local estate agent has even given them access to space behind a rented property where they’ve planted soft fruit, herbs, salad leaves, various beans and peas.

Growing often leads to a desire to learn how to cook with homegrown produce, as well as an increased understanding of food related issues.  But urban agriculture isn’t just good for the environment – it’s good for people too.  Working the land improves physical and mental wellbeing.

Bite – a partnership project between Mind and the Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust – runs five cafes and nine growing projects across the city, as well as an affordable veg bag scheme.  Their growing land ranges from allotments to daycentre grounds.

“Food poverty is a problem here and people might not have the skills or confidence to cook the produce we grow, which is why we also have cafes where people can learn” explains Rowena Pyott from Bite.

“Our project is also part of Fairshare, which is about using up food waste from supermarkets.  So we’re addressing wider issues too, and teaching people about things like food provenance.  We’re bringing the sustainable food message to deprived communities who aren’t usually exposed to it.”

Inner City Forest Gardening

A unique project just outside Manchester city centre has seen part of a public park transformed into a forest garden, with a delicious plethora of edibles including walnut, apple, pear, cherry, plum, damson, gage, nectarine and hazel trees.

Birchfields Park Forest Garden is also home to raspberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants, gooseberries, jostaberry, logan and tay berry, not to mention gojiberry and blueberry.  Species like eleagnus, alder, clover, bird’s foot trefoil, vetch, peas and beans have all been included for their nitrogen fixing properties.

“The project is about permanence – we’re demonstrating the potential of forest gardening, complimentary planting and gardening with nature” says forest gardener Jane Morris.  “We want to show that we can have higher yields than monocultures.  And that there’s potential for forest gardens in even the smallest of public spaces – why do we need so much mown grass?

“Urban growing keeps the activist in me alive” says Jane, who is generally positive about her home town’s food growing credentials.  “Manchester is proactive, and the Food Futures Strategy is moving us towards a more sustainable food system here.”  But there’s work to be done.

“Inner city Manchester is one of the poorest areas in England – there are huge differences in quality of life and life expectancy.  Our project is trying to counteract those inequalities.  It’s about improving nutrition, increasing physical activity and also has a therapeutic aspect.Our garden showcases robust and resilient planting, and hopefully is creating robust and resilient communities too.”