Category: Living roofs

Telegraph | London’s garden route

This feature was originally written for The Telegraph

Tom Turner and I choose one of London’s wettest afternoons to meet, and by the time I reach Victoria Tower Gardens my boots have sprung a leak.  We’re here to do the first part of his London Gardens Walking Tour, using an interactive Google map designed for a smart phone or tablet.  Tom’s map is a virtual part of the Chelsea Fringe, and promises an epic self-guided stroll through the capital’s gardening past, present and future.  We couldn’t have picked a better day for such time travels.

A confession.  Not only do I lack sensible shoes, I also have an extraordinarily old phone.  Someone recently called it ‘vintage’. Thankfully I have a friend trusting enough to lend me her more modern mobile.  I feel better when I discover that not only does Tom lack a smart phone of his own, he’s also turned up in sandals.   His feet will surely end up the wetter of the two.  The weather hasn’t dampened Tom’s irrepressible good spirits, and so we begin.

“All garden styles are represented in London – it’s the world capital of gardening” says Tom.  “People who travel here for the Chelsea Flower Show should be looking at our gardens too.  I’ve been thinking about this map for ages – the Chelsea Fringe has given me an excuse to do it.” For Tom, there’s more to gardens than mere pleasure – they offer a different way of thinking about the city.

“People don’t know about our garden heritage but it’s a really important part of London’s status as a cultural capital.  I moved here in 1973 and it’s taken me years to find everything out.  I’ve written books and websites – the map is another way of the telling the story. I want to give an overview, to show people what’s been done before and what’s possible in the future. My favourite section of the walk is the first part.  It’s the most scenically beautiful and historically interesting.”

So that, of course, is the part we will do.  Victoria Tower Gardens seems a good place to start a London landscape walk, framed as it is by the Houses of Parliament and the River Thames.  The big old plane trees are just coming into leaf and are slick with wet.  We cross Millbank and head down some steps to the Jewel Tower and a snatch of sunken lawn in the shadow of Westminster Abbey.

Tom hands me a garden style spotters’ guide, which is a bit like a bird ID chart but for landscape design and you can find on the website.  It turns out we’re standing in an example of a castle garden dating back to the 1300s.  He explains that in medieval times this would have been home to flowers and food plants rather than close clipped grass.

We walk on, past queues of people waiting outside the Abbey, and head round the back.  It’s possible to get in for free if you’re just looking at the Cloisters.  This is point three on the map, although the phone struggles for a signal down here. The Small Cloister is a well kept secret.  It’s beautifully planted with delicate pale silvers and greens.

Close by is the College Garden, a bigger space with trees heavy with pink blossom.  The wind has whipped the blooms up and the paths are painted with slippery petals.  A medieval style herb garden has appeared here since his last visit and Tom’s delighted.  “It’s not quite right but much better than it was.”  I start to learn that Tom – a stickler for historical accuracy – is quite hard to please.  We pass the plain lawn of the Great Cloister on the way out.  “How boring”, he declares, “it should be a meadow.”

Next stop on the map is Whitehall and another dull patch of lawn with a fascinating past.  This stretch of road was once the site of Whitehall Palace and the grass outside the Ministry of Defence is a faint hint at a privy garden that belonged to Henry VIII.  We race ahead through history to Duck Island Cottage on the edge of St James’ Park.  It’s a storybook building surrounded by flowerbeds like brush strokes in the Arts and Crafts style.

Looking at the online map, I discover that Duck Island dates from the seventeenth century, when St James’ was the deer park for Whitehall Palace. The cottage was built in the 19th century in the style of a cottage ornée, and was given an Arts and Crafts cottage garden in the 20th – a symbol of England’s peasant culture in the heart of the government quarter.

“My grandfather used to buy fresh milk from a cow stationed in St James’ Park” says Tom, going on to dream of a day when the cows return during a future Chelsea Fringe.  So why does London need this new garden festival?

“The things that are outside the mainstream often become the most interesting and memorable. I’m originally from Edinburgh – I find the official festival rather dull but the Fringe is wonderful and far more fun. All sorts of surprises are possible.  I love the Chelsea Flower Show.  It’s a bit like a reunion, as lots of my students from the University of Greenwich have shown there.  But it’s always been a regret of mine that the gardens are destroyed.

“There could be a longer lasting, urban regeneration element to the Chelsea Fringe.  It’s a way of showing what London’s future could be. The Fringe should be many things, but part of it should be political and an argument for change – instead of creating pamphlets, we’ll create gardens!”

We discuss urban greening and Tom’s excitement about possibilities for the future, like living roofs and walls.  He believes the new landscape to add to his spotters’ guide will be called the ‘sustainable style’, and that gardens should help shape urban design. The conversation then turns to park management.  Tom believes things have improved massively since the 1990s, but that there’s a long way to go.

“Gardens are works of art, artefacts. In the 1950s there were very few garden historians, now there are quite a lot.  But park management hasn’t caught up.  There’s an avenue of sweet chestnuts in Greenwich Park that’s the oldest of its kind in Britain, but the Royal Parks have built a bin store that blocks it.  It displays an extraordinary level of artistic and historical ignorance putting it there.”

Defeated by time and weather we fast forward to the final dot on the 20 mile garden route – Trafalgar Square which, according to the map, is conceptually a terrace with the layout of a nineteenth century landscape garden. The map explains that it was designed by Charles Barry, who also designed Italianate terraces for several Victorian gardens.

Tom leaves me soggy but satiated with new knowledge, looking out over one of London’s biggest tourist traps.  It’s a place decidedly devoid of green that’s been given new life by the map. For Tom, understanding the past is an important way of coming up with ideas for the future and that’s what he hopes his walk through history will encourage people to do.

How it works

The London Gardens Walk is a free and interactive online map, which you can access on a computer or on a smart phone via  It plots out the route from A to B, with info attached to each point on the map that you can read as you wander.  There are 40 points of interest, and the walk follows a long loop that finishes almost where it begins in central London.  A more comprehensive e-book guide will be on offer as a free download on the 19th and 20th May – the first weekend of the Chelsea Fringe.




Mayoral Elections | nature, food, fresh air

Lawns left to grow long and living walls; a productive city that’s pesticide free; and air that it’s a pleasure not poisonous to breathe. Continuing the Londonist’s look at the environment as an election issue, here three London NGOs tell us how the next Mayor can make London a more sustainable city.

Protection needed for the unofficial countryside

Mathew Frith from London Wildlife Trust doesn’t think the natural environment has been given nearly enough attention in the Mayoral debate so far, and argues that green spaces and gardens currently don’t have enough protection.

“London is rich in wildlife and the Mayor needs to safeguard this asset by strongly protecting and conserving London’s 1,500 wildlife sites. By committing to deliver the All London Green Grid, the Mayor could help bring more people into contact with the natural world, contribute to biodiversity conservation targets and improve the capital’s ability to cope with extreme weather events like flash flooding.

“There are significant advances currently taking place in sustainable and biodiversity-friendly design. World cities like London need to keep abreast of these advances to compete on an international level. Design for biodiversity (including things like swift and bat bricks, and living roofs and walls) helps encourage wildlife, reduces surface water run-off and mitigates the urban heat island effect.

“Despite the drought, many local Councils are still cutting the grass short in parks and green spaces. Landscape management contracts should be flexible to account for the need to leave lawns longer during dry periods so that more water can be retained. It’s such a simple measure but would have a positive impact to save water across London.”

London needs to be a more productive place

Ben Reynolds from Sustain (who run Capital Growth, Capital Bee and London Food Link) thinks the new Mayor should make it much easier for people to grow food in the city, as well as clamping down on junk food, pesticides and litter.

“We are looking for support for the next phase of Capital Growth, which will focus on increasing the sustainability of these food growing spaces, primarily through productivity. By increasing the amount produced through these Capital Growth spaces, and by other food growers around London, we hope to meet an insatiable demand for local food.

“More support needs to be given, particularly from London’s landowners, to allow people to grow and sell food. The next Mayor could insist that suitable land that’s been unused for more than two years is made available for food growing, even if just for a temporary lease. The Mayor could also insist that new developments, particularly residential, have provision for food growing built in.

“The next Mayor could help London to become the first pesticide free city in the UK, following in the footsteps of Paris and Tokyo. Restricting the application of these chemicals would really benefit London’s wildlife, including bees. We want the next Mayor to back our call to make every borough bee-friendly.

“As well as benefiting people’s health, restrictions on the number of junk food outlets could help to reduce litter. Some boroughs have successfully trialled the use of planning measures to restrict these outlets, particularly in areas around schools. The next Mayor should back all boroughs to use similar powers.

“By promoting environmentally friendly diets – including buying sustainable fish, organic food and eating less meat – the Mayor can also support fish stocks, biodiversity and animal welfare, and reduce climate change. The Mayor should insist that the public sector, including schools and hospitals, adopt the Government’s buying standards (currently only mandatory for 30% of public sector).”

And finally, how about a breath of fresh air?

Siobhan Grimes from Climate Rush thinks the Mayor should prioritise cleaning up the poisonous air we’re all currently forced to breathe.

“Air pollution on London’s busiest roads breaches air pollution laws by a factor of two every day. It means we are breathing in dangerous particles that are making us sick and causing climate change. In London, over 4,000 people die early every year as a result of air pollution, and between 15-30% of childhood asthma is linked to traffic pollution.

“Black soot emissions, including the traffic emissions that we see blackening tunnels and buildings in our city, contribute to up to 30% of global climate change emissions. Instead of being poisoned by the air we breathe we want the next Mayor to prioritise our health by investing in safer cycling infrastructure, by implementing a very low emission zone over the most polluted parts of the capital, by reducing the prohibitive cost of using public transport and by opposing airport expansion.”

From Garden City to Green City

This review was written for the Londonist 

Packed into the Garden Museum’s tiny gallery space, From Garden City to Green City will be loved by London geeks, especially ones with a penchant for architecture, town planning and urban greening.  It explores the visions, designs and projects that have inspired the green city movement over the last 150 years.  Not purely historical, a substantial part of the exhibition focuses on current projects, works in progress and dreams for the future.  It has a distinctly London lilt but other cities feature too.

Blasts from the capital’s more rural past include pictures of a grassy toll gate in Lambeth and a bucolic farmhouse in Brixton.  But the words of William Morris and Richard Jefferies highlight the increasing horrors of packed urban living.  Morris’s description of an underground rail carriage as “a vapour bath of hurried and discontented humanity” is particularly brilliant.  With these horrors comes a desire to improve living conditions by designing nature into cities, and providing easy escape routes out.

The creation of the Garden City was one reaction and Letchworth was the first in the 1910s.  “The smallholdings with their water butts and grassy verges attracted radicals such as vegetarians and suffragettes” apparently.  The creation of the Greenbelt in 1947 was another reaction.  And Janet Jack’s Alexandra Road Estate in 1970s Camden was another.  Every home there was designed to have a private roof garden or terrace.

We most enjoyed the present day projects and ideas for how cities might look in the future.  We could have spent hours gazing at Mikey Tomkins’ detailed Edible Map: Hackney 2011, which revealed that garages on Benjamin Close have been converted into mushroom farms and there’s a large apiary on the roof.  We also loved Tom Wolsey’s photographs of hay scything in modern day Elephant and Castle.  We’ll certainly be heading down to Nursery Row Park on 22nd October to witness this year’s cut.

The trend for ‘living architecture’ today is about breaking barriers between architecture and nature, and it’s about designing upwards.  Stefan Boeri’s incredible Bosco Verticale is currently being built in Milan – it’s a 27 storey high vertical forest of flats, with huge trees growing on every balcony.  The contemporary response to urban living is also about imaginative use of empty spaces. The Plant in Chicago has seen an old meat processing factory turned into an indoor vegetable farm – a bit like the FARMshop in Dalston, but on a grand scale.

We are London geeks, and urban nature freaks, so we found this small exhibition fascinating.  If you need more to draw you to Lambeth’s Garden Museum, and to make the £7 ticket price worth your while, the café and shop are a delight, and the vaulted space is a very peaceful one in which to spend an hour or two.

From Garden City to Green City runs until 1st April 2012.  A series of linked lectures runs from October to December 2011.

My Garden, the City and Me – Rooftop Adventures in the Wilds of London

My Garden, the City and Me – Rooftop Adventures in the Wilds of London, my first book, has officially been published!  You can buy it now in bookshops, both on the high street and on the interweb, for around £9.99.

Beautifully illustrated, the book’s about the glory of growing things, urban nature and a side of London that’s not often explored.

It reveals how much wildlife a city can support and invites readers to see built-up spaces in new ways.

My rooftop is the main character in a book that’s also an ode to how satisfying urban gardening can be, no matter how hopeless at it you are.

Some early reviews include…

“Helen Babbs’ beautifully written and atmospheric book is about gardening in an imperfect world among London’s chimneys, birdsong and sirens. It is about the way we must garden in the future.  Inspiring and galvanising stuff” – Lia Leendertz, The Guardian

“This diary of a wide-eyed, pyjama-clad, modern, midnight gardener inspires us to see the most ordinary of landscapes through magical spectacles, and turn our fantasies into reality” – Richard Reynolds, On Guerilla Gardening

“This charming book is a love letter to the capital’s hidden green spaces and their wildlife” – The Daily Mail, Weekend Magazine

“It’s an absorbing, funny and evocative read, with tidbits of info that could inspire even the most jaded pavement pounder” – Katie Allen, Fat Quarter

Up on the roof

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.

Potato sack

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.

Container courgette

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.

Hanging strawberry

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.

On top of the world with the urban birders

On a dawn writing job for Metropolitan (Eurostar) magazine earlier in autumn, I discovered an odd kind of nature reserve on top of one of London’s tallest buildings, and met the people who regularly raptor watch from its lofty heights. I also witnessed London looking more stunning than I’ve ever seen before…

A small group of ten men carrying much optical equipment gathers outside Tower 42 on Old Broad Street in the middle of London.  It’s approaching 6am and barely light.  Rather than suited and booted in the usual city uniform, they sport warm jackets, sensible shoes, hats and rucksacks.  At six on the dot, the group moves inside, swept through revolving doors into an atrium of gleaming glass and polished marble.  They take the lift up to the 41st floor and continue the rest of their ascent by stairs.

Glass and marble are left far behind as wide steps are replaced with narrow stone ones, then steep, spiralling metal ones, then ladders.  They venture through the guts of the building, witnessing backstage areas that those who do business here never see.  One final ladder through a trap door and they are out on the roof.  London spreads out on all sides, miniature viewed from such a height, and all hung about with mist and starting to glow gold as the sun rises.

It’s a beautiful autumn morning, low wisps of cloud fade against a sky that gets bluer and clearer as the dawn brightens into day.  The men spread out to watch points on all sides of the roof, eyes skywards, ever scanning for aerial life.  Telescopes are set up on tripods and binoculars fixed to faces.  None of the usual city noise reaches them from below, but all the time there’s the roar of fans and the rumble of air conditioning units.  The roof is a cluttered space, an outlet for the machines that keep the building functioning.  The birders have to be careful where they tread.  It’s certainly not the familiar terrain of a hilltop or grassy knoll.

I’m faintly awestruck by the view.  I’ve never seen London looking as glorious as this. For a good while I can’t help but just stand and stare, trying to find all the landmarks that make this city my home.  I’m also awestruck by the people who are climbing the 183 metres up here each week, at such an unearthly hour, to bird watch.  Such intrepid urban adventuring before the working day begins is impressive.

David Lindo is the brains behind what has been christened the Tower 42 Bird Study Group.  How did he manage to persuade the building’s management to let him onto the roof?  “It came about by luck really” he admits, “I’d been looking for a vantage point for two to three years and I caught them on a good day.  Perhaps surprisingly they’ve been brilliant hosts.  I guess it gives their building a unique edge – we’ve turned the roof into kind of a nature reserve.  It’s an amazing thing being up here, looking out over London.”

The birders started coming up here in spring.  An unprecedented project, they had no idea what to expect.  David says the season was a good one, despite the weather being rather unkind.  They recorded an array of species including rarities like honey buzzard and red kite.  They saw peregrine falcons every session, with six pairs regularly passing the tower.  During our four early morning hours, we see one of these handsome birds of prey sitting on Tower Bridge and another on Tate Modern.  Once threatened with extinction, the peregrine is currently thriving in a built up London landscape, which is similar shape to its natural one of cliff and mountain.

This autumn the hope is to see birds migrating.  Small birds like wagtail and starling that will be heading to the UK for winter, or species like swift, swallow and house martin that will be journeying back to Africa.  Thrushes are moving en-masse at this time of year and, while many birds migrate at night, in October day migration is more common.  “Wood pigeons are my main motivation” says David.  “They travel in from Scandinavia, heading west, being much more active than our resident lazy ones.”  He dreams of witnessing thousands of them passing overhead, a dark undulating cloud that is lit silver by the sun.

Anyone that’s interested is welcome to climb the tower to see what they can see, and the high rise project is attracting novices and experts alike.  It’s a great learning opportunity for enthusiasts but it’s not an easy place to spot birds.  Hours are lost to scanning skies that can be disappointingly empty at times, but the epic views of London make up for any quiet periods.  Our morning isn’t hugely action packed but this gives me a chance to quiz some of the brave people who are willing to spend their morning exposed on this sky scraping roof.

“This is uncharted territory” says Anders Brice.  “It’s a treat – this panorama is something few people get to see.  Up here you have to work a little harder, we’re not surrounded by nature rich grassland or forest.  But on street level in central London you just see gulls and pigeons, being up here is an eye opener.  The peregrines are amazing, they rule these heights and are at their most beautiful when diving.  In spring I watched one eating a pigeon on Tower Bridge with the prey’s feathers fluttering off into the wind.”

Despite the gorgeous sunny conditions, it’s freezing up here, and I thank goodness for my foresight in bringing a thick coat and two scarves, one to wrap round my ears and one to wrap round my neck.  Hardy Anders is philosophical at what I suggest is an inevitable deterioration in the weather as autumn progresses into winter.  “The moment after a rain storm can be the best for birding.  One of the best days we had in spring was actually a murky one.”  I’m clearly too much of a wimp for this game.

Roy Nuttal was a postman before he retired.  For him, London at dawn is when she is at her very best.  The air seems cleaner and smells fresh – it’s a great time for wandering.  He met David, was charmed by his imaginative approach to birding, and confesses he now always goes along with his so-called mad schemes.  For him bird watching is a relaxing hobby and he finds the top of Tower 42 a rather good place to daydream.  It’s about the spectacle of the location rather than clocking up lists of rare birds.  “I’ve lived in London for 40 years, it never fails to amaze.  Look at St Paul’s, it looks tiny from up here.”

For other birders, clocking up long and impressive lists of birds is hugely important.  Des McKenzie is trying to develop as diverse a list as possible and the thrill of the chase is what draws him onto the roof, despite a fear of heights.  “Birding is about seeing as many birds as possible.  Autumn is going well so far, it’s a mixture of luck and being on form.  This is a great place to be as a Londoner and as a birder it’s massively interesting.”

“We try to cover all points of the compass up here and shout out when we’ve seen something so everyone has a chance to identify it.  Dawn is good for smaller birds, a bit later on is better for birds of prey.  Dawn starts are in the blood of any birder, it’s a time when you can feel alone, even in London.”

Des describes the city’s birding community as an active one made up of about 500 keen watchers.  I ask him where all the women are.  While there are some prominent female birders, it’s a predominantly male pursuit.  “There’s an element machismo involved.  Perhaps women see ranks of hairy men all wearing khaki standing in a line and think it’s not for them.  People think it’s a genteel sport but it can get very intense; I’ve known of punch-ups over rare birds.”

Sam Twiddy is a different character entirely.  Recently returned to London after a welcome stint in rural Devon, he’s a man after outdoors experiences in a city where he feels a little trapped.  He saw the Tower 42 blog online and asked to come up.  Last week was his first time.  “Returning to earth afterwards feels weird and the trudge to work is difficult, but it’s worth the early start.  I sit in a grey office all day and so coming up here is a release.”

We stand and look out over the city, which is now light and busy.  We watch suddenly small bendy buses, snaking through the streets, and the tiny fluorescent beetle forms of cyclists powering along.  Crowds of people swarm over London Bridge and solo pedestrians cast long shadows across sunlit pavements.  Whether you’re bird obsessive, a London lover or just a reluctant urbanite craving nature, this is a pretty special place to be.  Sam’s right, returning to earth after is strange.  Back on ground level I feel a bit dizzy and like I’ve just witnessed a secret world, where the views are stunning and raptors roam free.

A matter of life and death

alium seedheadImagine a garden dotted with sculptural seed heads and a luscious lawn aglow with fresh white daisies.  Imagine a garden where inanimate objects come to life and where all of nature’s life cycles are celebrated, including death and decay.  Now imagine that garden at an English flower show.  Fairly traditional places, certain conservative views of gardening tend to reign strong at the summer shows.  Introducing so called weeds and pardoning flowers that have gone to seed from the secateurs’ blades could be considered quite risqué, but London Wildlife Trust’s garden will do just that.

As I write, we’re just over a month away from the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show 2009.  By early July, the Life Cycle Garden will be complete and standing brave under the strict gaze of the show’s judges. Designed by London Wildlife Trust’s expert gardener Elaine Hughes, it’s to be a sustainable garden that explores the natural cycles that are essential to successful wildlife and climate friendly gardening.

Linking in with the ‘Garden for a Living London’ campaign, which highlights the importance of gardens for both people and wildlife in the face of climate change, London Wildlife Trust’s garden reveals that wildlife gardening can be beautiful and playful, as well as environmentally friendly.

Elaine and a team of dedicated volunteers are working round the clock to create something stunning for the show.  The garden is currently taking shape at the Centre for Wildlife Gardening down in south London.  A tiny but very lovely site, it’s a local nature reserve and working wildlife garden open for the public to visit and be inspired.  The next few weeks are bound to be a little stressful for the garden team, but also incredibly exciting.  The joy of the finished garden will no doubt make up for all the sleepless nights and mad dashes across the capital for materials.

“We’re committed to using reclaimed materials and recycling found objects.  There are just a few weeks to find everything we need and build the garden” says Elaine, who is both breathless and excited by all the work required to design and build a show garden.  “It’s a challenge but a good one.  It’s making us resourceful and creative.  We recently sourced some fantastic old scaffolding timber and it’s being transformed into our living shed with its green roof.  Rejected materials are being given new life, literally.”

The plan is to make something that is accessible as well as artistic, to create something that everyone can identify with and could replicate in some way in their own green space, be that a large back yard, a small balcony or even a window box.    “The Life Cycle Garden is playful and multi layered, highlighting the ecological value and the creative potential of small urban green spaces” explains Elaine.

“It focuses on the importance of being wildlife friendly, with features such as a living roof, a small pond, a broadleaved tree, a species rich hedgerow, log pile and drought resistant planting.  A table and chairs with planted inserts, along with a main pathway with planted inserts and a hedgerow with windows cut into it, will all provide unusual habitat for wildlife and allow the user to interact with the life cycles in the garden in a hands on way.  The garden will give people ideas for creating their own beautiful, easy to maintain, wildlife and climate friendly outdoor space.

bee on achillea“The garden is inventive but it’s also a practical and sustainable place.  It invites people to find beauty in surprising places.  A lawn studded with brilliant white daisies, a seed head bursting with energy like a firework, a fence made of dead wood.  All these things may be a surprise at a traditional garden show but they will look gorgeous and at the same time provide food and shelter for wildlife.  The garden provides food and shelter for humans too.  Our growing garden furniture would be a talking point at any garden party and the planting scheme includes fragrant and delicious herbs that are also drought tolerant, which helps save water” says Elaine.

The Life Cycle Garden will be a magical place where everyday objects come to life, where tables are alive and hedgerows have windows in them.  Visitors will be able to peer through the living windows and discover a sustainable urban garden where all the stages in plant life cycles are celebrated.  It’ll be a place where the lawn won’t be uniform or neatly clipped, where seed heads will stand proud amongst the flowering plants and where rejected and found objects will be given a new lease of life.  Sustainability is central to the garden’s design.  The surfaces are being designed for maximum water absorption and there are recycled steel drums for rainwater collection.

It will be bounded with a large scale log pile wall and a contrasting living and dead wood hedge, all of which will provide shelter, food and nesting opportunities for birds, insects and mammals. These textural boundary features, in varying stages of decay, will illustrate a chronological changing cycle of life.  Circle and cyclical motifs will feature strongly.  The experience of walking along the main timber path, which will change in size and scale, and walking under distorting recycled metal hooped trellis, which will play with the light and cast interesting shadows, will draw the visitor into the circular, life cycle theme.

Over the next few weeks Elaine’s bright ideas will be transformed into a living, breathing garden.  It’s a funny way of gardening, a race against time to produce a mobile but well established and working green space.  But it’s a lot fun too, and being at Hampton Court for the annual flower show is a joy for any gardener and a great way to share ideas and challenge traditional views.  So, five weeks and counting.  Tick tock.

This article appeared in the July 2009 issue of Kitchen Garden magazine

ps: the Life Cycle Garden won a gold medal at the flower show.

Roof top adventures

My year of edible, aerial gardening

an extract from my blog on

2-bean-plantApril 2009

I just had a lucky escape.  I’m currently teaching my runner beans about the world outside my flat, hardening them off and sending them on day trips onto the roof.  Today it’s drizzled all day and by night fall they were looking luscious, their floppy big green leaves covered in damp.  The snail just couldn’t hold itself back.  But I spotted it in time.  I swear I heard it scream as I plucked it off one of my glorious bean plants.

They’re in for the night now, safe and sound.  I am incredibly protective of these guys after sharing the last six weeks in close contact with them, but it really is time I claimed my room back, it’s turning into a bit of a jungle.  The plan is to move them outside permanently in the next few days.

4-tomato-sproutsOne of those terrible mornings

Last month’s seed planting means there are now sprouts all over the place.  Inside, I have a healthy crop of tomato seedlings that will need potting on soon, as well as my bean collection, which gets ever taller.  I’ve got rocket, loads of chives, one nasturtium and a couple of tiny basil plants.  The basil’s been through a lot so I’m pretty proud of these two particular plants.

On one of those mornings where pretty much everything that could go wrong did, I collided with my pot of basil sending it flying.  Soil everywhere.  And on a morning when I really didn’t have time to hoover.  Ugh.  So a setback for the basil and some loud cursing from me, but it’s determined and so am I.  We’re both doing OK, considering…

3-coriander-sproutsRoots, shoots and much basking

It’s so lovely out on the roof now the evenings are longer and the days warmer.  I spent a good few hours doing nothing other than basking last weekend, the roof being transformed into an all day early April sun trap.  The seeds I planted directly outside are coming along nicely.  The beans and tomatoes are a lot smaller than those planted inside, but I think they’re going to be super tough.

My radishes are flourishing, as is my coriander.  The parsley is starting to appear now and I have four little sunflower shoots.  My strawberries have at least doubled in size and have buds, and the mint is going mad.  I decided to try growing some cucumber to complete my Pimms cocktail planting plan but that hasn’t worked, there’s nothing happening in the cucumber pot sadly.  I’ll try again.

6-hugh-the-hazel1Come on love, jump on board

I went to Columbia Road in east London a couple of weeks ago.  It’s a half hour bus ride from where I live and you know you’re getting close when you start spotting people with arms full of plants or cars driving past with foliage spilling out of windows and sun roofs.

Columbia Road is a street in Hackney that hosts a flower market every Sunday from 8am til 2pm.  It gets absolutely packed with all kinds of people.  You have to steal yourself slightly before braving the crowds surrounding the stalls but it’s worth it.  “Come on love, jump on board” shout the Cockney vendors, flaunting their vegetal wares.

It’s a fantastic place to pick up a bargain.  I’d decided that I wanted a small tree for the roof, a native that wildlife would like.  I picked up a lovely little hazel there for a fiver.  I named him Hugh and we had a fun bus ride home.  Londoners are often accused of being an unfriendly bunch but you always get lots of smiles when you travel with a large plant.

Before heading home though, Hugh and I walked over to Hackney City Farm and met an absolutely enormous pig.  The pretty, wildlife friendly garden at the farm is really inspiring, they grow all kinds of fruit, herbs and veg.  I’ve planted Hugh in a large deep blue ceramic pot on the roof with a couple of heathers. Hugh and the heathers are doing well – he’s looking very jolly covered in springtime buds.

7-pesky-squirrelNon human visitations

I’ve started getting some visitors to the roof of the non human variety other than pesky squirrels (who have been especially pesky of late, after deciding to have a good dig at my radishes).  I have a blackbird who visits daily, and I’ve seen blue tits and robins along with the wood pigeons.  The most exciting sighting was a pair of jays, looking stunning in the sycamore tree that is in one of my neighbour’s gardens.  The birds are so noisy at the moment, in the evenings and again at silly-o-clock in the morning.  I’ve had a couple of bees buzzing about and I’ve spotted more foxes recently, down in the gardens that I get a brilliant view over from the roof.

Dreams of summer moonbathing

I’ve been thinking and writing about night gardening again and I’ve decided to have a night corner on the roof.  I already have jasmine and honeysuckle plants, which are all sprouty at the moment and will soon be fragrant in the evenings and loved by moths.  I’m also going to plant some evening primroses and tobacco plants.  Moths are attracted by sugary scents and pale colours, using both to navigate.

10-dew-studded-lupin1Last summer I went on a very urban moth spotting evening in King’s Cross and discovered how intricately beautiful and varied they are.  Some of our native species look like tiny birds, with exotic bright feathers and stunning markings.  Moths are precious pollinators and a vital food source for other garden species, so being moth friendly makes sense.  It will also be lovely to have a garden full of flowers that glow after dark.  I’m as much a fan of moonbathing as of sunbathing.

What next

I’m hoping my design for the roof garden will begin to take more shape over the next month, as my seedlings turn into larger plants and I start getting a bit more organised about where everything lives.  I’ve drawn out a final flat plan of how I’d like the roof to look, I’ll post it up here next month.

My main concern at the moment though is that I’m going to be leaving the roof to fend for itself for a while.  I’m off on holiday for a couple of weeks soon.  Luckily my flatmate has agreed to babysit, although I think she’s feeling the weight of this responsibility and is rather nervous!  I’m sure all will be well.

9-happy-easter-handpainted-eggs-on-the-roofThis month I’m reading ‘Let us now praise famous gardens’ by Vita Sackville-West and checking out the ‘Garden Pieces’ season at the British Film Institute – more about the market – down on the city farm – love London’s wild side