Category: Urban gardening

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.


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.”

Urban Agriculture | Part Eleven | Newcastle

Part eleven of my series for Kitchen Garden about urban agriculture

Slap bang in the middle of Newcastle, the Byker Bridge rushes over a valley where a slice of secret countryside thrives. Tucked beneath this ever busy bridge is also Ouseburn Farm, which sits at the mouth of a tributary to the River Tyne. There are more species of butterfly concentrated in this spot than in any other similar area in the UK.

There’s been a farm here since 1976, although the original Byker Farm closed ten years ago and has since reopened as Ouseburn Farm, run as an independent subsidiary of Tyne Housing. It offers day services for adults with mental health problems and learning disabilities, educational visits for schools and volunteer opportunities for local people. Food growing is a key part of what they do.

“We have several allotment spaces on the farm site, a further allotment nearby in the valley and two allotments in large garden spaces on Tyne Housing Association properties” explains Rob Bailey from the farm. The produce is sold on the farm, in the café and eaten by the housing association residents that help grow it.

“We grow a variety of vegetables and soft fruit” says Rob. “Some of our animals will go to slaughter in the autumn and the produce will be available for sale to the public. We continue to grow vegetables during the winter months. Maintenance of the growing spaces takes place during January, as well as preparing the soil for planting at the start of the next season.”

So why do cities like Newcastle need operations like Ouseburn? “We provide an opportunity for local people to buy ethically sourced produce, such as free range eggs and meat, as well as being able to see the animals kept in good conditions prior to them being slaughtered. Consumers have developed a detachment to the source of their food. Projects like ours provide children with an understanding of the relationship between the animal and the food on their plate” says Rob.

The farm is also providing a valuable haven for urban wildlife. “We have an abundance of rare plants in our meadows that support a large variety of insects, which in turn attract a large variety of birds. We also have a hive of honey bees at the farm, which aid pollination in the local area.”

There are some significant green spaces in Newcastle. There’s the town moor, mere yards from the city centre and still observing its common land grazing rights. At the other end of the Ouseburn Valley is Jesmond Dene, which was landscaped in the 19th Century by Lord Armstrong. Not far from there, and just a 15 minute walk from the city centre, is the Jesmond Community Orchard.

“We’ve only been going for three years but it is a lovely little site, located in a secluded and previously derelict corner of a cemetery” explains Bobbie Harding from the orchard. “The cemetery is just behind the Great North Road and is a walking and cycling route into town. We wanted to create an orchard because so many have disappeared.

“It’s a pretty plot with a very old wall on one side, with a fruit espalier all the way down it. We’ve sought out unusual varieties that grow in the north.  We can’t shoehorn any more trees in so we’ve started encroaching on the cemetery proper! It’s early days apple wise but the raspberries and herbs are doing very well. It’s lovely to have a new, well-used open space.”

One of the orchard’s most exciting features is a Jesmond Dingle apple tree, which was grown from a pip by one of their members and is named after their dog. Every autumn the orchard holds an old fashioned feeling apple day, with bobbing and peeling the longest apple peel competitions. There’s also plenty of juicing to be done.  People donate apples and bring cartons so they can take the juice home.

Joanna Lacey loves Newcastle and food in equal measure. “It’s such a fantastic city to live in, with everything so accessible and easy to get to, and always a friendly Geordie happy to help anyone. Being able to work on North East Food Discovery every day is my perfect job, as food is something that I believe everyone should understand and enjoy.”

North East Food Discovery is an initiative that’s working in primary schools in the more disadvantaged areas of the city. It aims to inspire children, their families and teachers to understand the importance of local, seasonal food and get them excited and enthusiastic about it. A key part of the project is the Wor Lotty Food Growing Academy.

“Children from the first ever schools we worked with entered our competition to name the allotment site” explains Joanna. “True Geordie influence and dialect came shining through and the site was officially named ‘Wor Lotty’, which means ‘Our Allotment’. It’s an amazing space, gifted to us by Newcastle University. We have two large growing plots where the children and other community groups sow, care for and harvest crops.”

There’s a range of fruit trees and bushes, including apples, pears, blackcurrants and gooseberries; plus a large area for herbs, three compost heaps and plenty of room for growing strawberries. “We use organic principles and teach everyone who comes to the site about this too” says Joanna. “As well as help from the Newcastle University Maintenance Team, we have two people working part time, and constantly welcome volunteers to help maintain the garden.”

Joanna believes projects like hers are an important way to connect urban people with the food they eat.  “There isn’t a lot of visible food growing happening within cities. We need to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to understand where food comes from, and knows how to prepare, cook and appreciate all the fantastic local food producers in their area.”

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.”

Chelsea Fringe | trend setters

Starting this Saturday and running at venues across London for three weeks, the Chelsea Fringe is a brand new festival of gardens and gardening.  It coincides with the famous Chelsea Flower Show, but is completely independent of it and runs on well after the more traditional show ends.  It aims to attract a much wider audience with an eclectic mix of events, many of which are free.

“The plan was always to encourage as many people as possible to get involved and I’ve been struck by the range that have – from performance artists to community gardeners” says festival director, Tim Richardson.  “There are some visionary individuals on board, people who are pioneers of new thinking about how we should interact with public spaces.”

From Fringe-long planted interventions to virtual projects that exist purely online, the events on offer during London’s first Chelsea Fringe are wide ranging and impressive.  At the same time a floating forest designed by Canadian artists will transform the Grand Union Canal out west, a community garden in Tottenham will throw open its gates to welcome curious visitors up north.

Edible urban landscapes

Over 80 Fringe events will occur between the 19th May and 10th June but, within the growing sprawl, distinct themes are emerging.  An explosion in excitement about urban food growing is reflected in a host of projects, including an Edible High Road in Chiswick that will turn the main shopping street into an orchard of sorts.

Karen Liebreich, one of the brains behind the Edible High Road, has noticed a strong emphasis on food emerging across the festival.  “There’s a desire to create productivity out of little scraps of earth” she says.

“There’s also a desire to use gardens to strengthen communities, and provide a focus for education and communal activities in a tough big town.  All the gardens and gardeners will be aiming towards some kind of beauty and artistic statement, because that’s what gardening is about.”

Other edible projects include pop-up veg gardens in Islington and front garden allotments in Finsbury Park.  Gardening students in Peckham are creating a living salad bowl that will overflow with edible flowers, while Spitalfields City Farm is hosting a family friendly Edible Olympics with sports like vegetable sculpting and orange dribbling.  Down the road, St Leonard’s Church is to be draped with citrus fruit and turned into an Oranges and Lemons Garden.

Herbs feature a lot – including an aromatic herb mobile sculpture at the Geffrye Museum, a medieval herb garden at the Idler Academy and wandering Wild Thyme events run by the Herb Society in South Kensington.

The Garden of Disorientation will see an empty slaughterhouse in Clerkenwell temporarily transformed into an indoor mint garden, complete with cocktail bar.   Deborah Nagan is the project designer.

“As the festival approaches I think an emerging trend is that, in general, we rather despise supermarkets and would all keep chickens in window boxes and pick lemons from bus stops if we could. The festival is highlighting that gardening is a great social and political leveler – and one of the best ways of being human in the city.”

Mapping and moving

Many of the Fringe projects and events invite visitors to experience the city in new ways.  Travel is a strong theme, ranging from projects that map city green spaces to portable gardens.

Mobile projects include the boozy Bicycling Beer Garden, which will see a collection of planted up beer cans towed around town; and Heavy Plant Crossing, a horticultural happening involving a mechanical plant travelling about the city in a bid to become ‘best in show’ at Chelsea Flower Show.

Walks are also popular – one project seeks to map out all the Pimped Pavements in London in a bid to highlight the strength of London’s Guerilla Gardening movement, while another offers a self-guided tour around some of the capital’s most historical green spaces via an interactive Google map.

The Meadow Up Your Street project has mapped walks around Islington and Kingston’s newly planted street meadows.  While Edible Bus Stop Gardens are engaging local people in an attempt to transform an entire bus route in south London into something productive and beautiful.

London’s wild side

A desire to seek out nature is another trend, with many projects focusing on wildflowers and wildlife.  The Big Buzz and Flutter in Archbishop’s Park will teach people about the role and benefit of birds, bees and butterflies in the urban environment.

Out east, Katelyn Toth-Fejel’s Dinner to Dye For will invite guests to see plant’s hidden depths as both natural dyes and as food stuffs.  “I’m not a city person” she says.  “For me, the Fringe is about being a nature lover in the city.”

The I Love Vanessa project aims to highlight the importance and plight of the Red Admiral and Painted Lady, and the weeds these two butterflies rely on.  During the Fringe, huge images of invertebrate life will be jet-washed onto dirty city walls. What does project coordinator Jackie Herald want people to get from I Love Vanessa?

“Hopefully they’ll be inspired to notice the details of flora and fauna that are everywhere in the city, provided you don’t over-weed or over-pave.  Personally, having been involved with RHS Chelsea Flower Show, I thought it would be fun and interesting to experience the flipside – grassroots up, rather than catwalk down.”

Get involved

Another strong Fringe theme is participation, with various workshops planned throughout the festival.  You could learn how to build a living roof in a two day workshop in Sydenham or help construct a greenhouse out of plastic bottles at Fern Street Community Garden.

The Canning Town Caravanserai is actively inviting people to help them design and build a garden for their site, while the Dock Garden Festival is encouraging people to create their own urban allotments with a series of inspiring talks, menus and markets.

So what else will visitors to Fringe events take away from the experience?  “There are the usual things – seeing interesting plants, successful combinations and new ways of growing things” says Karen Liebreich from the Edible High Road.

“But also that gardening doesn’t need to be a high end, high cost endeavour, and you too can improve your own part of town and maybe next year do a Fringe garden.  People will discover there are some interesting gardens in their part of town that they could get involved in. Or just check out some unfamiliar parts of London.”

Tim Richardson is keen for the Fringe to challenge visitors to rethink gardening, as well as have fun.  “There are some projects that are specifically about teaching people new skills, but overall the Fringe will inspire people by example” says Tim Richardson.  “The festival offers people a day out that will expand their horizons about what gardens can be.  It should be a challenging thing – in a good way.”

The Chelsea Fringe runs from 19th May to 10th June. Find out more at  This feature was written for City Planter.

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.



Perfumed plantings | the scent garden

This feature was written for City Planter

Not relied upon in the way sight, sound, touch and taste are, smell is possibly the most emotive of all the senses.  The vapours that creep up our noses are able to transport us to other realms.  “Scent cuts through time in an instant and makes a connection that you might not have thought of for years” says Stephen Lacey, author of ‘Scent in Your Garden’ and a fragrance aficionado with a sensitive nose.

Perfume may be powerful stuff but it is often an afterthought for gardeners, and many plants have been bred to look rather than smell good.  “Scent has always been greatly valued, but the scented garden as a genre has never been a major thing – it’s more of an undercurrent.  For me it doubles the pleasure of the plant.  It puts the experience of the garden into another orbit as you walk around and gets these ambushes of scent” says Stephen.

Powerful flowers for tiny spaces

Some flowers hold their scent, while others float it on the air.  In general you want to be able to get up close and personal with scented flowers and leaves – they need to be within reach so you can stick your nose among them and get a deeper draught.  It seems like the tiny urban garden, balcony or window box, are all therefore perfect places to experiment with fragrant flowers.  Position plants close to nose height, on tables, window ledges and wall tops.

“Some scents act as beacons for night flying insects, like evening flowering honeysuckles and tobacco flowers – they can fill a little garden with scent.  I know a small London garden that’s filled with the tropical perfume of Japanese honeysuckle” says Stephen.  “Warmth brings out the smells. Shelter is also important, as wind can disperse scent really quickly – that’s where a town garden really scores because it can usually capture the scent better with its walls and screening.”

Stephen’s recommendations for urban scent planting include Daphne Odora, which is compact and has a really fruity scent; Magnolia Merrill, a small tree with white spidery flowers and a spiced smell; spicy spring Virburnums; and Rosa Primula, a delicate pale yellow rose that smells of incense. Lots of bulbs have scents too, which is often missed.  “Most crocuses smell of honey.  For my London balcony, I always plant up a pot of crocuses and miniature irises and keep it on a table” says Stephen.

The scent families

Tara Maloney works at the gorgeous Petersham Nurseries in Richmond where, among other things, she runs a workshop that explains how to blend fragrances into an urban garden.  Like Stephen, she admits she has a very sensitive nose.  Tara believes it’s really important to do your research when planning a scent garden.  She recommends you keep a journal of smells you find and like, as everyone’s sense of smell is different – one person’s ‘sweet’ could be another’s person’s ‘rotten’.

“Plants flower and smell for quite a short period of time – classifying plants into the type of smell and when they flower is important, so you get a flow of smells you like throughout the year” says Tara.  “Plants serve their pollinators not us, and are in tune with their natural environment.  The Mirabilis Jalapa, for example, flowers and pushes its fragrance out at 4pm because that’s when the insect it wants to attract becomes active.”

Tara – inspired by Stephen’s book – explains that we can group scents into distinct families so that they’re easier to identify and combine – exotic/heady/tropical (like Jasminum, Nicotiana, Tuberose, Lillies); spicy (like Dianthus, Daphne, Primula, Phlox); vanilla/almond (like Clematis, Heliotrope, Buddleja); fresh/lettuce (like Wisteria, Coronilla, Lupin, Acacia); complex French perfume (Mahonia, Skimmia, Sweet pea, Hyacinth, Cyclamen); rose (the Longicupsis variety smells of bananas); fruit (lemon scented Evening Primrose and Mirabilis Jalapa, plum scented Freesias, apricot Amaryllis Belladonna); and honey (like Crocus Chrysanthus, Edgeworthia, Euphorbia).

Plant like a perfumer

Tara often takes inspiration from perfume when designing scent combinations for outside spaces.  Blending isn’t essential, but it’s a great way to create a stronger and more complex effect.  So, if you want to mix things up, you could make like a perfumer and try combining the scent families. Louise Bloor makes bespoke fragrances to order and can explain how perfumers blend smells, as well as help unlock some of the mystery about how scent works.

“It’s actually a controversial question – there are various ideas but nobody really knows” Louise admits.  “While it’s unknown how the nose processes smells, we do know the brain deals with smell differently to the other senses.  Smell goes straight to your cortex, which means our response to it is very instinctive – it’s not something we analyse.  And it often is emotional or brings back memories.”

“I associate scent with different styles, for example Vanilla is soft and child-like, whereas Bergamot or Clary Sage are clean and crisp. The fashion at the moment is definitely for clean and citrusy scents.”

Perfumers talk about scent in terms of ‘notes’ or ‘chords’, and a blended perfume will usually be a mix of a head chord, a heart chord and a bass chord.  “When I’m mixing a perfume I always start with the bass – something like Vetiver, Frankincense or Pine, which all have a ‘green’ fresh smell” explains Louise.  “The heart note might be something citrusy and sweet, like May Chang or Laurel, and the head note might be Bergamot, Lime and Blood Orange.”

Perfumed planting projects

Tara Maloney recommends a website called Base Notes, which lists the ingredients of over 11,000 perfumes and can be used for planting ideas.  The projects below are some she suggests, one of which recreates one of the world’s most famous fragrances.

Chanel 5 container: combine a woody base note like Dianthus (which has a spicy clove smell) with a Jasmine heart note.  The Jasmine could be trained onto a tripod in the centre of the pot, with the Dianthus underneath.  The perfume’s tropical top note is a little more difficult – Ylang Ylang and/or Neroli – but both would survive outside in summer or in a conservatory.

Choc-mint pot: combine Chocolate Cosmos, which has pretty brown flowers, with Chocolate Mint and Peppermint to create something that smells like a sweet shop.

Fruit punch bowl: combine Pineapple Broom with an apple-scented modern shrub rose, Blackcurrant Sage, Lemon Verbena and Dianthus to create something that smells rather like a glass of Pimms.

Fragrant window box: try combining spicy pink Dianthus with floral Lavender and fresh smelling Bergamot.

Cut flowers / houseplants: sweet peas are perfect cut-and-come-again blooms for perfuming your home – the more you pick, the more flowers will appear. Tara also suggests picking flowers from shrubs – two or three blooms from the Virburnum Burkwoodii ‘Anne Russell’ will fill a room with fragrance.  A favourite houseplant of Stephen Lacey is the Stephanotis, which has a clean and tropical scent.  He also recommends indoor Jasmine but warns that some find the scent to be quite animal-like.

More inspiration

  • Go on a scent gardening course – Tara Maloney is leading a workshop all about using perfumed plants in your garden at Petersham Nurseries on 29th May, from 11am – 12.30pm. Tickets cost £25 and can be booked via 0208 940 5230 or
  • Louise Bloor runs a regular Fragrant Supper Club – contact her at to be put on the mailing list.
  • Seek out rose gardens for a powerful hit of heady perfume this summer – Hyde Park and Regent’s Park in London both have delicious examples.
  • Alderley Grange in Gloucestershire features a scent garden designed by Vita Sackville West and is open by appointment this June.
  • The Oxford Botanic Garden has a secret spring scent garden that is tucked away but a treat for your nose.


  • Scent in Your Garden – Stephen Lacey
  • The Scent of Flowers and Leaves: It’s Purpose and Relation to Man – FA Hampton

Urban Agriculture | Part Two | South West

Over the next year, I’m exploring the UK’s burgeoning urban food growing scene for Kitchen Garden magazine.  Every month I’ll report from a different town or city, as I seek out urban agriculturists and profile projects ranging from the small-scale and personal to the unusual, ambitious and commercial.

“The allotment is my favourite place in Bristol – it’s beautiful because of the shared work that goes into it” says Lucy Mitchell, settling down to tea and cake.  She’s sitting in a shelter made from clay and hazel, sourced from the land on which it stands in the Easton Community Allotment.  A weekly Thursday drop-in session has just finished.

The allotmenteers were given the land eleven years ago by the council.  It was overgrown and bramble filled, with no water supply.  But this allotment is home to some of the most resourceful urban growers in town.  They take a huge amount of pride in the fact they source everything they use cheaply or for free.  “City fly tippers keep us well supplied” laughs Lucy.

“We’re lucky to be close to industry – we’ve reclaimed bricks, pallets and netting from the area.  We keep worm food in an old chest freezer!  We’ve also developed a water harvesting system that means we never need tap water.  Guttering has been attached to the roofs of some neighbouring garages to collect rainwater that’s then piped into a series of twenty barrels.”

Over winter brussel sprouts, kale, purple sprouting broccoli, leeks, savoy cabbages, mooli, winter salads and a forest of Jerusalem artichokes can be found growing.  Lucy is clearly in love with the place.  “It’s about companionship and free, organic, local vegetables” she says.

Bristol is awash with examples of urban agriculture.  The more you dig around, the more active Bristolians seem to be.  “Bristol does feel proactive when it comes to food growing” says Irene Blessit from Fishponds Community Orchard.

“The recession means more people want to grow their own, and people are also more interested in eating organically.  And they’re concerned about fruit waste, orchard loss and disappearing knowledge about local varieties.”

“Our plot is three miles from the city centre and very close to the M32, but it feels wild.  We mainly grow apples, but also some soft fruits.  We encourage members to get keys to the orchard and just come and sit here, have a picnic and bird watch.  We offer a space for people who don’t have a garden of their own.”

Jane Stevenson helps to run the Bristol Food Network, which encourages growers to share knowledge and advice.  She can offer an overview of the city’s growing scene, and is able to reel off numerous interesting examples.  “There’s even a roundabout known locally as the ‘bear pit’ that has vegetables growing on it!” she says.

In 2011 the Network organised the city’s first ‘veg trail’, where groups opened their doors so visitors could see their projects, which are often on closed sites.  The Network has also created an online map showing where all the food growing projects in Bristol are.

Many are in deprived areas, and some are working with hard to reach groups like asylum seekers and homeless people.  “The social aspect is very important – it’s about the group growing experience and shared harvests” explains Jane.

Food is always a political issue.  “Getting access to land in Bristol requires determination and patience.  Ideally in the future there’ll be a ‘land share’ style system where all the available land in the city is listed and can be matched with growers looking for plots” says Jane.

On the city’s outer edges, between Bristol and Bath, the Community Farm is producing food on a grand scale.  22 acres are under cultivation and they sell around 350 veg boxes a week. They also supply wholesale to restaurants, schools and other box schemes.

“It’s both a commercial and community success” says Alison Belshaw, Project Director, “the business has to underpin all the community activity. If that’s not strong we can’t do the other things we want to. 409 people invested in the farm at the first stage, and this is increasing with a new share offer and annual membership scheme.  We’re attracting all sorts of people – young and old, families and individuals, from as far afield as Cumbria, Moscow and New York!”.

Why is their project important?  “How can a city support itself if food has to be distributed hundreds or thousands of miles?” she asks.  “It’s much better to grow fresh vegetables close to where they’re going to be consumed, to ensure they’re eaten at their best and to reduce waste. Land also needs to be protected for growing. There are parts of Bristol that were once used by market gardeners, but the proposal is to have a park and ride scheme built on this excellent growing land.”

The Community Farm has a lot in common with a project just over the border in Cardiff.   The Riverside Market Garden is a much smaller example of urban agriculture, but is equally ambitious.  Project Manager Pete Brooks tells the story.

“We’re all local food freaks basically, and our social enterprise has been running farmers’ markets and community allotments in Cardiff for years.  Cities were once surrounded by market gardens that provided residents with vegetables.  Our project isn’t about nostalgia, but we started to think about how we could revisit this model and also update it completely.”

“We got a start-up grant from the Waterloo Foundation and some money from the Welsh Assembly for a feasibility study.  Our first year, 2009, was all about planning.  We found some land 10 miles from Cardiff City Centre, in the Vale of Glamorgan, where we have five acres, with an option on five more.”

In early 2010 a horticultural consultant did soil and microclimate analysis and came up with an action plan.  In spring they started planting.  “We decided to focus on direct sale to individuals and restaurants, rather than wholesale, and to grow high margin crops like aubergines, peppers, chillies and tomatoes, rather than muddy veg” says Pete.

Riverside Market Garden is an exposed open field, with one acre cultivated.  In winter cavolo nero, Russian kale, spinach and amaranth grow out in the open, and winter salads in the polytunnel.  They produce £2,000 worth of crops every month, but want that to treble in 2012 as they cultivate more land.  The aim is to be fully commercial in the next four years, with outreach, education and training aspects to their work.

“Our project is addressing issues like urban food poverty and obesity head on” says Pete.  “There’s a tide of under-nutrition sweeping across the country – it’s overwhelming to think about how to tackle it as a whole, but you’ve got to do your bit in your parish.”

Useful websites

Grow a balcony allotment

A feature I wrote for Time Out’s new guide book 2012 Things To Do in London

For someone lacking in green fingers, the idea that a blank balcony could ever become an urban jungle is quite an imaginative leap.  But it is possible.  In a matter of months, despite having no real gardening knowledge and very little spare cash, I managed to turn a small flat roof in Holloway into an aerial, edible garden.  And I’m by no means unique.  Loads of Londoners are growing their own, despite spatial limitations.

In north London, garden-less Mark Ridsill-Smith is practically self-sufficient in fruit and veg terms.  Every window ledge and balcony space of his Camden home is supporting some kind of edible plant life.  Methodical in his approach, Mark is focussed on being as productive as he possibly can.  He’s carefully calculated that he grew over 80kg of food last summer, worth £590.  His harvest ranged from rainbow chard and cavelo nero in April, to mange tout and dill in June, through to tomatoes and courgettes in September.

Reassuringly, he confesses that his first attempt at balcony growing resulted in one solitary serving of rocket.  Since then, he’s got more serious and says detailed planning is the key to a year-round supply of fresh produce purely from pots.

March to June is most busy – he spends about 30 minutes a day watering, plus half a day a week sowing, staking and planting out.  The work load lessens after that.  He estimates that he spends one day in total over a month from July to October, and half a day each month from November to February.  He’s not obsessed but he is focused, and keen to teach other people about food growing.

Full of new found urban farming knowledge, Mark’s set up in a bid to get more land-less people growing. He recommends starting off with leafy herb or salad crops that are expensive to buy. The most delicious of all are pea and broad bean shoots.  They grow to edible size in just three weeks, from May until October.  Climbing crops are great for space poor people too – things like vine tomatoes, winter squash, French beans and mange-tout.

Mark is taking his personal balcony allotment growing to something of an extreme, but this doesn’t have to be your approach.  A few culinary herbs on a kitchen window ledge will transform your meals, and there’s a lot of joy to be had in a single hanging basket of tumbling tomatoes or strawberries. 

For me it all began when I escaped the house-share from hell and moved to a tiny first floor flat in Holloway that just happened to have an accessible rooftop.  Not exactly a garden, it was a bleak grey space but one that was ripe to become something special.  The roof was fenced off, able to bear weight and my bedroom had a door that opened straight out onto it.  It was framed by views of chimney tops and town houses, and buffeted by birdsong and traffic noise.

It took me a while to get started in earnest.  The roof was appealing but I wasn’t a gardener.  There was much thought but little action for rather a long time.  I would stare at it through condensation curtained windows during my first winter there and think I’d like to get to know my balcony better.

Come summer, it was a space for sun dozing rather than vegetable growing, but things changed. I became increasingly interested in urban nature, fascinated by the number of creatures that call London home, and I was starting to understand the environmental importance of urban gardens.

While London is celebrated as being one of the world’s most verdant cities, green space is still endangered here.  Private garden land covers a significant swathe of the capital and is a precious resource, but it especially is under threat from hard surfacing and development.  Lots of natural land is lost to decking and extensions, so creating a brand new garden felt really valuable.

I decided I would transform myself into aerial edible gardener and attempt to create a true living room – an outside space that would become an important extension of my small home.  The rooftop space was three metres square and, despite being sandwiched between the Camden and Holloway Roads, it managed to feel calm.  The plan was to weave green walls around the rooftop and turn it into a fragrant tangle of vegetables, fruit and flowers.

I didn’t know what I was doing.  I read a few books and drew strange diagrams, but really I just experimented.  Some stuff worked well, other things didn’t.  All my crops had to bear an entirely container bound life, and I discovered that things like runner bean, tomato, courgette, potato, garlic, radish, strawberry, salads and herbs all cope well.  I also sought out flowers, especially night blooming ones.  Spring was painted with the yellows and purples of daffodils, violas and alium star bursts, while summer evenings were perfumed by tobacco plant, evening primrose and jasmine.

Luckily, the Holloway roof is something of a suntrap.  South facing, it’s bathed in warm rays all afternoon in the spring and summer, which means tomatoes and strawberries ripened quickly.  Shady and north facing window ledges and balconies are harder to cultivate, but there are lots of plants that don’t mind.  As a general rule, leafy crops can tolerate the most shade. Mint, lemon balm, sorrel, parsley, thyme, fennel, sage, lettuce and chard will all survive without much sun.

Growing your own could get expensive, but the thrifty gardener can survive on a shoe string budget.  Next time you buy a chilli, keep the seeds and plant them.  Next time you buy garlic, plant a clove and it’ll transform into a bulb (after a few months!).  Seek out seed swaps and farmers’ markets for cheap seeds and plants, and treat yourself to a Sunday afternoon at Columbia Road Market.  Head there when the traders are packing up to get the best deals.

Decent compost and plant food are the key to growing success, and someone interested in being environmentally friendly should seek out soil that’s organic and peat-free.  For those on a budget, local councils sometimes offer deals on compost.  For example Islington has been known to sell 60 litre bags (made from north Londoners’ food waste) for £3.

Be creative when it comes to containers.  The streets of London are littered with wooden veg boxes that stall and shop owners will happily let you have, possibly after a bit of banter.  People are constantly throwing away things that make great plant pots.  I’ve found and used old baskets, paint pots, colanders and even a wooden CD rack.

Of course there have been problems in my rooftop paradise.  I’ve been terrorised by obese and angry squirrels that eat my strawberries and tomatoes, and behead my flowers out of nothing but spite.  And slugs and snails have devoured my hard grown lettuces.  Watering in the hot months can be time consuming and I’ve been guilty of neglect.  But overall making myself a little roof garden has been pure pleasure.  However humble your attempt, I heartily recommend you give it a go.

There are numerous plants, including edible ones, which will survive and thrive in containers.  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.

A few pot happy plants:


Strawberries, tomatoes


Beans, carrots, courgettes, squashes, potatoes, radishes, garlic, peppers, chillies, salad leaves


Bay, rosemary, chives, chervil, parsley, basil, sage, oregano, thyme, mint, lemon balm


Lavender, jasmine, evening primrose, night flowering tobacco, rose, viola, daffodils, alium

The Indoor Growers

Helen Babbs meets three people who are tending crops inside rather than out, and shares some ideas about how to (stylishly) make your own home a productive one.  This feature was originally written for City Planter.

The experimental indoor grower

I had an idea how the Rooftop Greenhouse might look before I arrived.  I was imagining a little glass house, perched precariously on top of a building.  I was wrong, of course.  The only hint of growth when you arrive is a faint glimpse of some bushy plants hidden behind high-up sash windows. It turns out that the elegant white townhouse I’ve stopped in front of is a bit of a fake – a folly that disguises a greenhouse that otherwise wouldn’t have got planning permission in this conservation area.

I’m welcomed in by the owner – the ever-enthusiastic Charlie Paton.  He gives me a guided tour of the building where he runs his family business and also grows an impressive array of fruit and veg. It’s an old bakery that he bought in the 1970s and has recently transformed into an incredible workshop and office by extending upwards.

The top floor of the building has been designed and built specifically to grow food.  There’s a glass roof and many windows, so it’s full of the sunlight needed to grow plants.  It looks like a futuristic garden laboratory, with pipes running through it, various busy control panels and huge plants shooting up to the roof.

“2011 was our first growing season – we had cucumbers, peppers, strawberries and lettuces in the summer.  We’re still getting red tomatoes and ripe chillies now” says Charlie.

The Rooftop Greenhouse makes use of hydroponics – a system of growing plants in water that has nutrients dissolved in it.  In this instance, a series of pipes have been customised into planters. Nutrient-rich water is pumped through them, straight to the roots of the plants.  No compost is needed, although the plants do need a growing medium to take root in – clay balls work well.

“It can get really hot in here, especially in summer, so we’ve developed a system for pumping the heat around the rest of the building” says Charlie. As well as helping to maintain the correct temperature in the greenhouse during the day, this innovation has halved Charlie’s heating bills.  At night, it’s the building that keeps the greenhouse warm, as it releases heat that’s been stored up in its bricks during the day.

“It’s been expensive and time intensive to set up, but now it’s all in place it’s a lot less work.  I see this as an experimental pilot project, which could be the model for similar installations in community buildings like schools” he explains.  Not only would such greenhouses provide fresh food and heat, they’d also be educational and fill carbon dioxide heavy air with oxygen – important for young minds to stay alert.


The ambitious Rooftop Greenhouse is something only the very committed indoor grower would recreate at home, but there are ideas to steal from this project.  You could invest in a readymade hydroponic kit that’s suitable for small spaces (there’s a huge variety to pick from online), or even fashion your own system out of some drainpipes and a pond pump.  Take a look at window farms for instructions on how to make a hydroponic system that will hang in your window.

The commercial indoor grower

Not far from Charlie’s incredible creation, is FARMshop – a verdant cafe and event space in Dalston Junction.  Paul Smyth from Something and Son is one of the brains behind the project. “We were interested in urban agriculture, and especially indoor growing because there’s not much land on high streets, but that is where people buy food,” he explains.

It’s an oddly-lit space with a faint whiff of the sea, full of green shoots and fat fish. A combination of aquaponics and hydroponics are used to grow high-value crops such as micro-greens, herbs and lettuces, as well as tomatoes in the summer.  The harvests go straight on to customers’ plates – 80% of the leaves sold in the cafe are grown on site.

For the aquaponic system, pipe planters are connected to fish tanks. Fish wee is full of nitrates and so removes the need to add fertiliser to the water that’s pumped through the pipes.  “We’ll eat the fish as well when they’re big enough – we’ve found somewhere in London where they can be smoked” says Paul.

There are challenges and expenses.  “Lighting uses the most electricity, and energy use is something you’d need to be very careful about if you scaled the project up. We have secondary uses for ours – they light our cafe, our workspaces and meeting rooms.”


Again, FARMshop is an ambitious project on a scale that only the most dedicated would try at home, but it is possible to buy small-scale aquaponics kits. The shop isn’t flooded with sunlight so they have to use artificial lights for their indoor growing – their expense is justified by making sure the light has a double use.  You could do the same – plant lights could provide background lighting for a well-used living room perhaps, rather than an empty spare bedroom.

The domestic indoor grower

It is possible to grow indoors without fancy pipe-work, fish wee or artificial light.  Sarah Stinton, for example, has grown many things on a humble windowsill.  An allotment holder, she decided to start cultivating crops inside so she could extend the growing season well into the winter.

“I’m lucky – I have four south-facing windowsills.  Last winter, I grew a long tray of cut and come again mixed winter salads. I also tried dwarf French beans in narrow but deep pots and courgette ‘parthenon’ in big round pots – neither needs insects to pollinate it. I planted them all in early January, along with tomatoes, peppers and aubergines.  I always start at this time of year indoors,” she says.

Anything that got too big for Sarah’s windowsill was moved outdoors in the summer, but size shouldn’t be a problem if you seek out miniature varieties.   “I planted a second lot of small tomatoes inside this June and they’re still going strong. My indoor chilli plants are also continuing to produce and ripen despite low light levels. Both look gorgeous too,” she says.

Although Sarah has had lots of success and heartily recommends that we all give indoor growing a go, she’s honest about some of the problems she has encountered. “The courgette plant was slow to grow, probably because of low light levels, but I did harvest a few vegetables in March.  The dwarf French beans did much better – the pods began to grow in March. Sadly I had a plague of sciarid fly, which lives on top of the compost.  I think sciarid fly is the worst thing about growing indoors – it drives my husband insane!”


A sunny windowsill may well be all you need to start growing indoors successfully – just beware the bugs.  “Miniature bush tomato plants, salad mixes and herbs are probably the easiest crops to start with,” Sarah says.

Doing it with style

Indoor farming has the potential to look a little messy.  But there are ways to grow inside that look, as well as taste, good and crops can even make eye-catching design features.

Boskke’s upside down planters would look great hanging from a kitchen ceiling, while Urban Allotments have an indoor vertical planter, which you can use to create an edible work of art for your living room.  Ceramic hanging air plant pods by mudpuppy are beautiful to look at.

So now you’ve picked your planters, what should you grow in them?  High value, attractive and compact crops are the best bets – try bush tomatoes, chillies, sweet peppers, tender culinary herbs and salads.