Category: widlife friendly garden design

Guardian | go grass free


The floral lawn at Avondale Park

This feature was written for the Guardian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guardian | the lovely bones

This feature was written for the Guardian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vibrant leaves
Euonymus alatus

Stipa arundinacea
Miscanthus sp.
Hakonechloa macra

Guardian | frothy but thriving

This article was originally written for the Guardian

Ruth Yeo is so excited she could explode.  Months of hard work mean a makeover of Battersea Park’s Old English Garden is complete.  Built in the early 1900s and tucked away behind high brick walls, the garden had fallen into disrepair.  But ideas from a bright young thing designer, combined with the skills of some talented trainee gardeners and a pot of cash from a London perfumery, mean the garden is looking lovely again.

Ruth works as a horticultural therapist for Thrive, a charity that uses gardening to support and empower people with disabilities.  They’ve had a base in Battersea Park for almost 30 years and took on the upkeep of the walled garden six years ago.  “It was run down and neglected – there were lots of plants in here but it had all got very overgrown” explains Ruth.  A lack of money meant the garden never really got back in its stride.

Fast forward a few years and things couldn’t be more different.  Sarah Price – who just won gold at Chelsea – has developed what she describes as a frothy and romantic planting scheme for the space.  A team of Thrive gardeners have been making her designs a reality since January.

For someone who’s just emerged from the heady excitement of making a temporary garden for a famous flower show, how does Sarah feel about working on something that has history – including 100 year old box hedges – and will be much more long lasting?

“Part of the charm is that we’re not planting for instant effect” says Sarah.  “The project has been a complete collaboration – we had a fantastic brief from the funders Jo Malone London to create a garden that references its rose garden history.  I did outline plant lists for each bed before Thrive decided how things should be positioned.  It’s been hard to lose control, but fantastic to see them rise to the challenge and put their own mark on it.”

The garden features lots of different types of salvias and long flowering valerian, plus various scented herbs.  Low growing thyme creeps out of the beds and onto the hard landscaping, playing with the architectural lines of the geometric space.

“The plants create textural swathes through the garden” explains Sarah. “Because there are so many beds, I’ve made sure that a couple of plants are dominant each season, so there’s a sense of visual continuity within the space.  Added to that frothy backdrop, we’ve planted special things like regal lilies, peonies and roses.  The roses may not be obvious yet, but next year the space will be frivolous with them.”

Despite being called the Old English Garden, the look isn’t all that traditional.  The overall effect is hazy and fluid, almost wild.  Lea, one of the Thrive gardeners, describes it as “like walking through a big bouquet.”  She remembers visiting the garden as a young girl and is pleased to be back as part of the gardening team.

“I started in January.  It was bare and patchy then but, with all the rain and sun over the last few weeks, everything has grown” says Lea.  “You get told where something needs to be and you visualise it from the plan.  To see it planted is an amazing thing.  We’re learning as we go – I want to learn as much as I can.”

The idea was to create something high maintenance – a fairly unusual brief for a designer.  It’s because the garden will be an ongoing teaching aid for Thrive’s ‘Working it out’ scheme, which focuses on helping to get people into employment.

“We’ll end up with a group who’ve worked with a gold medal winning designer, who have taken her designs and created a real garden that’s seen by a lot of people” says Ruth Yeo.  It’s her job to translate Sarah’s design into practical tasks each week for the Thrive team.

“Now we’ve got the hang of the design, we love it.  When we started it was scary.  It looks casual but it’s actually very managed.  It’ll be different every year and it’s different every season.  It’s a learning process for all of us.  As a horticultural therapist, I ensure that each day includes something of benefit to everyone, as well as the gardening.”

Such a high profile and professional project shows that the Thrive team take themselves seriously.  “We’ve upped our game enormously in the last few years” says Ruth.  “We insist on high standards from our gardeners and we get them.  One of the big things that we’ve learned is that everyone can do a very good job.  People deserve us to expect that of them.”

The other key thing about this garden is that it’s free and open all year round.  Throughout the renovation, members of the public have wandered through and kept a check on its progress.  For Sarah Price, the community nature of the project is significant.  “It’s really important that the public see people gardening” she says.  “Part of the gardener’s role is to answer questions and encourage interaction.”

Get the look – Sarah Price’s advice

  • Select a couple of long flowering plants and use these to create visual links across your garden and a continuous wave of colour.
  • Plant white Centranthus ruber Alba with the deep purple spires of Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ and the shocking magenta of Geranium psilostemon.  They’ll bloom all summer if you dead-head them.
  • Combine old fashioned roses with ornamental grasses. The tall misty plumes of Molinia ‘Transparent’ will add height and structure, while the arching, fluffy flower heads of Calamagrostis brachytricha will contrast beautifully with the velvet flowers of Rosa ‘Cardinal de Richelieu’ or Rosa ‘Charles de Mills’.

Variety is good for wildlife as well as good looking. The flat open umbels of Cenolophium denudatum look great combined with the spires of perennial foxglove Digitalis lutea.

The Master Gardeners

A neighbourly mentoring scheme is encouraging local vegetable growers to spread the organic gardening bug.  Turns out green fingers can be very infectious.  This feature appears in the Dec 2011 issue of Kitchen Garden magazine.

The Islington Master Gardeners gradually gather over mugs of tea and fig rolls, a somewhat retro biscuit choice that’s going down well with the troops.  Their first training session of the year begins with an exercise in when to plant what vegetables, and where.  There’s much impassioned discussion already, despite it still being early on a Sunday morning.  Within minutes I’ve learned an awful lot about being productive in an urban environment.  And this is just the warm-up.

Kate Fenhalls is the brains behind the fig rolls.  She’s also the Islington group’s co-ordinator and explains what the scheme is all about.  “The idea is to create communities of volunteer Master Gardeners, who encourage others to start and continue growing fruit and vegetables organically.  Master Gardeners are enthusiasts with some food growing experience.  You don’t have to be an expert, just willing to share your knowledge. It’s not a gardening service but rather a source of information and support for new growers.”

The idea is that, after completing a short foundation course, a Master Gardener will seek out ten households that they can mentor through a growing year.  One grower magics into ten, in just twelve months.  It’s about dispersing wisdom and sounds almost viral in its intentions.  It also sounds like quite a commitment, but Kate insists it’s a project that’s flexible around volunteers’ busy lives.

“The way the programme has been set up means that gardeners can adapt the way they do their volunteering to suit them.  Each Master Gardener commits to 30 hours volunteering a year, which is about half an hour a week, and is supported by a volunteer coordinator, like me, who offers resources and advice.  Our intention is that volunteers get as much as possible out of the programme in terms of training and support, so that they can continue to share their knowledge.”

Islington has the least green space of any London borough, making it one of the most under vegetated places in the country.  Despite this, there’s a huge amount of enthusiasm for growing among a special few who are determined to spread their gardening love locally.  Today’s session offers some mentoring to the mentors, and next on the day’s packed agenda is an informal talk from one of their number.

Master Gardener Mark Ridsdill-Smith manages to grow huge amounts of vegetables despite not actually having a garden.  He grows on the balcony, walls and windowsills of his north London home, and documents his impressive work on  He tells the group about a self watering container that he’s invented, using old recycling boxes and bits of drainpipe.  He hands out instructions so the group can go off and make their own.  It’s easy to see how he must be an inspiration to the households he’s connected with.

The nine mentors here are a mixed bunch – men and women, young and old, and from really different backgrounds.  They’re united by a passion for urban cultivation.  The scheme started in 2010, so this is their second growing season together.  Not limited to Islington, there are groups of Master Gardeners in south London, Norfolk and Warwick too, and the intention is to expand further.

The group is joined today by Philip Turvill from Garden Organic, the charity that runs the Master Gardener project.  The organisation offers volunteers, and their households, a wealth of experience, research and materials.  This particular training session is of the indoor variety but I can tell I’m amongst people of the earth when Phil does a masterclass involving compost and potting on some asparagus kale.  The delight is immense as he, and the other gardeners, run their fingers through the silky soil that’s been spread across a couple of tables.

As Kate worries about the amount of soil flying onto the carpet, the group starts discussing pooh.  The capital’s various city farms are a recommended source of manure for Londoners, but one gardener’s creative tip is to clear up after police horses have passed by.  Wormeries and bokashi bins are also pondered as ways to create compost in small spaces, and everyone is offered a little piece of comfrey root from Ryton Gardens (Garden Organic’s home) to nurture. The conversation ends with lunch for everyone but Phil, who goes off to find a hoover.

After lunch the discussion focuses on how to be a good mentor, and is a chance for people to raise the frustrations and concerns they might have.  Role playing allows people to practice their teaching techniques.  Being part of a household’s life for a year is a big deal and the group thinks about the importance of managing people’s expectations, and their own.  They spend some time researching the answers to tough questions that might get thrown at them by their tutees.

The day ends with arts and crafts.  Phil teaches us how to make a device that will get just sprouted plants to grow straight.  Old cardboard boxes, plastic bags and kitchen foil are combined to create a windowsill sun lounge for seedlings.  We also make newspaper pots.  Both activities are ideas for the Masters to try out with their households.  Everyone seems excited about another year spreading the organic gardening message.  The Masters of the gardening universe go their separate ways, each brimming with masses of new ideas, and clutching shiny sun lounger creations, a tiny kale plant, four packets of seeds and three seed potatoes.

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

London: Garden City?

A new report has revealed the scale of garden loss in London.

The pioneering study by London Wildlife Trust, Greenspace Information for Greater London and the Greater London Authority, shows that London’s gardens – which make up nearly a quarter of Greater London – are changing from green to grey.

Garden greenspace in the capital’s gardens has been lost at a rate of two and a half Hyde Parks per year, driven by recent trends in garden design. While hard surfacing – including decking and paving – increased by over 25 per cent in the 100 month study period.

I helped edit the report, which is a fascinating portrait of the anatomy of London’s gardens, but one that highlights some very worrying trends.

Gardens are incredibly important resources for people and wildlife and, in an era of climatic change, surely they should surely be respected and protected.  Read the report here.

Flower Power – Cheslea 2011

Wow.  My first RHS Chelsea Flower Show.  What a mad event it is.  I saw Ringo Star (no picture evidence, you’ll have to trust me) and contracted my first ever case of hay fever, so sound-tracking the entire experience with whooping sneezes.  The trends this year seem to be wild and loose styles, dusty and burnt shades, foxgloves and cabbage.

Alongside some seriously beautiful gardens with elements ordinary growers could definitely recreate, there are, of course, some more fantastical offerings.  A garden floating in the sky – well, an eye-shaped pink garden pod thing attached to a crane courtesy of Diarmuid Gavin – is probably the cream of the over-the-top crop.  Next door, B&Q has gone as far as installing a kind of tower block, highlighting how window boxes can be tiny gardens too.

It’s fairly odd to see so many mature gardens all lined up, labelled and roped-off in the grounds of the usually out of bounds Royal Hospital (where the Chelsea pensioners live).  The air is thick with pollen and every garden’s alive with furry bumbles, which are happily flying past those ropes and getting giddy on sweet nectar.

This annual event must be utter heaven for west London’s bee community. It’s also heaven for human eyes and each garden is the stuff of daydreams, if you can only get close enough to lose yourself in the flora and fauna.  It’s all especially wondrous and unbelievable to urban eyes that have only a snatch of outside space to call their own.

The human wildlife on display is pretty fascinating too – solidly middle class, but punctuated with some fabulous outfits that no doubt have been confusing the bees.  We most loved a tutu made entirely of red flowers.  A publicity stunt, but one that brought smiles to many an old boy’s face.

My favourite gardens include the Laurent Perrier’s dusty purple and bronze wilderness of long grasses and flowers, and the SKYshades garden, which looks like it has existed for years and features a tangle of nettles and daisies.  The Royal Bank of Canada’s New Wild Garden has the prettiest walls I’ve ever seen and I spent a long while staring at the hot pinks, blues and yellows of the Times and Kew Gardens’ Eureka creation. An elegant edible garden designed by Bunny Guinness makes cabbage and kale look anything but humble.

Perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea, the flower show is a well established part of London’s cultural calendar and is worth a look one year if you have a green finger among your eight.  Its roots are as the Great Spring Show, which first took place in Kensington in 1862.  It was axed in 1912 and replaced with the Royal International Horticultural Exhibition and has been taking place at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea since 1913.

The show has now sold out but there’s masses of coverage online and on TV, where you can indulge in the eye-candy without having to negotiate the crowds.

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.

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.

From dusk til dawn: adventures in the wild night garden

It’s gone midnight and I’m brushing my teeth at my mum’s place in rural south Wales, listening to a group of very noisy frogs.  Peering through the frosted glass of the bathroom window, all I can see is inky darkness but the pond is clearly buzzing with late night life.

Tobacco plantFast forward a couple of weeks – it’s 3am now, I’m at a party in a canal-side central London garden and calling moorhens are swooping over our heads.  By 4am, as the black-blue sky gently begins to lighten, the sound of songbirds starts to swell.  By dawn, the spring chorus is in full swing.  It’s an interesting time to be up wherever you are, especially at this time of year.

There are many adventures to be had in the garden at night.  As dusk rolls in and day colours wash out, other shades become more prominent.  Sculptural shadows stretch across lawns and up walls.  Pale leaved plants and white flowers begin to glow in the twilight.  Heavy scents grow strong and hang thick in the air, drawing in moths to drink night nectar.

Sit quietly and watch as bats dart about in hungry pursuit of insects that have been drawn out by the approaching gloom.  Later, perhaps a hedgehog will wander through and hoover up some slugs.  A garden designed for nocturnal wildlife and planted with night loving flowers is an enchanting, sensual place.

Moth magic by moonlight

Perhaps misunderstood due to a single species’ taste for clothes, moths are fascinating to watch and a vital part of our garden’s ecosystems.  Last summer I went on a very urban moth spotting evening in King’s Cross and discovered how intricately beautiful and Elephant hawk mothvaried 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 like bats, hedgehogs and frogs.  Moth caterpillars provide a veritable feast for baby birds – a brood of blue tit chicks can eat up to 15,000 of them.

Long grass, wild areas, nettles and native trees are good for moths and, when it comes to night nectar, there’s a huge range of perfumed plants that bloom after sunset.   Moths are attracted by sugary scents and pale colours, using both to navigate.  Night flowering jasmine and honeysuckle are classic moth traps.

Grow a range of species that flower at different times of year to provide nectar for as long as possible.  In spring, evening primrose and sweet rocket are good, while lavender flowers late into autumn.

Damp and dark

Organic gardeners should welcome frogs and toads into their gardens as they devour that much maligned creature of the night – the slug.  Creating a wildlife friendly pond will provide a home for both of these increasingly threatened amphibians, whose numbers are in serious decline due to habitat loss.  In spring time, the pond at night pulses with mating calls – it’s brilliant to listen to, especially when brushing one’s teeth!   You can download a free guide to building a garden pond from

A pond will also attract night-flying insects, which in turn will attract bats.  Bat numbers are also in decline, due to pesticide use and other environmental pressures decimating their food supplies, so an invertebrate rich garden can become an important feeding ground.

A single bat can eat up to 3,000 flying insects in one night.  It’s rather fun to watch bats swooping and darting around catching flies in your garden while indulging in an alfresco evening cuppa.

Night talk

I love the language used to describe the beasts that emerge after dark.  Nocturnal means ‘of the night’, while vespertine derives from the Latin vesper meaning ‘evening (star)’ and refers to dusk loving Verbenaspecies.  In botany, a vespertine flower blooms exclusively in the evening, while in zoology a vespertine creature is one that’s active in the evening, like a bat.  My favourite though is crepuscular, which means ‘of twilight’ and is used to refer to species that are active in both the early evening and early morning.

There’s definitely something special about spending time in the garden or any green space at night.  The senses are more alert – smells are stronger, sounds somehow louder and there’s so much to spot, plus as a gardener it’s easier to relax, no jobs that can be done.  So, why not go nocturnal this summer?  Fill your patch with fragrant vespertine plants, sit back and watch the crepuscular creatures arrive.


White night box

Attract moths by creating a low maintenance, sweet smelling mini white night garden in a window box.  White flowers reflect moonlight and the tiny star shaped flowers of jasmine start to shine after dusk.  Jasmine’s fragrance is at its most potent at night, which is why it’s harvested in the early hours when it’s grown commercially.  Tobacco plant also gives off a strong night perfume and its elegant long white trumpet shaped flowers are loved by moths.

Lavender is another great plant to include in your night garden box – its silvery, spiky foliage looks magical in half light.  Or why not try sweet rocket, also known as ‘mother of the evening’, strong smelling and ranging in colour from white to purple.  A container planted with night lovers will smell and look gorgeous by the light of the moon.  It’s definitely possible to be moth friendly in miniature – even the smallest scale gardens can be valuable resources for hungry insects.

Night lovers

Evening primrose


Ice plant


Night flowering catchfly

Night scented stock


Sweet rocket

Tobacco plant

White campion


Full moon diary summer 2009

Wildlife spotting by the light of the moon

June 22nd

July 22nd

August 20th

September 18th

This article appears in the June issue of Organic Garden and Home magazine