Category: Wildlife friendly gardening

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.

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.”

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

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

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

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

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

Some early reviews include…

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

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

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

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

Up on the roof

This article appears in the spring issue of Lost in London magazine

My Holloway flat is truly tiny.  It’s home sweet home but postage stamp sized.  I moved here to escape a hellish house share and so I’ve always seen it as a retreat. For my flatmate and me it’s our most peaceful place, despite being sandwiched between the Camden, Holloway and Seven Sisters Roads.  What makes my part of this paltry palace extra special is the fact my bedroom has a door that opens out onto a fenced-in flat roof.

When I moved in it was almost winter, the days were short and the rooftop damp and rather bleak.  It was a three metre square patch of grey, albeit one that boasted surprisingly green views of gardens running wild and grand old trees.  It felt like London, framed by the backs of classic town houses and edged with the outline of chimney stacks.

In spite of inevitable sirens, helicopter buzz and bus roar, the space is calm.  Attached to me and my space, it floats somehow separate from the seething urbanity that surrounds it.  I would stare at it through condensation curtained windows that winter and think I’d like to get to know my square of grey better.

A city girl, I also love the outdoors and nature.  London has vast swathes of green space and supports much wildlife.  At the same time I inherited a potential roof garden, I was also becoming more and more intrigued by urban ecology.  Fascinated by the richness of London’s wildlife, I was starting to understand the importance of conserving and creating more natural land within the city.

So, full of the joys of nature, and being a fan of food as everybody is, I decided to get acquainted with my rooftop by turning it into an aerial, edible garden.  It was to be organic and wildlife friendly, full of flowers that would attract bees and moths.  It was to be low maintenance and done on a budget.  It was to be an allotment of sorts, as well as providing me with some extra space in which to daydream and entertain friends.

It ended up taking me another year to get my act together and really start growing in earnest.  My second winter in the flat found me reading gardening books, drawing strange diagrams and heading off to seed swaps and garden centres.  I even started a blog, thinking that if I made my intentions public, I’d be more motivated to actually get on and do it.

After just one growing season I felt like I’d genuinely earned myself a set of urban green fingers.  I’ve successfully grown and harvested potatoes, beans, tomatoes, courgettes, garlic, strawberries, herbs and salads up there.  I’ve developed a night corner with flowers like tobacco plant, evening primrose, lavender and jasmine that are gloriously fragrant after dark.  I’ve hosted small home grown supper parties and lost many hours to sun dozing and moon bathing amongst the foliage.

Wildlife wise, destructive snails and squirrels visit regularly and often, plus much loved and tuneful Cockney sparrows, blackbirds and robins.  I’ve even spied a great spotted woodpecker in my neighbour’s sycamore tree.  I get many bees, butterflies and moths.  My aerial gardening adventures have opened my eyes to a new side of London life, and the project has been the force behind new friendships far beyond the rooftop.

My book based on a year on the roof, and adventuring off into London’s wild spaces, is published this June. My Garden, the City and Me: Rooftop Adventures in the Wilds of London – ask for it in your local bookshop!

High up horticulture – a how to

Lacking a conventional garden is no reason not to grow things.  There are numerous plants, including edible ones, that will happily endure an entirely container bound life.  That container could be a basket full of tumbling tomatoes hanging beside a shared front door; a kitchen ledge window box planted with culinary herbs; or larger troughs and pots sitting on a balcony, hosting anything from courgettes to potatoes and everything in between. Now is the time to get your hands dirty.

Potato sack

Line a large hessian sack with a plastic bin bag that you have punched with a few pin sized drainage holes.  Fill it up half way with good organic, peat-free compost and plant two or three seed potatoes.  As green shoots start to burst through the soil, top it up with more compost.  Gradually keep adding compost to cover the shoots as they grow, until the sack is full.  Allow the plants to grow, flower and then die back.  Have a root around to see if the potatoes are ready.  Leave alone if you can’t find any.  Harvest the crop by pouring the soil out onto a sheet and having a good sift for your spuds.

Container courgette

Start off planting your seeds in small containers inside – empty yoghurt pots and fruit punnets are perfect for propagating seedlings.  Once your plants are starting to look strong and sturdy, introduce them to the outside world by leaving them out during the day and bringing them in at night.  After a week or two they should be able to move out permanently.  Plant a single courgette in a decent sized container and watch it grow.  You can eat the flowers as well as the vegetables. Protect young plants from slugs with cloches made from old clear plastic bottles, and by spreading gritty gravel on top of soil.

Upside down tomato

Start your tomatoes from seed inside, growing them the right way up and in small pots.  Once they’re looking strong, harden them off before moving them outside permanently.  Find an empty, litre sized plastic bottle and cut the bottom off.  Place a small piece of cardboard, with a stalk sized hole cut in it, in the bottle opening. Thread the tomato seeding through the cardboard so it’s poking out of the opening and its roots are inside the bottle.  Fill with soil and then water.  Attach some string to the bottom, hang it up and watch it grow, flower and fruit.

Hanging strawberry

Buy one or two small strawberry plants and plant in a hanging basket, filled with good compost.  Hang and keep well watered.  The plants will grow and flower, before producing glossy berries.  They will send out runners, which turn into whole new plants.  A home grown baby strawberry plant gift will always be appreciated by a friend.

Runner bean living wall

Soak your bean seeds overnight in water, then plant in small pots inside.  Support the plants with sticks.  Wooden coffee stirrers work well for tiny plants or collect sticks from the woods. Harden the beans off and then plant them out in a decent sized container beside a wall.  Support each plant with a long cane and hang netting between them.  The beans will weave a leaving wall around the netting and canes, before flowering and fruiting.  Protect young plants with cloches and grit.

ANIMATION: grow your own lunch

I’ve made a short animated film about growing your own lunch for Wildlife Watch UK.  It’s aimed at kids and is a little bit shaky, but hopefully enjoyable!  You can watch it  in the player below.  It’s a sort of humble homage in paper to the bean and the bee, which might inspire kids to dig.

Young, urban and green fingered

A new breed of young urban gardeners are bringing our capital city to life…

If I asked you to conjure up an image of a person in their twenties who lived and worked in a huge city, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they’d not be that interested in gardening.  And you’d probably think that for lots of good reasons – lack of time, space and money perhaps, if not a lack of inclination.  But actually huge numbers of young Londoners are really into gardening.

Growing your own is extremely popular in the capital at the moment, whether you have a traditional garden space or not.  From flats and houses to tower blocks and boats, there’s much urban space that’s currently playing host to a plant pot or three.

Aerial, edible gardening

Happily moving back to London after a year working away, I spent a few long months hunting for a place where I could make myself a home.  I finally moved into a tiny flat in Islington in late 2008, which came with a roof terrace, accessed through a narrow door in my bedroom.  I knew immediately that this was a special thing, my very own little aerial garden, but it took me a year to decide to do something with it other than use it as a place to sunbathe in the summer and generally ignore in the winter.

2009 was the year I decided to turn it into a wildlife friendly veggie garden.  I had no idea what I was doing, I still don’t really, but with a little bit of determination the roof has been transformed from bare and bleak into a thriving jungle, where I’ve harvested strawberries, tomatoes, beans, herbs and salads, and hosted all kinds of birds, bees and butterflies.  It’s hard express how joyful the experience has been.

Green eyes and fingers

As a faintly impoverished twenty something in rented accommodation, it can be a challenge to be a grower.  It’s the challenge that makes it exciting though, that ‘against the odds’ element and the fact it’s perhaps slightly surprising even to try.  What I love most about London is its endless capacity to surprise me.  With my new interest in urban gardening has come the wonderful discovery that I’m not alone, that loads of people are getting creative with the most interesting of spaces.

I have new eyes now I’m officially a London gardener, eyes that are attracted to pots balancing on roof tops and that see every spare space as a potential flower bed or vegetable patch.  London is absolutely full of green spaces.  There are the glorious parks that mean the UK capital is known as one of the greenest cities in the world.  But there are also hundreds of smaller scale, more secret gardens that the discerning urbanite can seek out – community gardens and orchards, allotments, local nature reserves and borough growing projects.

Growing communities

‘Get Growing’ ( is such a project based in the London borough of Hackney.  Set up at the start of 2009 by Hedvig Murray and her friend Sara, it gives people who sign up the equipment, guidance and moral support to start growing vegetables in their outside space, whatever shape or size it may be.  They worked with ten households in Hackney last season, whose growing spaces ranged from window boxes and roof terraces, to front steps and back yards.  The people involved were novices or gardeners who’ve become disheartened due to a lack of success.

Hedvig and Sara taught the group the principles of permaculture and gave them one-on-one practical tuition.  Their enthusiasm for the project is infectious, Hedvig glows with the sheer joy of sharing growing know how and watching the people who’ve signed up become confident gardeners.  It’s a community building scheme too – through it they’ve linked up with various local projects, all devoted to urban growing and outreach work.

Hedvig took me to visit one of the gardens that’s part of the ‘Get Growing’ project – a front yard belonging to a lady called Joanne, a ten minute cycle from Hedvig’s own house. Joanne’s front garden and steps were dripping with veg.  There were beans, courgettes, aubergines, strawberries, tomatoes, herbs and salad.  Neighbours had started shouting compliments across the street.  She plans to install a wormery and a compost bin next.  Suddenly her street seems a much friendlier place and she’s bubbling with creative confidence.

Everyone’s at it

I’ve stumbled upon various little growing projects over the last year.  Peering through a fence in King’s Cross recently, I saw that several skips had been planted with vegetables.  Daydreaming on Waterloo Bridge, my attention was caught by a scrap of green space where supermarket trolleys have become planters.  The Radical Nature exhibition at the Barbican saw a slice of wasteland in east London turned over to wheat last July and August.  The temporary installation came complete with a working windmill.  Fresh flour was milled and bread baked on site and shared with visitors.

Turns out everyone’s at it. One of my best friends has just moved to west London after spending most of her post university years on the road, most recently in Africa.  In need of adventure and her own a little bit of wilderness, she’s taken to climbing out of her bedroom window and has been gradually turning the flat roof of her house into a plant nursery.  Last summer she successfully grew everything from aubergines to marrows out there, though apparently the cabbages were a disaster!

Another friend created a heaving tomato plantation in a glass laundry room down in south London.  While a friend in a Camden flat, with no outside space but lots of windowsills, tells me he’s been growing strawberries.  Another friend has a gorgeous floating deck-top garden aboard her boat on the Thames, which boasts views of Tower Bridge.  I even had the pleasure to explore a roof top garden recently that’s home to three chickens.  London is turning into a city of young farmers, nurturing land and livestock in all kinds of strange spaces.

This article appears in the April issue of Kitchen Garden magazine (page 38!)

You can read more about my roof garden on the Kitchen Garden website and at

In praise of peat

Dubh lochans in Munsary Peatlands Reserve in Caithness (c) PlantlifeFunnily, when I’ve told people about writing this bog article, they’ve lit up.  Perhaps I’ve been confessing to somewhat special characters but I’m not sure that’s it – bogs are pretty amazing places.

One friend, someone I regard as a true urbanite, went all misty eyed over the ‘b’ word, reminiscing about a few months he’d spent in the Hebrides doing wildlife surveying.  He described the rich, peaty landscape as a true wilderness and as isolated as you could get in the British Isles.  Another person I told got very excited about the idea of bog people, the ancient bodies pulled out of peatlands, preserved by the acidic, oxygen-less earth.

The UK and Ireland are home to about 15% of the world’s peatlands, which globally cover approximately 3% of the earth’s surface.  Living in London I thought I was probably as far away from any kind of mossland as you could get, but it turns out there’s a sliver of bog on Hampstead Heath, not far from where I live.  The Heath is a great place, somewhere in the city where you can go and get genuinely lost and a little bit muddy.  The capital’s small sphagnum bog can be found in an acidic patch in the Kenwood west meadow.  It’s been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and provides a perfect home for numerous invertebrates and locally rare plant and moss species.  It’s a tiny, urban example of how important bogs are for wildlife.

Dark tussock moth caterpillar (c) Cillian Breathnach IPCCOn a far grander scale, the peatland areas of northern England, Scotland and Ireland support wildlife species that can only exist in bogs’ unique conditions.  The creatures that call peat home are fascinating and the plant, moss and lichen life is nothing short of exotic.  There’s the carnivorous and brightly coloured sundew and butterwort plants that have something almost tropical about them; there’s the delicate beauty of minty smelling bog myrtle, rare bog rosemary and bog asphodel; not to mention the multicoloured and multi-textured patchwork of sphagnum mosses.  Bogs can be home to various birdlife as well as dragonflies, damselflies, frogs and lizards.  And the sight of the magnificently hairy caterpillar of the dark tussock moth is something to behold.

Peat forms in the waterlogged, sterile and acidic conditions of bogs and fens.  These inhospitable sounding conditions are loved by certain plants.  As they die, the organic matter doesn’t decompose but slowly accumulates as peat due to the lack of oxygen, growing at the painfully slow rate of just one or two millimetres per year.  Some peat bogs have taken thousands of years to form.  They lock up carbon that would otherwise contribute massively to global warming.

Lichen - Cladonia floerkeana & Moss - Campylopus introflexus (c) Cillian Breathnach IPCCUnfortunately the UK and Ireland’s peatlands have been being consistently destroyed and degraded for decades.  People have been using peat for centuries and hand cutting for fuel can be sustainable, as the peat is often able to gradually re-form.  It’s the industrial scale stripping of peat for horticultural products that’s the real problem.

It started in the 1950s with the rise of the garden centre, an explosion in amateur gardening and an increasing trend to grow things in containers.  It would be silly to suggest that peat isn’t an effective growing medium.  It’s good at holding air and water, it’s sterile, easy to store and relatively cheap. Since the 1970s, it’s been the compost of choice for nearly all growers and this has had devastating environmental consequences.

Things are slowly changing.  Politically peat is recognised as being in need of protection.  The UK government has committed to 90% of the soil market being peat free by 2010, and DEFRA closely monitors the situation.  Figures released in 2007 highlighted that amateur gardeners were the biggest consumers of peat products, but that peat use was slowly dropping.

Lichen - Ceratadon purpurea (c) Cillian Breathnach IPCCAs we face up to the realities of a changing climate, peatlands have taken on an even greater significance as vital stores of carbon. Despite only covering a small part of the world’s land area, peatlands contain twice as much carbon as global forest biomass. A 2008 United Nations report concluded that 10 per cent of global emissions come from degraded peatlands – more than is emitted by the global aviation industry.  The destruction of bogs is not only disastrous for wildlife, it’s got dire consequences for us humans too.

A letter from conservationists appeared in the Times about this earlier this year.  The authors suggested that peatland restoration was a key way to tackle climate change.  They argued that the “restoration of peatlands converts them from net emitters to net absorbers of CO2…Restoration also brings collateral benefits in terms of flood control, water quality, biodiversity conservation and amenity value. The UK contains substantial areas of peatland containing over 1,800 million tonnes of carbon. Restoring these to prime condition would not only help to balance our own carbon budgets, it would encourage other nations to do the same.”

Peat bogs are wonderful places for wildlife and they have the potential to act as vital carbon sinks at a time when we urgently need to cut emissions.  You can do your bit to protect them by refusing to buy peat products or plants that have been grown in peat based compost.  There are lots of alternatives that will effectively nourish your plants, not least homemade (and free!) garden compost.

Find out more about peat – The Irish Peatland Conservation Council

The night watch

Tobacco plantFor the first time ever, I’ve been growing my own produce in earnest this year, up on my tiny London roof garden.  It’s been an adventure, which is a whole other story, but one thing that’s been extra special are the after-hours experiences I’ve had up there.  As the gloom descends, a wildlife friendly garden full of sweet smelling, night loving plants will start to buzz with nocturnal life, tempting in creatures that are incredibly useful to the kitchen gardener as well as fascinating to watch.

My garden sits on the flat roof of my downstairs neighbours’ kitchen so the kind of wildlife it’s going to attract is fairly limited.  Moths have been the most magical of dusk visitors, pollinating my crops and dancing around my night blooming flowers.  In comparison to their butterfly cousins, moths are unpopular, imagined as drab, dusty, ill-fated creatures attracted to artificial lights and guilty of nibbling clothes, especially the expensive kind.   But in fact most species have no interest in your cashmere jumper and many are both inventive and beautiful, intricately marked and even boldly coloured.  The furry elephant hawk moth is bright pink and lime green, the angle shades has wings that look like dead leaves and the buff tip looks like a broken birch twig.

Elephant hawk mothMuggy moonless nights

Moths are not only important pollinators, they’re also a valuable food source for other nocturnal creatures like bats and frogs.  It’s glorious to watch bats darting around your garden catching night flying insects, accompanied perhaps by a chorus of croaking frogs at the right time of year. You can attract moths to your allotment or garden by planting fragrant night bloomers like tobacco plant and night scented stocks.  Moths fly all year round but you’re most likely to spot them on muggy moonless nights between April and October.  Why not indulge in some moth watching this month?  There’s moth spotting advice aplenty to be found at and it’s national moth night soon

Water for wildlife

Water is a key element of a wildlife friendly night garden, especially if you’re keen on creating that spectacle of swooping bats and noisy frogs.  Seeing bats in your garden is a rare pleasure but a pond will make it more likely as it attracts the insects they love to devour.  A bat can eat up to 3000 bugs in one night.  They also like mature trees and hedgerows that provide safe routes for them to fly through, where they’re less visible to birds of prey.  Tree canopies also provide a supply of those insects that bats love.  You could also think about installing some bat boxes in your garden or allotment. 

Pest control task force

That wildlife friendly pond will also be a great place for frogs and toads, which are worth having for their slug eating habits.  Practicality demands that I can’t have a pond on my roof sadly, but my mother has a lovely little one in her garden in south Wales.  An organic vegetable grower, she still does regular battle with slugs and snails (some, I’m told, are almost seal like), but her pond will definitely help keep numbers down.  Brushing my teeth before bed when I was there earlier in the year, I listened to the raucous sound of frogs croaking well after midnight.

Another species the slug hater should want in their garden is the hedgehog.  This nocturnal mammal / pest control officer is a veritable slug hoover.  They’re partial to caterpillars as well.  Hedgehogs unsurprisingly like hedges, an uncommon thing in gardens these days and something anyone keen on wildlife should consider installing.  There are free guides to planting a mixed a hedgerow and also a pond to be found on  Hedgehogs also like shrubs, long grass, wood piles and compost heaps.  They tend to hibernate between November and March, but this depends on temperatures and weather.  Excitingly, hedgehogs not only snuffle, they also swim, climb and travel long distances in pursuit of food.Verbena

Fragrant moon bathing

It’s not all about the wildlife though, there’s much pleasure for the human visitor in the garden from dusk ‘til dawn, especially if it includes sitting down to an alfresco meal of home grown veg.  Growing plants with silvery foliage and ones that flower after sundown makes your space a real after hours treat.  The tobacco plants I’ve got on my roof have flowered all summer, their huge white trumpets quite simply glow in the moonlight and smell incredible.  They are a delight and I think every gardener should have some.  During the day they’ve been a favourite of bees, and at night loved by moths.  But mainly they’ve been adored by me, who could stare at their bright star shaped white petals for hours on end.  Enjoy the last few weeks of summer night watching and moon bathing in your garden.

Plants for a fragrant night garden

Evening primrose


Ice plant



Night flowering catchfly

Night scented stocks


Sweet rocket

Tobacco plant

White campion


Further information

This article appears in the November issue of Kitchen Garden magazine