Tagged: gardening

Guardian | what lies beneath

Gardens: soil
This feature was written for the Guardian

The Worldometers website is compulsive viewing. If you watch this “real time world statistics” site ticking, you will see the world’s soil disappearing before your eyes. The statistic for land lost to soil erosion ticks over slower than some (the one measuring world population, say, or the number of cigarettes smoked), but it’s growing a few hectares a minute.

And it’s not only in impoverished regions of the world; the UK’s soil is in peril too. Erosion, compaction, pollution, development and loss of organic matter are damaging something that’s as vital to life as water and air. It can take up to 500 years to form 1cm of soil, and Defra says soil degradation costs England and Wales between £0.9bn and £1.4bn every year.

Soils vary wildly, from chalk to clay, acid to alkaline; there are more than 1,800 different types in the UK alone. After the deluge this winter, many rivers ran brown as soil washed out to sea. Exposed, damaged soil is vulnerable to being washed away by high rainfall, while reduced organic matter and compaction caused by over-cultivation or over-grazing make it less absorbent. Where water once soaked in, it now runs off, exacerbating flooding and causing further erosion.

Patrick Holden, a British farmer who once ran the Soil Association and now heads up the Sustainable Food Trust, warns that the floods have seen a “catastrophic leaching of goodness from the soil”. He says soil is at the fulcrum of the debate about sustainability: “It is the irreplaceable resource on which the future of civilisation depends. We should be seriously worried. Soils are haemorrhaging across the world.”

Why should we care? Because, as Professor Jane Rickson from the National Soil Resources Institute says, “Soil is amazing, providing us with food, fuel and fodder, storing water and carbon, and supporting habitats and infrastructure. It’s like an engine made up of physical, chemical and biological components. It is their interaction that makes it work.”

Soil may seem simple, benign stuff, but it teems with life. A teaspoon of rich garden soil contains up to a billion bacteria, within a complex and shifting mixture of grains, pores, channels and chambers. The microbes store, transform and release nutrients that plants need: nitrogen for growing leaves, phosphorus for roots and potassium for flowers and fruit.

Soil is also connected to climate. Healthy soil stores and slowly releases water in periods of drought or flood. It’s also a carbon sink – there’s more carbon stored in the soil than in vegetation or the atmosphere. When soil is blown away by wind and rain, it releases carbon into the atmosphere.

The threats soil faces may be great, but there is still hope. Holden says gardeners need to act as “soil stewards” alongside farmers, and encourages us to see soil as a sort of stomach, digesting the food that plants need. That stomach, packed with friendly bacteria, should be fed well and treated with care.

Save our Soils
• Keep off saturated ground – it needs time to drain and dry
• Start mulching – it’s the simplest and easiest way to protect and improve soil
• Compost all you can, so you can feed soil with rich organic matter
• Say no to polluting chemical fertilisers and pesticides
• Keep growing – plants prevent erosion and help soil sequester carbon
• Download a soil and earthworm survey

Guardian | go grass free


The floral lawn at Avondale Park

This feature was written for the Guardian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guardian | growth not guns

Eufloria 03

This feature was written for the Guardian

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

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

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

Proteus 02

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

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

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

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

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

Eufloria 01

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

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

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

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

Proteus 01

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

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

Guardian | high rise gardening

bosco verticale_wordpress

This article was written for the Guardian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

park royal hotel_wordpress

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

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

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

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

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

Guardian | 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 | brazen buddleia

This feature was originally written for the Guardian

Picture the urban scene.  The chimney with a plume of bush, not smoke.  The stuttering guttering, become plant container.  The rubble filled wasteland temporarily knotted with growth.  The brick rail bridge decked with foliage and flowers.  Let us celebrate buddleia’s brazen ways – the way it rampages through unloved urban areas and clings to the side of buildings.

Of course some people hate it.  They declare it an invasive weed and call for a cull.  In natural areas it can strangle out native species and should be controlled, but in concrete deserts surely we should praise its tenacity and the rich nectars it provides to urban insects.  Tamed in the garden it can be a striking butterfly magnet.

Buddleja’s roots

Professor Peter Houghton has been studying buddleia for 30 years, and has spent many an afternoon on a railway siding digging up its peppery smelling roots.  He once had a freezer full of root samples that, when tested, were revealed to have anti-fungal properties.  This could be a way that buddleia protects itself against attack from creatures in the soil.  It’s a plant he continues to be fascinated by, but no longer has in his garden or his freezer.

The manmade urban landscape often mimics buddleja’s natural one of rocky mountain tops and dry shingle. Peter explains that “it occupies an ecological niche in tolerating the high levels of calcium found in mortar.  Buddleia loves well drained soil and is good at conserving water.  The hairs on the underside of the leaves must play a part here, covering the stomata and cutting down evaporation.”

Self-seeding Buddleja davidii was brought to the UK from China in the 1890s.  It became widespread as a weed in Britain after World War Two, rushing like wild fire through freshly exposed bomb sites and reveling in all that exposed mortar and rubble.  It’s now seen growing with abandon in towns and cities across the UK, and beyond.

Peter’s lifelong investigations include looking into buddleja’s use in traditional medicine.  The leaves have been used as a poultice for wound healing in Eastern Asia, South Africa, South America and Mexico.  An infusion of the flowers of Buddleja officinalis, which blooms in January, is used as an eye-wash and to reduce inflammation in Chinese medicine.  It can be found growing in the Chelsea Physic Garden, which showcases medicinal plants from around the world.

Buddleia tamed

Buddleia is fragrant and floral, and can look great in a garden if it’s kept in check.  There are numerous varieties and cultivars available, not just the infamous and fast spreading purple Buddleja davidii that delights and offends in equal measure.

Peter Moore tends to the national collection of buddleia at Longstock Nursery on the Leckford Estate in Hampshire.  He spends 15 hours a week dead heading the bushes in summer.  Like Professor Houghton, he has also discovered that there’s more to buddleia than its (debatable) good looks. “In Chile they sell Buddleja globosa as a tea – a brew I would not recommend” he says.

What he does recommend is growing the tender Buddleja asiatica in your garden – it has panicles of sweetly scented white flowers.  Other favourites include cultivars of the davidii like ‘sugar plum’ (which has velvet burgundy flowers), ‘summerhouse blue’, ‘white wings’ and ‘white profusion’ (which has tiny fried egg flowers).

Small spaces and year round interest

The national collection boasts 15 compact cultivars of Buddleja davidii that would suit smaller spaces.  Peter suggests ‘Camberwell beauty’ (which has branched flower panicles), ‘glasnevin’ (lilac-blue flowers), ‘pink spread’ (deep pink) and ‘marble white’.  If space is limited to a single patio pot, try the dwarf ‘buzz’ versions created by Thompson and Morgan, which come in four colours, or the ‘bluechip’ from the USA.  Another Longstock favourite is ‘silver anniversary’, which looks good in a container or an herbaceous border.

For year round interest, ‘lochinch’ is covered with lavender flowers well into September and has silver-white foliage throughout winter.  Hardy evergreen Buddleja auriculata makes a good wall shrub.  It has fragrant white flowers in autumn and winter, and provides much needed nectar for early emerging insects.  Buddleia is a good choice for wildlife friendly gardeners because it’s so nectar rich, but the RSPB recommend nature fans plant non-invasive Buddleja globosa (which has orange-yellow flowers) rather than prolific Buddleja davidii.

And what, to conclude, of that particular species bad reputation?  “Buddleja davidii is like the urban fox – it’s nice to have something wild in the city but it can be annoying too.  You have to keep it under control in gardens, but it’s nice to see a wasteland covered in it.  It’s certainly one of the most attractive weeds we’ve got, and one of the only ones that’s a bush” says Peter Houghton.  To anyone still convinced that buddleia is nothing more than an invasive weed, Peter Moore says visit the national collection in July or August – “you’ll be bowled over”.

How to grow

Bushy buddleia likes well-drained soil and thrives best in sunny spots.  The shrub can get large and leggy – hard pruning in late March is essential to keep bushes at a manageable size.  De-heading the flowers (as you would a rose) will result in second and even third flushes of flowers and prevent self-seeding.  

Further reading

Look up the RHS 2008-2010 trial report of Buddleja davidii and its close hybrids.

Share your pics

Add your images of brazen buddleia to the Guardian gallery

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 www.chelseafringe.com.  This feature was written for City Planter.

Concrete Jungle

This feature appeared in the Guardian Weekend magazine on November 5th 2011

If you rent a flat in a paved over part of town it can be hard to be a grower, not least because you may not want to invest time and effort into somewhere that’s only ever going to be temporary.  And autumn surely isn’t the obvious time to start a garden.  But perhaps urban, rented places are ones most in need of our love and attention, especially during the bleaker months of the year.

A few pots can help serial renters make a house feel like a home.  And when you move, because move you must, all those planters, and plants, have the potential to move with you.  There are lots of hardy evergreens and edibles that can bear bad weather and an entirely container bound life.

Lost and found spaces

Many flats don’t offer tenants much in the way of vegetated outside space.  An urban trend to cover front gardens in concrete means valuable green land is rapidly being lost.  Instead of shrubs and flowers welcoming you home, you’re likely to get bleak paving slabs and a lonely looking bin.  But all is not lost.  A snatch of gravel can quickly become a garden; a set of front steps can host a range of well placed pots; doorways were surely made for hanging baskets and window ledges for window boxes.  The humblest balcony can offer plenty of growing space.  In fact, pretty much any hard surface in your possession has the potential to be planted.

The front step garden

Town houses often have a set of steps leading up to a shared front door.  If the steps are wide, you could place a pot on each one and so create a striking walkway.  The key is to choose containers that feel stable, and steps that comfortably have room for both people and plants.  A series of silvery blue lavender plants would look good.  Lavender is an evergreen that’s happy in pots and offers year round interest.  A large planter at the bottom of the steps could house a small bright stemmed Prunus serrula or a Betula jaquemontii, although these attractive trees will eventually need to find a more spacious home.

The ledge or bracket garden

Some renters are lucky enough to have sash windows with wide ledges that can house a collection of pots, which is a particular privilege if the window belongs to the kitchen.   Delicious edibles like chervil, chard, mint, mizuna, rocket, rosemary and thyme will all survive in winter and provide flavour for salads, soups, roasts and stews.  If you don’t have luxurious ledges, a neat little window box could be attached to a south facing wall with a couple of simple but sturdy shelf brackets (see thebalconygardener.com for wooden window boxes and fruit crates, or make your own).  Such a box would look lovely packed with cheerful spring bulbs, like miniature daffodils and crocuses, which you can plant in autumn and winter.

The hook garden

Hanging baskets are most popular in summer – every self respecting pub has several eye-achingly bright ones, while foodies stuff theirs with strawberries and tumbling tomatoes.  Hanging baskets can be lovely in the colder months too, and are a perfect way for tenants to cheer up their limited space with some small scale growing.  All you need is somewhere you can secure a hook and a container that’s been adapted to hang (try theonlinegardener.com for hanging basket paraphernalia).  A planting scheme for winter could include trailing ivy, combined with flowering heather and the heart-shaped foliage of a hardy Cyclamen purpurascens.

The wallflower’s garden

One thing that houses and blocks of flats have lots of is outside wall space.  A narrow, trough style container pushed against a warm wall could be planted with winter flowering jasmine and honey suckle, or some festive holly and ivy.  Weave a support system out of bean poles and netting, and watch your walls become tangled with growth.  Such knotty plants are loved by wildlife, as they provide food and shelter during a tough time of year.

The concrete garden

If you rent somewhere with a paved over front garden, an unused parking plot or a balcony, there will be plenty of potential to create a jungle of pots (see thegardensuperstore.co.uk for pot ideas).  If you have space for a fairly large container or two, you could plant some small trees and shrubs that will look good throughout the winter.  Try a potted flowering quince (Chaenomeles) or some spicy scented witch hazel (Hamamelis).  Evergreen virburnums can grow in deep pots, and some varieties flower from autumn to spring.

If space is more limited, smaller evergreen options include handsome hebes and heathers. If edibles are of interest, plant a few cloves of garlic 5cm deep in a pot now, to harvest the strong tasting leaves in spring and the bulbs in summer.  I’ve tried growing expensive garden centre bought garlic and cheap supermarket bought bulbs and got similar results from both. Alium and anemone bulbs can also be planted in containers now for pretty spring flowers.

Creative containers

Classic terracotta may be your material of choice, although it’s heavy and not especially portable (see terrapot.co.uk for ideas).  Plastic pots are lighter and long-lasting, or you could even try easily transportable planting bags (see rocketgardens.co.uk).   Zinc watering cans, oversized plastic teapots and tyre trugs could all make quirky containers (see henandhammock.co.uk).

But if recycling appeals, all sorts of things can become plant pots.  Old colanders, pet travel baskets, paint pots, wooden drawers, vegetable boxes, holey buckets and even old suitcases can be filled with compost and stuffed with plants.  The most inspiring transportable gardens I’ve seen recently are soil filled shopping trolleys in Deptford, a flowering wheelbarrow in Harrow and planted plastic milk crates in Berlin.

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’ (www.getgrowing.org.uk) 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 www.aerialediblegardening.co.uk

The seediest of Sundays

I found out about Seedy Sunday a while ago.  At first, I was simply intrigued by the playful name but, with more research, I was won over completely by the idea of people coming together to swap seeds, in a bid both to promote community growing and to protect plant biodiversity.  2009 was to be the year I grew my very own set of green fingers, but this aim seemed fairly abstract in the frozen early months after the initial heat of ambitious New Year resolutions.  Taking a day trip to the south coast to be amongst my new fellow growers seemed the perfect bleak mid winter antidote.

The air was ice cold and the wind fierce, but the light was lovely – a kind of fuzzy pink haze over a dark grey winter sea.  Hove was full of bobble hats and cheeks bitten rosy by the wind and kissed with snow. Lots of people were out, taking the Sunday sea air and walking the beach hut lined stretch towards Brighton.  But I wasn’t there to indulge in windswept beachside strolls, I was there to do some serious seed shopping.

Seedy Sunday was born eight years ago by the Brighton and Hove Organic Gardening Group after members stumbled upon a seed swapping event in Canada.  The minute they got back to the UK they started planning their first swap here.  The annual seed extravaganza has grown and grown, best illustrated by the fact they’ve moved from the small St George’s Hall in Kemptown, Brighton to the imposing Hove Town Hall.  At the 2009 event 1200 people explored 39 stalls.  There were films, workshops and a cafe as well as seeds and plants to pick up.

All kinds of people were there, young and old, and the atmosphere in the bustling hall was noisy and full of joy.  I confess, as a brand new grower, I found it slightly overwhelming.  So much expertise and enthusiasm for gardening in one place, and just so many seeds and possibilities, made me feel my lack of growing knowledge keenly.  But I got over that, admitted to knowing nothing and took all the advice I could from those that were happy to offer it.

The United Nations estimates that 75% of global plant diversity has been lost in the past 100 years.  The Seedy Sunday campaign is about protecting biodiversity in the UK and protesting against a focus on large scale growing and retailing.  The people behind the event and the campaign believe that, by growing open pollinated or ‘heritage’ plant varieties, then saving and swapping the seeds, growers can keep so called ‘outlawed’ seed varieties alive and boost biodiversity.

Seedy Sunday campaigners explain that flowering plants that grow from the F1 seeds sold by big seed companies aren’t capable of producing usable seeds for the next season, so growers have to buy new seed every year.  At the same time, in the name of protecting growers from the risk of buying unsound seeds, governments produce National Lists that outline the varieties that can be legally bought and sold.

Seedy Sunday argues that EU legislation strengthens the position of the big seed companies, and so encourages the use of F1 seeds, by making it illegal to trade seeds from varieties that aren’t officially ‘Listed’. If a variety isn’t ‘Listed’ it’s actually illegal to buy or sell it.  This is why seed swaps don’t charge for unlisted seeds but ask for a donation to cover costs instead.

Seedy Sunday warns that thousands of unlisted garden varieties are disappearing. And with them goes some of the genetic raw material that will allow plants to adapt and survive in the future.  “The campaign to protect our seeds stretches around the world, but it has its roots in your garden. By growing open-pollinated varieties, then saving and swapping the seeds, growers can keep alive unlisted varieties, conserve biodiversity and limit corporate control of the basis of life” say campaigners.

You can go to Seedy Sunday without any seeds to swap, which was a relief as I didn’t have any!  The seeds aren’t for sale in the same way they would be in a shop because they’re all unlisted, but you are expected to make a donation for everything you choose to take home.  On average a packet of seeds was about £1, which was an absolute bargain and a god send for a gardener on a budget.  There were also lots of money saving deals if you bought in bulk.

On entering the hall, what struck me first and made me fall completely in love with the place was the beautiful way some people had packaged their seeds.  Homemade packets decorated with scraps of colourful paper and gorgeous swirling writing were all very appealing.  I admit my first purchase, of some red rum runner bean seeds, was made purely because the packaging was so nice!

Another thing that was absolutely brilliant were the names of the seeds, things like ‘drunken woman’ and ‘fat lazy blonde’ lettuce, ‘flamingo beet’ chard, ‘hungry gap’ cabbage, ‘Hungarian hot wax’ peppers and ‘nun’s belly button’ beans.  So my seed choices were dictated more by the romance of the words and the prettiness of the packets rather than anything more sensible.

It’s now almost a year since my snowy Seedy Sunday adventure and I’m pleased to report that my year of growing green fingers has been a success.  My seeds were loved and nurtured and grew into handsome plants, providing me with endless pleasure and some delicious meals.  Hot pink French breakfast radishes and flamingo beet chard were particularly pretty.  I’ll definitely go again, perhaps with some seeds of my own to swap this time.

The event inspired me to do some small scale seed swapping of my own too.  I had a surplus after my Hove shopping spree, plus a collection of freebies from magazines and seeds people had donated to me.  When a friend revealed plans to do a little guerrilla gardening on a patch of land in east London, I happily made tiny seed packets from old envelopes, decorated them with coloured pens, filled them with seeds and donated them to the cause.  Funnily the swap itself ended up happening in the pub.

I’d like to try and do something a little more organised this year and will be turning to the Seedy Sunday website for advice.  There’s a comprehensive online guide how to set up your own seed swap – visit www.seedysunday.org.  The movement is spreading and Seedy Sundays are now taking place across the country.  The next Seedy Sunday at Hove Town Hall takes place on the 7th February 2010.

Seedy Sunday

Heritage Seed Library

The Seed Site

This article appears in the February issue of Kitchen Garden magazine