A feature I wrote for Time Out’s new guide book 2012 Things To Do in London
For someone lacking in green fingers, the idea that a blank balcony could ever become an urban jungle is quite an imaginative leap. But it is possible. In a matter of months, despite having no real gardening knowledge and very little spare cash, I managed to turn a small flat roof in Holloway into an aerial, edible garden. And I’m by no means unique. Loads of Londoners are growing their own, despite spatial limitations.
In north London, garden-less Mark Ridsill-Smith is practically self-sufficient in fruit and veg terms. Every window ledge and balcony space of his Camden home is supporting some kind of edible plant life. Methodical in his approach, Mark is focussed on being as productive as he possibly can. He’s carefully calculated that he grew over 80kg of food last summer, worth £590. His harvest ranged from rainbow chard and cavelo nero in April, to mange tout and dill in June, through to tomatoes and courgettes in September.
Reassuringly, he confesses that his first attempt at balcony growing resulted in one solitary serving of rocket. Since then, he’s got more serious and says detailed planning is the key to a year-round supply of fresh produce purely from pots.
March to June is most busy – he spends about 30 minutes a day watering, plus half a day a week sowing, staking and planting out. The work load lessens after that. He estimates that he spends one day in total over a month from July to October, and half a day each month from November to February. He’s not obsessed but he is focused, and keen to teach other people about food growing.
Full of new found urban farming knowledge, Mark’s set up www.verticalveg.org.uk in a bid to get more land-less people growing. He recommends starting off with leafy herb or salad crops that are expensive to buy. The most delicious of all are pea and broad bean shoots. They grow to edible size in just three weeks, from May until October. Climbing crops are great for space poor people too – things like vine tomatoes, winter squash, French beans and mange-tout.
Mark is taking his personal balcony allotment growing to something of an extreme, but this doesn’t have to be your approach. A few culinary herbs on a kitchen window ledge will transform your meals, and there’s a lot of joy to be had in a single hanging basket of tumbling tomatoes or strawberries.
For me it all began when I escaped the house-share from hell and moved to a tiny first floor flat in Holloway that just happened to have an accessible rooftop. Not exactly a garden, it was a bleak grey space but one that was ripe to become something special. The roof was fenced off, able to bear weight and my bedroom had a door that opened straight out onto it. It was framed by views of chimney tops and town houses, and buffeted by birdsong and traffic noise.
It took me a while to get started in earnest. The roof was appealing but I wasn’t a gardener. There was much thought but little action for rather a long time. I would stare at it through condensation curtained windows during my first winter there and think I’d like to get to know my balcony better.
Come summer, it was a space for sun dozing rather than vegetable growing, but things changed. I became increasingly interested in urban nature, fascinated by the number of creatures that call London home, and I was starting to understand the environmental importance of urban gardens.
While London is celebrated as being one of the world’s most verdant cities, green space is still endangered here. Private garden land covers a significant swathe of the capital and is a precious resource, but it especially is under threat from hard surfacing and development. Lots of natural land is lost to decking and extensions, so creating a brand new garden felt really valuable.
I decided I would transform myself into aerial edible gardener and attempt to create a true living room – an outside space that would become an important extension of my small home. The rooftop space was three metres square and, despite being sandwiched between the Camden and Holloway Roads, it managed to feel calm. The plan was to weave green walls around the rooftop and turn it into a fragrant tangle of vegetables, fruit and flowers.
I didn’t know what I was doing. I read a few books and drew strange diagrams, but really I just experimented. Some stuff worked well, other things didn’t. All my crops had to bear an entirely container bound life, and I discovered that things like runner bean, tomato, courgette, potato, garlic, radish, strawberry, salads and herbs all cope well. I also sought out flowers, especially night blooming ones. Spring was painted with the yellows and purples of daffodils, violas and alium star bursts, while summer evenings were perfumed by tobacco plant, evening primrose and jasmine.
Luckily, the Holloway roof is something of a suntrap. South facing, it’s bathed in warm rays all afternoon in the spring and summer, which means tomatoes and strawberries ripened quickly. Shady and north facing window ledges and balconies are harder to cultivate, but there are lots of plants that don’t mind. As a general rule, leafy crops can tolerate the most shade. Mint, lemon balm, sorrel, parsley, thyme, fennel, sage, lettuce and chard will all survive without much sun.
Growing your own could get expensive, but the thrifty gardener can survive on a shoe string budget. Next time you buy a chilli, keep the seeds and plant them. Next time you buy garlic, plant a clove and it’ll transform into a bulb (after a few months!). Seek out seed swaps and farmers’ markets for cheap seeds and plants, and treat yourself to a Sunday afternoon at Columbia Road Market. Head there when the traders are packing up to get the best deals.
Decent compost and plant food are the key to growing success, and someone interested in being environmentally friendly should seek out soil that’s organic and peat-free. For those on a budget, local councils sometimes offer deals on compost. For example Islington has been known to sell 60 litre bags (made from north Londoners’ food waste) for £3.
Be creative when it comes to containers. The streets of London are littered with wooden veg boxes that stall and shop owners will happily let you have, possibly after a bit of banter. People are constantly throwing away things that make great plant pots. I’ve found and used old baskets, paint pots, colanders and even a wooden CD rack.
Of course there have been problems in my rooftop paradise. I’ve been terrorised by obese and angry squirrels that eat my strawberries and tomatoes, and behead my flowers out of nothing but spite. And slugs and snails have devoured my hard grown lettuces. Watering in the hot months can be time consuming and I’ve been guilty of neglect. But overall making myself a little roof garden has been pure pleasure. However humble your attempt, I heartily recommend you give it a go.
There are numerous plants, including edible ones, which will survive and thrive in containers. That container could be a basket full of tumbling tomatoes hanging beside a shared front door; a kitchen ledge window box planted with culinary herbs; or larger troughs and pots sitting on a balcony, hosting anything from courgettes to potatoes and everything in between.
A few pot happy plants:
Beans, carrots, courgettes, squashes, potatoes, radishes, garlic, peppers, chillies, salad leaves
Bay, rosemary, chives, chervil, parsley, basil, sage, oregano, thyme, mint, lemon balm
Lavender, jasmine, evening primrose, night flowering tobacco, rose, viola, daffodils, alium
My year of edible, aerial gardening
an extract from my blog on http://www.kitchengarden.co.uk/hb-blog.php
I just had a lucky escape. I’m currently teaching my runner beans about the world outside my flat, hardening them off and sending them on day trips onto the roof. Today it’s drizzled all day and by night fall they were looking luscious, their floppy big green leaves covered in damp. The snail just couldn’t hold itself back. But I spotted it in time. I swear I heard it scream as I plucked it off one of my glorious bean plants.
They’re in for the night now, safe and sound. I am incredibly protective of these guys after sharing the last six weeks in close contact with them, but it really is time I claimed my room back, it’s turning into a bit of a jungle. The plan is to move them outside permanently in the next few days.
One of those terrible mornings
Last month’s seed planting means there are now sprouts all over the place. Inside, I have a healthy crop of tomato seedlings that will need potting on soon, as well as my bean collection, which gets ever taller. I’ve got rocket, loads of chives, one nasturtium and a couple of tiny basil plants. The basil’s been through a lot so I’m pretty proud of these two particular plants.
On one of those mornings where pretty much everything that could go wrong did, I collided with my pot of basil sending it flying. Soil everywhere. And on a morning when I really didn’t have time to hoover. Ugh. So a setback for the basil and some loud cursing from me, but it’s determined and so am I. We’re both doing OK, considering…
Roots, shoots and much basking
It’s so lovely out on the roof now the evenings are longer and the days warmer. I spent a good few hours doing nothing other than basking last weekend, the roof being transformed into an all day early April sun trap. The seeds I planted directly outside are coming along nicely. The beans and tomatoes are a lot smaller than those planted inside, but I think they’re going to be super tough.
My radishes are flourishing, as is my coriander. The parsley is starting to appear now and I have four little sunflower shoots. My strawberries have at least doubled in size and have buds, and the mint is going mad. I decided to try growing some cucumber to complete my Pimms cocktail planting plan but that hasn’t worked, there’s nothing happening in the cucumber pot sadly. I’ll try again.
Come on love, jump on board
I went to Columbia Road in east London a couple of weeks ago. It’s a half hour bus ride from where I live and you know you’re getting close when you start spotting people with arms full of plants or cars driving past with foliage spilling out of windows and sun roofs.
Columbia Road is a street in Hackney that hosts a flower market every Sunday from 8am til 2pm. It gets absolutely packed with all kinds of people. You have to steal yourself slightly before braving the crowds surrounding the stalls but it’s worth it. “Come on love, jump on board” shout the Cockney vendors, flaunting their vegetal wares.
It’s a fantastic place to pick up a bargain. I’d decided that I wanted a small tree for the roof, a native that wildlife would like. I picked up a lovely little hazel there for a fiver. I named him Hugh and we had a fun bus ride home. Londoners are often accused of being an unfriendly bunch but you always get lots of smiles when you travel with a large plant.
Before heading home though, Hugh and I walked over to Hackney City Farm and met an absolutely enormous pig. The pretty, wildlife friendly garden at the farm is really inspiring, they grow all kinds of fruit, herbs and veg. I’ve planted Hugh in a large deep blue ceramic pot on the roof with a couple of heathers. Hugh and the heathers are doing well – he’s looking very jolly covered in springtime buds.
Non human visitations
I’ve started getting some visitors to the roof of the non human variety other than pesky squirrels (who have been especially pesky of late, after deciding to have a good dig at my radishes). I have a blackbird who visits daily, and I’ve seen blue tits and robins along with the wood pigeons. The most exciting sighting was a pair of jays, looking stunning in the sycamore tree that is in one of my neighbour’s gardens. The birds are so noisy at the moment, in the evenings and again at silly-o-clock in the morning. I’ve had a couple of bees buzzing about and I’ve spotted more foxes recently, down in the gardens that I get a brilliant view over from the roof.
Dreams of summer moonbathing
I’ve been thinking and writing about night gardening again and I’ve decided to have a night corner on the roof. I already have jasmine and honeysuckle plants, which are all sprouty at the moment and will soon be fragrant in the evenings and loved by moths. I’m also going to plant some evening primroses and tobacco plants. Moths are attracted by sugary scents and pale colours, using both to navigate.
Last summer I went on a very urban moth spotting evening in King’s Cross and discovered how intricately beautiful and varied they are. Some of our native species look like tiny birds, with exotic bright feathers and stunning markings. Moths are precious pollinators and a vital food source for other garden species, so being moth friendly makes sense. It will also be lovely to have a garden full of flowers that glow after dark. I’m as much a fan of moonbathing as of sunbathing.
I’m hoping my design for the roof garden will begin to take more shape over the next month, as my seedlings turn into larger plants and I start getting a bit more organised about where everything lives. I’ve drawn out a final flat plan of how I’d like the roof to look, I’ll post it up here next month.
My main concern at the moment though is that I’m going to be leaving the roof to fend for itself for a while. I’m off on holiday for a couple of weeks soon. Luckily my flatmate has agreed to babysit, although I think she’s feeling the weight of this responsibility and is rather nervous! I’m sure all will be well.
This month I’m reading ‘Let us now praise famous gardens’ by Vita Sackville-West and checking out the ‘Garden Pieces’ season at the British Film Institute http://www.bfi.org.uk/whatson/bfi_southbank/film_programme/april_seasons/garden_pieces
http://columbiaroad.info/ – more about the market
www.hackneycityfarm.co.uk – down on the city farm
www.wildlondon.org.uk – love London’s wild side
Read more on http://www.kitchengarden.co.uk/hb-blog.php
The mile high club…
Would you like a bigger backyard or allotment? Do you live in a flat and dream of a high rise garden to call your own? You could increase the amount of green space in your life by extending your garden or allotment out over a roof. Be it the top of your tool shed or the flat roof on an extension, why not join the mile high club of gardeners who are greening the roofs of the nation? Join Helen Babbs from London Wildlife Trust as she discovers a whole new roof top world.
I recently moved to a lovely little first floor flat in Islington, north London where I’m lucky enough to have a garden. Well, a garden of sorts. A small door in my bedroom opens out onto a flat roof, my neighbour’s kitchen roof to be precise. The estate agent optimistically calls it ‘the roof terrace’ and it certainly has potential. In a city where having a garden feels like something of a luxury, I’m very excited to have a small slice of outside space to call my own. But what on earth can I grow on it?
What is a living roof?
A living (or ‘green’) roof is a vegetated roof or a roof with some vegetated spaces. So it could be anything from a balcony packed with pots and planters, to a fully living roof with a carefully constructed layer of substrate (a mix of aggregate and sand or soil) out of which plants grow.
Living roofs vary greatly – they can be designed to support low-growing mosses and sedums, wildflowers and grasses and even shrubs and trees. Everything depends on the type of roof in question. There are three basic types: extensive, semi-extensive (also known as semi-intensive) and intensive. These terms relate to the amount and kind of maintenance that each type requires, the depth of soil or substrate, and the type of plants the area will support.
A Living Landscape
Conservationists and environmentalists argue that protecting and increasing a network of green space across the UK is incredibly important, and the idea of creating a ‘Living Landscape’ is championed by The Wildlife Trusts. A Living Landscape would provide valuable habitat for species and vital breathing space for us humans as things hot up.
Design for biodiversity
A green infrastructure, following ecological principles that integrate nature into the design and management of green spaces, allows us to harness natural processes to help solve wider environmental problems.
One organisation that actively supports design for biodiversity and living roof creation is The Wildlife Trusts. London Wildlife Trust, for example, is campaigning to make our capital greener, encouraging Londoners to take gardens seriously and start gardening with climate change and wildlife in mind. They want gardens protected for wildlife and people, and those gardens lost to concrete and decking to be compensated for with living roofs and walls. London Wildlife Trust wants everyone to pledge to do one thing for wildlife this summer, perhaps creating a living roof could be your one thing?
How do I do it?
So you’ve decided that having a living roof is a great idea, but how do you get started? And most importantly for us kitchen gardeners, is it possible to grow produce in the sky?
Dave Richards is garden co-ordinator at Reading International Solidarity Centre (RISC) and he has created an edible roof garden amongst the chimney stacks of the town. His garden is living proof that it is possible to grow fruit, herbs and vegetables on a roof.
“The RISC garden is planted as a forest garden, modeled on a woodland eco-system with many different layers of plants and permanent ground cover to suppress weeds and conserve moisture”, explains Dave.
“The garden has a canopy layer of small trees, including pruned fruit trees, and a layer of soft fruit shrubs. There are herbaceous perennials like asparagus and globe artichoke, and ground cover like strawberries, herbs. Climbers do well, things like grape and kiwi, and roots and tubers, such as potatoes, work.
“Just like any other garden, what you can grow depends on meeting the needs of the plants – sun, soil conditions, nutrients and water. A living roof is a bit like container gardening. A limiting factor is the depth of the soil. The RISC roof garden has 30cm of soil which limits the natural tendency of plant roots to search out moisture. This has a bonsai effect but many fruit trees and bushes flourish even on this limited depth.
“Water is the other main factor. In dry weather the irrigation system is on every night and we use various water conserving techniques. Soft fruit does very well – raspberries, Japanese wineberry, gooseberries – as well as some of our more exotic fruit such as medlar and old varieties of apple.
“To maintain fertility, we have to feed the soil with an annual application of organic horse manure and occasional applications of ground volcanic rock from Scotland and ground seaweed, to replace minerals leached out by irrigation.
A huge hanging basket
All of this sounds great, but it sounds like a living roof could be high maintenance. Dave Richards says it needn’t be.
“The most common and cheapest is an extensive living roof which has about 4cm of substrate and drought resistant plants, like sedum. These only need irrigation in really severe drought, and they provide most of the advantages of a green roof – thermal insulation, reducing storm water runoff and providing habitat for wildlife.
“An intensively planted living roof (like RISC’s) has deeper substrate and so can support a wider variety of plants. The additional weight needs a more substantial structure and, depending on the planting, an irrigation system. A roof garden is like a huge hanging basket and can dry out very quickly. Ongoing maintenance depends on the kind of planting. Vegetable beds would need more time than a garden planted with predominantly perennial species.”
The edible roof garden
Creating a living roof is a definitely a challenge, but well worth the effort. However, do seek out expert advice before you start, depending on the size of your project you may need planning permission and the advice of a structural engineer – see roof resources for more information.
Creating an edible roof garden with pots and planters is easier and relatively cheap too, and I’m definitely going to transform mine into an idyll for both people and wildlife. I have planted a crop of peas and I’m pleased to say they are flourishing, as are my herbs.
As summer approaches it is a real pleasure to spend evenings out on the roof with my produce. From online chats with a green roof enthusiast in Australia, to useful tips like growing Jersusalem artichokes as a windbreaker crop from a gardener in Nottingham, I’ve found a whole roof top community of gardeners, keen to share their experiences. Why not give it a go?
© Helen Babbs / The Wildlife Trusts
First published in Kitchen Garden magazine July 2008