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
This feature appeared in ‘The Great Outdoors’ issue of Time Out, London magazine, June 16-11 2011 (issue 2130)
There’s something extra special about the wildlife and wild places found within a city sprawl. The fact that nature can be vigorous and that a range of creatures – from tawny owls and peregrine falcons to seals, eels and bats – can survive and even thrive in such a seething, heaving place as London is both brilliant and reassuring.
While our capital is rightly celebrated for its grand parks and bijou leafy squares, this city is also home to many other snatches of green. Less manicured and perhaps a little rough round the edges, London’s more secret and solitary wildernesses are worth seeking out. On days when the concrete and dust get a little too much, to be able to sink deep into long grass or disappear beneath a camouflaging canopy of tangled growth is pure joy.
On one of those freakish spring days that literally rippled with heat, I ventured into the edge lands between Hackney and Walthamstow Marshes with a fine gentleman and a handsome picnic in tow. We cycled there via Springfield Park and the River Lea, and spread our rug on a deserted patch of land dotted with bright dandelions and edged with light industry. We made a meal amongst the beetles and crows, and fell asleep inside the Sunday papers.
Daydreaming, my thoughts turned in the direction of Walthamstow Reservoirs, where I’d found myself one morning a few weeks before. It’s a working Thames Water site that’s also a birdwatcher’s and fisherman’s dream. Neither, I enjoyed wandering the wooded paths that weave around various large pools of water. The reservoirs reflect back a scene that’s both odd and beautiful. Crowds of huge birds silhouetted on islands of trees, ringed by roads, train tracks and the shapes of the city.
The spectacular heronries here are the largest in the capital. These prehistoric looking birds start breeding from February, displaying with fancy neck movements and much beak snapping. The islands host masses of cormorants too, sitting on trees that are stunted and singed due to the large numbers of birds exploiting the landscape.
Reservoirs are great places for wild experiences. East Reservoir Community Garden on the Woodberry Down estate, near Manor House tube, has a bird hide on stilts that boasts expansive views over the water. I was lucky enough to see the sun rise over this reservoir once, and watched its thick reed beds burn black and gold. Make friends with someone living on one of the top floors of Lincoln Court, the neighbouring tower block, to get the most sweeping views of the reservoir and out across the city.
Nearby is Abney Park Cemetery. Here you can escape into a dishevelled knot of a place, where the undergrowth weaves itself into tunnels and ivy creeps round crumbling statues. The gravestones are painted with rusty lichen and adorned with miniature mountains of moss that gleam with wet. Perhaps not the most obvious thing to get excited about, lichen is pretty interesting to urban nature fans, or to me at least. It acts as a barometer of the environment’s health. Ecologists use London’s lichens to monitor air quality and the impact of climate change.
A little closer to town is Gillespie Park, which sits in the shadow of the Arsenal Stadium. There are several ways in but my favourite is the gate at Finsbury Park station. The entrance is cut into the dank railway bridge there – the one where bus catchers have to dodge dubious drips leaking from the brick work and from the pigeons. It’s a fairly unpleasant place to stand still, but a marvelous spot to find a route to another world.
Go through the gate, up some steps and into a small park that’s been left to run wild and is glorious in summer. The grass reaches up to your armpits, wildflowers and graffiti compete to be most colourful and beautiful butterflies dance through the heat haze, while trains crawl past into the city.
It reminds me a little of Camley Street Natural Park, although that King’s Cross nature reserve has definitely stolen my heart more than any other. Sandwiched between St Pancras International and the Regent’s Canal, in the building site that currently is King’s Cross, it packs an awful lot of nature into its humble two acres.
A mature pond sits at the far end, with a resident heron, moor hen family and various water creatures, including freshwater shrimp. Last time I was there three turtles were sunbathing on a raft in the water. Once tiny terrapins, they were flushed down the loo by bored pet owners and now wreak havoc in London’s ponds, fighting with native species. Hot summer days at Camley are sound-tracked with bird song and insect fizz, alongside the insistent car and train traffic. When I’ve been here after dusk has dropped, the air has sung with moths and bats drawn in off the canal.
Another garden that’s been looking lovely of late is Duncan Terrace Gardens in Angel. It’s close to my studio and I’ve been finding as many excuses as possible to walk its short length. Perhaps not worth making a special trip for, the wildflowers are worth a peek if you’re local. What’s most exciting about this park is the extraordinary bird box that explodes like a gigantic bracket fungi from one tree. Called the ‘spontaneous city in the tree of heaven’, its shape mirrors the surrounding houses and has been carefully designed to provide a home for birds and insects without damaging the tree. I would like to live in that beautiful bird box.
It’d be easy to assume that wildlife is confined to the city’s outer or leafier edges, but even in central London it’s possible to see wild creatures – and not just foxes, squirrels, ducks and rats. Mere minutes from Marble Arch, tawny owls nest in Kensington Garden’s ancient oaks, peregrine falcons hang out at the Houses of Parliament and last year a seal was spotted regularly sunbathing in the Thames near Tower Bridge.
Tower 42 near Liverpool Street is probably best known for having an expensive restaurant. For some though, it’s become a nature reserve of sorts. Every spring and autumn, during the migration seasons, a group of birdwatchers ascend its lofty heights and spend hours on the roof watching the ebb and flow of urban avian life. Anyone can join the study group, you just have to ask and be able to hold your own in a conversation about binoculars.
Take a service lift up 41 floors, climb a couple of flights of stone steps, then some winding metal ones, squeeze yourself through two trap doors and you’ll arrive. London stretches away on all sides, vast and densely packed. The usually hidden, snaking shape of the river is obvious here, and iconic structures look familiar yet totally different viewed from above.
The roof is full of aerials, metal girders, pipes, and huge, noisy fans. It’s quite a difficult environment to negotiate and definitely not an obvious place from which to watch birds. But actually it’s perfect. During my visit, I was up there barely ten minutes before a peregrine falcon swooped in from the west, over St Paul’s Cathedral.
A magnificent hunter that can achieve speeds close to 180mph, this particular one had decided upon a feral pigeon breakfast. It caught one of London’s many in mid-flight and ate it on the side of a bridge. Peregrines love the London landscape because it mimics their natural one. They like cliff faces and mountain crags, and the shapes formed by tall buildings are very similar.
Tower 42 shows that strange places can be considered wild, and that ‘wildness’ can perhaps be part-time, temporary or even manmade. Just like shops and supper clubs, gardens pop-up in London too. Jungle-like pockets of bramble and buddleia grow on forgotten plots all over town, while other wildernesses are more deliberate.
One such place is tucked away behind Tate Modern on Union Street in Southwark. The medically themed Urban Physic Garden is part art project / part herb garden, and is a great example of how accessible, and infectious, urban growing can be. It’s already popular with people, and with ladybirds and bees. For six weeks, it will be somewhere to learn, to eat and to play. When it’s dismantled, Londoners will adopt the plants and spread potted wilderness throughout the city.