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.”
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.”
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 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.
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.