Monday, 1 December 2014

Conserving Nature in Central London

King's Cross and St Pancras have seen such a phenomenal building programme, said to be the biggest construction project in Europe, that the area to the north of the stations has even been given a new post code - N1C.  And, amidst the glass buildings and stylish modern architecture, beside the canal that flows through it all, nestles Camley Street Natural Park.  Nature lovers with a vision secured this spot where, since 1985, a real-life nature reserve has taken over the former coal yard. 

Camley Street is on the one hand a treasured area for quiet contemplation but is also abuzz with  community projects and scientific innovation.  When I arrive, a long line of young schoolchildren in their bright high-visibility vests are chuckling and laughing as they are escorted out through the high iron gates through which you pass to enter the garden.

Maybe they were laughing at the dragonfly. Once inside, a sculpture by Andrew Lee, made from recycled cartons, adorns a faded blue storage unit - a dragonfly  to symbolise the recycling on which the garden is founded.

Camley Street knows what a strategic position it has on London's green corridor - the canal - and has developed a variety of projects and structures which reflect this.  There's WOW (Wildlife on Your Waterways) for the stretch from Kentish Town Lock to Islington Tunnel; floating islands beside the canal for passing waterfowl; waterside viewpoints created by the Finnish Institute in London and the Architecture Foundation;  a barge with a floating forest garden on which food is grown to engage young people in a 'Do You Dig It' campaign and, last but not least, a painted pond-dipping platform where you might just as easily find the odd courting couple sitting, or office worker eating sandwiches, as well as children with nets looking for tadpoles.  The canal flows into the park to its pond, where coots were swimming amongst the duck weed.  Crayfish, sticklebacks, frogs and pike live in these waters and the birds, bees and butterflies are well looked after here.  

Camley Street Natural Park is also home to the London Wildlife Trust, and is nearly as old as the Trust itself.  Next year will be its 30th anniversary and the workers are preparing an exhibition to demonstrate the changes and progress made at the park during this time. There are five employees, some full-time, some part-time, most of whom started their contact with the park as volunteers.  The many volunteers they manage look after visits from corporate groups, ex-offenders, local residents, schools and university students, to name but a few.  There are beehives, looked after by Brian the Beekeeper from Urban Bees, wormeries and clay ovens.  Now internationally acclaimed, the park has won numerous awards, including Green Flag awards in 2010, 2011 and 2014, as well as first place as Camden in Bloom's Best Environmental Project.

One building in the park stands out from the rest - it contains large tubes and pipes in a white laboratory and houses an anaerobic food digester, creating renewable energy.  Fittingly, as the skyline around the park used to be dominated by large black gas holders, there is a small gas holder named after them at the heart of the process.  Food from local restaurants (25 kg a day) is being digested as part of a trial to monitor by-products and put them to community use. It operates on a closed loop cycle and is linked to the composter and wormeries. Rokiah is based here - wearing a lab coat, not gardening togs, to oversee the process. 

The sales stall in the park offered unusual presents - worm juice as well as dog roses, hawthorn and blackthorn trees.  Next year, when it opens for Open Garden Squares Weekend on 13th and 14th June, there will be activities aplenty, including tours, a photo exhibition, children's activities, picnics and refreshments. It may also open next year for wedding parties - what a stunning location that would be, eh?

Further information on visiting Camley Street Natural Park on Open Garden Squares Weekend

Monday, 3 November 2014

Come and Join Us!

This idyllic dwelling with its perfectly tended cottage and vegetable garden is a delight for tourists and passers-by in St James's Park, London. Walking here from Trafalgar Square, under Admiralty Arch, up the Mall and skirting Horse Guards Parade, my spirits lifted in the autumn of 2012, when I passed the colourful borders of late bedding plants and saw ducks waddling, quacking and splashing about.

I had come for an interview for a Volunteer Area Co-ordinator post for the Open Garden Squares Weekend. Weeks before I had had my first experience at volunteering in the Aquatics Centre for the glorious London Olympics, and it was a chance conversation with another Gamesmaker on the tube ride home that alerted me to this opening. Gingerly I bent down to unlatch the low metal gate, and entered Duck Island Cottage garden. Behind me I could almost hear gasps of envy as tourists and on-lookers stood watching and wishing they could follow me into the garden – and, every time I come, the feeling is the same – what an amazing privilege it is to have your work's HQ here!

Inside the cottage, reality kicks in, as there are just two main rooms from which our charity, the London Parks and Gardens Trust, conducts operations. Fitting in everyone for meetings is a bit of a squeeze, to say the least, but we all love it. When the weather is good, we sometimes decamp onto the lawns of St James's Park. In May and June the cottage is full to bursting with all the publicity material we have to get out to our 200-plus gardens. Open Garden Squares Weekend has grown since I joined in 2012: there are now 12 other Area Co-ordinators and we are looking to recruit four more, for South East, South West and Central London. There are also three part-time members of staff and an additional 1250 volunteers help get the show on the road on the weekend we are open.

You don't have to be a gardener to be an Area Coordinator, but you do need to enjoy beautiful gardens. Working with people, juggling a myriad enquiries, some computer literacy, and an interest in seeking out and evaluating new gardens, which seem to pop up every year - these are all helpful attributes. I have the good fortune to co-ordinate 17 gardens in the area where I have lived for over 35 years, Islington, and one with the biggest building programme in Europe, King's Cross and St Pancras. Rushing around all 17 on the weekend when they open - and the lead up to the opening - can be a very busy but very rewarding time. The gardens in my area are both big and small, community and private gardens, schools, farms and prisons. This year I was really proud to see Highbury Stadium Square, former home of the Arsenal Football Club, open its doors to the public.

If you want to volunteer for a co-ordination role that offers different tasks and challenges each month, please check out our website using the following link or contact Janne on The role takes up about 4-6 hours each week, growing slightly as the weekend draws closer. But, if you can only spare help over the actual weekend of June 13th to June 14th, contact Jock on Our weekend volunteers help a garden for half a day over the weekend and get a free ticket and garden guide to visit any number of gardens over the rest of the weekend. They are invaluable in making the event go smoothly.

Area Co-ordinators are a friendly bunch, both male and female, and we meet every couple of months to share ideas and plan developments. And we, in our turn, are co-ordinated by the lovely Robin and her team who provide all the support we need, including tasty nibbles and convivial, refreshing drinks. Take a look at our website and come and join us.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Making Hay in the September Sun

On a mission to find out more about wildlife gardens in London, I was advised that, hidden behind a well-cultivated wildlife hedge in the Barbican, lay a superb example of one.  And, when I phoned to arrange the visit, I was bowled away when the invitation included watching the wildlife meadow being scythed.  Scything in central London!  What a treat!  The garden in question is the Fann Street Wildlife Garden, which is recognised as a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation, and recently celebrated 10 years of working with residents of the Barbican and a variety of conservation groups to create this quiet, magical spot of unspoilt countryside in the very heart of the old smoke.

There was only one scyther, wielding a very sharp scythe.  She was Beth, a professional scyther who also teaches her skills for the National Trust.  She told me that she had once scythed at Highgrove, the home of the Prince of Wales, and she had never seen a better equipped garden.  She was a very friendly professional and made me wonder what other old skills could generate new employment if wildlife gardening became even more commonplace than it is beginning to be. Following Beth came the volunteers, who picked up the grasses and stacked them, ready to be taken away by the City of London for composting.  Taking the grass away is just as important as cutting it, as a good wildlife meadow thrives on poor soil.   No mulching required for this garden meadow: that's reserved for the hedges. One volunteer had gathered a bunch of grasses to take home, and laid it on a bench.

The meadow dominates the garden and it is fascinating to sit on one of the many benches on its round circumference and observe nature at work.  It contains a variety of common grasses,  including Yorkshire Fog, Mustard, Dead Nettle (white and red), Mallow, Common Buttercup and Speedwell. There is a path through the middle, which could just be still detected, and this is cut in May.  The garden benefits from a microclimate and is usually five degrees warmer than the outskirts.  The site was bombed in the Second World War, and the soil levels vary across the garden, with some parts acid and others alkali.  Although there is no mulching, there is still weeding to be done - nature is not given a completely free reign, and bindweed, nettles and creeping thistle, for instance, have to be kept in check in order to let the wildlife flowers bloom in the spring and summer.

The bees and the butterflies really enjoy the space, so much so that a wild bees' nest had been discovered in the middle of the meadow - its spot marked by a wayward traffic cone. But such is the attraction of the meadow that there are often more frogs there than in the pond, built three years ago. Maybe this is because they can hide from marauding mallards in the grass more effectively than in the pond.  Although the main problem with visiting mallard ducks is that they are very partial to a mouthful of frogspawn.

Introducing water has really increased the biodiversity of the garden.  Tall plants, such as Meadowsweet, Hemp Agrimony and Fleabane, give height and structure to the planting around the pond.  Some plants from the original planting, such as Ragged Robin and Lady's Smock, have been smothered by others, but many marginals survived, including Marsh Marigold, Bugle,Brookline, Flowering Rush, Marsh Woundwort, Lesser Spearwort, Yellow Loosestrife and the irrepressible Forget-me-not.

There is more to the garden than just the meadow and the pond. There is a cottage garden, a long sunny, pollinator friendly bed, and a wonderfully maintained hedgerow, cultivated as a sanctuary for the birds.  Bird feeding is taken really seriously and you can follow the activities of the birds on Twitter via Barbican Birds (@barbicanbirds). Each distinct area has a 'champion' and these volunteers are the real garden stars, who love and nurture their areas and oversee their successful development. The volunteers come from the Barbican Wildlife Group (the BWG), under the direction of the Barbican Estate Office and Working with City Gardens.

Some trees and plants started life on a balcony of a Barbican flat, others have been donated by the  Woodland Trust, such as the Spindle tree shown above with its distinctive pink berries, and Islington Gardeners, to name but two donors.

This is definitely a garden to put on your wish list for June 13-14 2015, when it will welcome visitors again for the Open Garden Squares Weekend.

Further information on visiting Fann Street Wildlife Garden on Open Garden Squares Weekend

Monday, 8 September 2014

A little bit of garden legal history

Walking through Pembridge Square feels like walking through a glamorous home, with each room revealing hidden delights at every turn.

Gravel paths, sometimes edged with rhododendron and bergenia, link the rooms which can change from a woodland scene, where bluebells bloom in spring and the grass is left to grow
long, followed by poppies. Ropes are used to good effect to fence off areas for wildlife preservation, whilst elsewhere a winning combination of hostas and yellow acers catches the eye, before a lawn and a classical long herbaceous border beckons. A maze, children's play area and a rose garden complete the suite of little rooms.

But, getting down to the basics, how is all this beauty managed and paid for? For a full understanding we have to go back over a hundred years to 1851 and 1863, in the reign of Queen Victoria. In 1851 the Kensington Improvement Act was passed, followed in 1863 by the Town Gardens Protection Act.

The Kensington Improvement Act was a response to complaints from local residents. They ring many bells today - perennially familiar concerns about inadequate maintenance of footpaths and lighting. Taken together, both acts enabled residents of garden squares, such as Pembridge Square, to establish a committee to manage the garden, and agree annually the cost of maintaining it. The Council would then be required to collect the garden levy, alongside the rates - a system which has continued in Kensington to this day.

In the present day, with changing home ownership and houses in London being bought for investment purposes and sometimes left to stand empty, problems could arise with the upkeep of garden squares; but in Kensington the aforementioned acts safeguard the garden income and the Council enforces its collection, even if a property lies empty. Interestingly however, Pembridge Square, although in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, is bordered by houses in two different boroughs, Kensington & Chelsea, and Westminster. Those houses based in Westminster have to be billed individually rather than the garden charge being collected through the rates. All very complicated.

Pembridge Square was built between 1856 and 1864 on the Hall-Radford Estate and was completed in 1865. Its beauty has recently been recognised and it has received awards for the best garden in North Kensington and best large private garden square. The gardener, Robert Player, and the managing agents, Westbourne Estates, can be justly proud.

In the eastern end of the square, the wildlife plantings predominate and the garden moves across to become a formal rose garden in the west. In between, a hornbeam maze was planted three years ago, using some of the hornbeam that used to line the refurbished, post-war railings. The maze is nearly fully grown and branches seeking to escape its straight lines were awaiting a cut when I visited. Holly has replaced the hornbeam along the railings in places. Tree ferns as well as red or golden acers give height in the plantings, and there are plenty of benches and summer houses where you can stop and admire the flowers as you journey across the square.

The garden provides for its local community in many ways - as a playground for schoolchildren, outdoor table tennis and Christmas carol singing, to name a few activities. 2014 was its first year of opening for the Open Garden Squares Weekend for some time and we hope it will become an annual event, enabling those passers-by I saw peering longingly through the railings to have a brief annual taste of the joys of this classic London garden square.

Further information on visiting Pembridge Square on Open Garden Squares Weekend »

Friday, 1 August 2014

Flair and Diversification

Zander Court Community Garden is based in a small community building amidst a sizeable 1970s brick-built estate on the Tower Hamlets/Hackney border.  Zander is a fish and all the estates around have a fishy name - literally they include Mullet, Grayling, Lampern, Elver and Zander - most of which are river fish and not varieties you find very often in local fishmongers.  The Garden Club punches well above its weight though and has diversified its operations across the local landscape to include estate gardens, the nearby secondary school and church.

The Club House, which is the hub of operations, was part of the original design of the estate and since 2005 the residents have run a Gardening Club, which is helped and supported by their landlord, Tower Hamlets Community Housing. A few years after setting up, they used the fish theme to secure funding from Hugh Fernley Whittingstall to grow herbs which complement fish.  So within their little perimeter garden they started to grow sweet cicely, a lovage, bay, rosemary, thyme, tarragon, summer savory, chives and dill, alongside a variety of scented shrubs, roses and flowers, so that local residents could pick sprigs of scent through the railings as they passed by all year round.  In January Sarcococca confusa bowls people over with the pungency of its small, white flowers and in June there's this rose (see right), white, pink-edged Jasmine and Rosemary.  Into a very small space there are planters, decorated with stencils, which volunteers from Barclays Bank helped to build. The planters are also on the roof and a variety of veg and herbs from different countries fill them up - Bengali squash was sourced from the nearby Spitalfields City Farm and there is mint, thyme, garlic chives, beetroot, tomatoes, runner beans, lettuce, leeks and potatoes  and Nagar chillies all crammed in too. There are also planters on the roof with alpines, grasses and sedums.

In the middle of Elver Gardens the community group has been working on a wildlife-friendly garden.
The residents voted for a garden which they could look down and across to from their flats, and Sisyrinchium, Nepeta, Echinacea, Crocosmia and Feverfew have been planted alongside a wildflower mix of annuals, around winding, narrow paths, which, with crab-apple trees, creates a quasi-ornamental wildlife space which is very pleasing on the eye.  At night-time sprinklers come on - the new, programmable, irrigation system courtesy of Lloyds Banking Group, and it's much needed as the garden sits in only eighteen inches of soil. 

Test beds have been marked out in the churchyard garden
A violet, Victorian rose looks down on proceedings

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Imagine the Garden behind the Walls

You'll have to imagine what the garden inside Holloway Women's Prison looks like, as photos, and indeed the carrying of cameras or mobiles, are strictly prohibited.  I was one of the lucky twelve who saw behind the forbidding exterior this year when Holloway Prison again opened its doors for Open Garden Squares weekend - and I had waited two years for this chance.

I wasn't disappointed - the wait was well worth it and I'd encourage you to book early for 2015 to be in with a chance.  The garden is managed by the fabulous Chris Stewart, who is very ably assisted by Mr Mac.  Chris has been a stalwart for Open Garden Squares, opening the garden and even accommodating extra visitors in past years, when other London prisons have had to withdraw their visits.  Chris and Mr Mac are both retiring later this year, so this blog is dedicated to them and their commitment over the past 30 and 20 years respectively to the garden, the wildlife and their girls inside.

After the clang of the gate as you enter the prison, you can't help but notice the cheering, bright colours of the bedding plants and a reproduction of a Monet painting of a field of poppies in the first courtyard you enter.  On from there it is amazing how far the prison grounds extend - as one visitor remarked, "It's like one big council estate".  You walk through different courtyards, with the central one a riot of clashing colours of  summer bedding plants.  Pink and red geraniums nestle up to one another in regimented ranks.  Geraniums, marigolds, alyssum and cineraria predominate. The plants are all grown at a prison in Brighton and Holloway has to take pot luck with the colours that arrive.  This is all to change in the future, when two new polytunnels are constructed, which should enable Holloway to grow its own plants from seed and, hopefully, give more inmates the chance to garden.  There are also plans for a small wildlife meadow.

At present, out of approximately 550 inmates, there are only 16 gardeners.  Prisoners have to earn the privilege by showing good behaviour, and Chris is proud of the progress many of the women in her care make.  "Give me a good bad girl", she says, "and it's clear she loves her job, and the gardeners love her."  A stray cat, called Sky, follows us around, past an enormous London plane tree.  The facilities for the women prisoners are impressive - a swimming pool and two gyms, and specialist units for detox and mental health.   Multicultural and multi-faith support is emphasised - even a pagan priestess visits from time to time.

There's a hill inside the grounds where over 20 chickens run free.  Known as the Holloway Hens, they are ex-battery chicks who, ironically, have been freed and get a good end to their days on earth here in the prison.  They give the gardeners fried-egg sandwich treats too, and are much loved and prized. 

Mr Mac looks after the tool shed for the gardeners -  its order and precision is astounding; but, as you can imagine, you have to keep a careful watch on the tools handed out to prisoners.  Mr Mac uses a token system for every spade and fork issued and knows exactly which prisoner has which tool at any given time.  The need for security in everything is paramount, and we get a chilling taste of prison life when Chris slams a cell door shut and shows us for a moment what it feels like to be locked up. This visit gives you a  great glimpse of the world inside prison as well as the gardens.

This was the last tour Chris and Mr Mac will do for Open Garden Squares Weekend - we wish them a happy retirement and trust that their legacy will live on in the future and even more women will experience the joy of gardening and the chance to learn new skills to equip them for their future lives on the other side.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Walking on Hallowed Ground

There's a very famous and cherished green field in Islington, which was transformed into a modern garden by Christopher Bradley-Hole in 2010.  Yes, you guessed it: it's the former football pitch of Arsenal Football Club at the old Highbury Stadium.   Football was played here for just under a hundred years from 1913 to 2006, when the club said a fond farewell to Highbury and moved up the road and across the tracks to the new Emirates Stadium.   Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Tony Adams, Charlie George and countless others played their best football on the beloved Highbury pitch, and although the stadium's buildings were redeveloped into luxury flats, the pitch area was reserved for a garden.

The ashes of many fans lay under the grass and local people yearned for access to the new garden.  So, the garden was enclosed on one side by a Perspex wall, allowing a tantalising glimpse inside, a modern take on the iron railings of traditional London squares.   

Inside, now that the garden is to be opened for the first time to the public as part of this year's Open Garden Squares Weekend, a sense of peace and tranquillity greets visitors, rather than the roar of football fans. The former pitch was retained as the centrepiece of the new development and converted into a two-acre garden square. The minimalist, modern garden comprises evergreen hedges of yew, hornbeam and some box, immaculate green lawns and grasses intersected by glass walls with integrated lighting, water and bubbles features.  There's a row of bamboo and also some birch trees. Along the side there are banks of red roses, with some red tulips breaking into the green earlier in the year. The garden retains the same dimensions as the old pitch, with stone paths reflecting its original chalk lines.  Walking the hallowed grounds along the lines of the pitch and goals is encouraged by its design.

Viewing and stepping out into the garden is an experience in itself.  The viewing room has been created from the former Arsenal boardroom (minus its oak panels, which are now in the new Emirates stadium).  A full panoply of the garden beams out from behind the windows of the viewing room and descending from it to the garden you can imagine yourself as an Arsenal player of old as you go through a tunnel onto the pitch, sorry the garden.
The garden has been maintained by Mark Walker Ltd since 2012 and Pembertons Property Management.   Mark has had his work cut out as the garden is built over a 450-space underground car park, the soil is only 18 inches deep and there is no integrated sprinkling system.  Keeping mature yew and hornbeam hedges happy in these conditions has its challenges.   Mark has faithfully sought to keep to the original design, clipping back ivy from the planters to retain clean lines and replacing yew hedges after dry summers.  A beautifully peaceful memorial garden exists where relatives and friends can pay their respects to loved ones whose ashes are here.

The grasses should be singing in June when the garden opens. Arsenal have now won the FA Cup, their first trophy since leaving Highbury.  Due to its popularity, tickets for visiting the garden have been allocated by ballot, with everyone buying a ticket before 29 May 2014 eligible for the draw.  Enjoy the visit, lucky winners, and look out for the next chance to walk the hallowed grounds in 2015.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

A Roof with a View

Situated on the north bank of the Thames, with possibly one of the best views of the Shard in London, the Nomura building in Angel Lane is a modest edifice in comparison with the giant skyscrapers springing up around it.

Modest on the outside maybe; but once inside the offices of the Japanese Investment Bank, Nomura International PLC, its secrets are revealed.  Hidden away amongst the many offices is the home of three incredible switchboard operators, Eileen Arrowsmith, Linda Monehen and Tessa Palmer, who had the good fortune and goodwill of excellent employers to be allowed to create a vegetable garden on the roof.  They garden in their lunchtimes, snacking on fresh salad leaves and peas, and storing their jellies, gardening gloves and bags of compost under their desks. They even bring in precious seedlings on the train and underground from home.

Their kitchen garden on the sixth-floor roof is a little shy of a standard 10-pole allotment plot, but is intensively farmed with 25-plus varieties of vegetables.  It sits alongside a minimalist, modern garden layout of immaculate rectangles of lawn, box hedging and grasses, alongside ferns, hellebores, aquilegia, gaura and lavender plants, beautifully maintained by Tony and Matt of ISS Facilities Landscaping. Everywhere there are seats and tables for Nomura employees to enjoy the views and and eat al fresco.  There’s also a special bin for composting the many banana skins afterwards.   
The array of vegetables grown up here is extensive: three types of beetroot, turnips and tomatoes, garlic, Japanese onions, cucamelons, garlic, beans, chard, squash and parsnips, to name but a few.  The chef from the Nomura kitchens has first pick of the produce for client dining, and the rest of the harvest is sold to staff from a trolley every Thursday, with any proceeds going to charity.  

There aren’t many birds to eat the fruits of the garden six floors up – a hawk is brought in every week to deter seagulls; but lots of bugs and slugs and snails somehow make the journey up successfully, so Eileen stores nematodes in her office fridge as an organic way of preventing them eating the fruits of their labour.  They have installed a bug hotel and a ladybird climbs across my knee as I sit chatting to them in the sunshine, whilst white butterflies flit by.  

The vegetable garden has become quite a talking point, having been spotted from other rooftops and having now won the Masters’ Trophy in the Flowers in the City competition.  The gardeners went proudly to Mansion House to collect their award from the Lady Mayoress of the City of London.   

In fact the commitment to all things green has now permeated throughout the Nomura building.  On the highest floor there is a sedum roof and a bee hive.  More planters are being built by a social enterprise company in the East End from old pallets to increase the amount of bee-friendly flowers.  Water from the roof is used as grey water for toilets, and part of the office building has been designed to be environmentally friendly, dispensing with air conditioning and using that old-fashioned method of opening windows for ventilation.  All this commitment has won the company the Sustainable City Award for its outstanding contribution to enhancing air quality, for which Terry Jones, the Facilities Manager, and David Crawley have played their part.  

As well as the Shard across the river, there are views of the Gherkin, the Cheese Grater and the Walkie Talkie skyscrapers.  Even amidst all the new build, St Paul’s cathedral remains silhouetted from one angle. Workers at Nomura will open this garden to the public for the very first time on the Open Garden Squares Weekend on June 14th and June 15th 2014.  Don’t miss eating strawberries and cream and cucumber sandwiches, and sipping non-alcoholic Pimms in this unique location in the City of London.  But, most of all, come to admire what enterprising, green-fingered, employees can achieve in their lunch hours and spare time – it is truly inspirational. 

Cartoon courtesy of Justin Monehen

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Reaching for the Skies

I had come to see a rare phenomenon – a roof garden in a secondary school – and was bowled away on arrival by the flowers and plants which adorned the main corridor – the colours as bright and diverse as the flags which fluttered above.

Fewer than 9% of the schools nationally involved in the RHS Campaign for School Gardening are secondary schools. It seems that gardening in primary schools has captured the imagination – indeed there are plenty of them opening their doors for Open Garden Squares Weekend on June 14th and 15th, but secondary schools lag behind them significantly. Maybe the constraints of the national curriculum are taking their toll on horticulture in schools, but Oaklands School, in the heart of Tower Hamlets, is leading the way and showing that gardening and horticulture skills can be successfully incorporated into a school’s learning objectives, alongside the massive benefits which having a garden brings. Even Ofsted inspectors agree. Students have produced their own flowers, fruit and vegetables, applied what they have learnt to other subjects, such as food technology, design, science, art and ICT, and broadened the skills learned in the process into other work-related skills, such as events management, marketing and enterprise.

The whole school got involved in this roof garden project – including the Head of PE rushing out to find a good source of light polystyrene from Billingsgate market for use as drainage in the raised beds, and the discovery that the best window sills in the school for germinating seeds were in the Food Technology Department. 70% of students at Oaklands don’t have a garden at home. But an after-school gardening club has now been established and there were two keen, stalwart, student gardeners, Nicholas and Jason, and the Assistant Head, Janis Fuller, there to meet me and show me around after school had ended for the day. A year ago, the garden they and their fellow Year 7 pupils created on the new roof of the school’s extension building opened for the first time for the Open Garden Squares Weekend. They worked against time and with no formal funding to get the garden ready.

As in all good gardens, there had to be gardeners behind the scenes to champion such a venture and keep it on track. In this case they were a community gardener, Catherine Tidnam, Brian Gaffney, the Head of Year 7, and the designer, Julia Minnear from the Women’s Environmental Network. The children and the garden will grow together and they aim to document, over the school life of the Year 7 students, their growth and development, as well as that of the garden. The Zander Court Community Garden Club helped throughout, and Kiri Tunks turned the activities into learning competencies, with the support of all the staff involved.

Before any seeds were sown, the students conducted some pretty impressive research, including visiting a supermarket growing food for sale on its roof, and the famous Kensington Roof Garden. An international expert on roof gardens (Karla Dakin), who was in London to talk at the Garden Museum, was persuaded to come and visit and trees were donated by other international partners. Sourcing of products was kept local wherever possible; so the compost came from the Tower Hamlets Cemetery, builder’s merchants donated scaffold planks and wood came from the Leeside Wood Recycling Centre. Corporate volunteers from BUPA helped them turn the wood into vegetable planters. Now these planters are an innovative and striking home to herbs and vegetables – with bright stencils on the sides of the tubs and white wooden rabbits providing a quirky and amusing backdrop behind the fences and mesh surrounding the garden.

Herbs now tumble out of a disused filing cabinet – perhaps a symbol of planting and growth taking pride of place over paperwork.

The garden is open to its school community all year round, but the school chose to open it last year at the Open Garden Squares Weekend. This year the plants will be more mature and we hope that the wider community in London will enjoy it again. Last year there were over 300 visitors who relished delicious quiches and strawberry crush smoothies made from the garden produce, admired the vegetable garden, and sat in the quiet contemplation garden which adjoins it.

Further information on visiting Oaklands School Roof Garden »

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Beneath the Flight Path

Open Garden Squares Weekend’s partner, the National Trust, includes some beautiful and well-known places in London, such as Ham House; but a less frequented gem lies under London’s main flight path – Osterley House Gardens. Standing by the entrance, I looked up and was fascinated by the sight of aeroplanes dutifully stacked and waiting their turn for the descent to Heathrow. This is a plane spotter’s paradise, as well as a gardener’s delight.

Thankfully the noise of the turbines is indistinct and distant and soon you forget them entirely and become absorbed in the delights of the new gardens which await you. These gardens were only started eight years ago when the Head Gardener, Andy Eddy, took up his role. At the time not a snowdrop was to be found in the old park, but now they nodded cheerfully in abundance under the trees. Andy Eddy came to Osterley with impressive gardening credentials, having trained and honed his gardening talents at Kew and Sissinghurst - and it shows. 

Starting at the house, there is a typical Georgian garden, created by the 18th-century banker family, Robert and Sarah Child, consisting of a long walk around a large meadow. Otherwise known as the 'smug walk', it has stunning views back to the house, hidden every now and then by copses to enhance the effect of the sight of the house from across a countrified and bucolic meadow. In late spring the long walk, which extends for a mile, is carpeted with bluebells. Bankers then, and now, needed something on which to spend their wealth and they chose a garden house, designed by Robert Adam, as the focal point of Mrs Child’s Flower Garden, and an American garden. A Temple of Pan with stunning views of the great meadow was added, a meadow which has never been ploughed or fertilised and is a permanent haven for wild flowers. 

As well as faithfully recreating the past in the Long Walk, Flower Garden and Garden House, Andy has added some splendid modern touches. The Tudor walled garden is now a potager with a difference. There are four, huge, monumental vegetable plots. The garden obelisks are lime yellow instead of the traditional dark green and the vegetables have escaped from ordered rows and cascade into one another, showing off their red foliage and orange pumpkins. Rainbow chard, Italian heirloom beans and dahlias compete with one another in a riot of colour, usually associated with a traditional cottage garden. Is there a gardening award for such a show? There ought to be if there isn’t.


Andy and his team of two gardeners and dedicated volunteers are kept busy at Osterley. A winter garden has been planted as well as the Diamond Jubilee wood. In the past year they have lost 40 trees to the winds: logs lie sadly next to the flower beds. 70 arrangements of cut flowers grace the tables and sideboards of the house every week. The cut flowers will be on sale to the public this year, alongside the many heritage varieties of plants. Last year one modest polytunnel helped them to raise £6000 in plant sales – and the polytunnel itself is a work of art and joy to behold. Trained by two German assistants, who were originally employed by Vita Sackville West at Sissinghurst, Andy learned from them the art of using every inch of space in the polytunnel.

The climbing roses had just been clipped and pruned for next summer when I visited and their winter outline against the brick wall is worth keeping as an example of how to bend and shape a rose for maximum blooms in June. Visit in June as part of the Open Garden Squares Weekend and you will be able to smell and admire them as well as visiting the lake, working farm, and, of course, the tea shop in the stables.

Information on visiting Osterley on Open Garden Squares Weekend »