Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Windy times

I visited Winterton House Organic Garden on a cold morning just after storm Doris had wreaked its destructive winds over London gardens.  A large shrub had been uprooted but although the garden sits in a wind vortex zone at the foot of Europe's (yes, really, Europe's) tallest brick-built residential block (24 storeys, no less), it had survived the storm relatively unscathed.  It is set near the heart of Shadwell in East London and has been rightly chosen as one of our 'Hidden Gem' gardens for 2017.

You can just about make out the small group of allotments at the back of the garden in this photo by their green plastic polytunnels, and see the trees which flank the land on the other side.  There are 14 vegetable plots in all: 10 share a home with the chickens in the vegetable part of the garden, and 4 nestle alongside the main garden, which is a riot of colour in June.  When I arrived, Antonio, a plot holder, was busy tending his plot, bringing kitchen waste from home for his compost bin.  He was a man in search of Valerian, a herb, which he had been told speeds up the compost process, but the black gold in his bin was well on its way to nurturing his plants later in the spring without it. 

There are four types of chicken kept in the vegetable garden: Polands, Golden Silkies, Cream Legbars and Buff Orpingtons.  The Polands are shown below, and are particularly pretty, but not now the best layers of eggs. 

Normally the chickens would be out and about, clearing the soil of slugs and snails for the gardeners, but, alas, since January  they have been confined to barracks because of concerns about the spread of avian flu.  Shadwell is not far from the Thames and the main threat comes from the river. Geese, ducks and swans are the main conveyors of the disease, and pigeons also present a constant menace for such a small  gardening space.   Ducks, which were happy neighbours for the chickens, have been evacuated to the countryside for their own safety while the  avian flu threat continues to exist.  The current restrictions were due to end at the end of February, but the gardeners may have to call on the goodwill of companies in the City of London and their bands of volunteers to construct higher netting so that the chickens can roam around again in safety. Volunteers from Barclays Bank and other companies have already helped to construct a new wooden pergola and chicken sheds.

The summer splendour of the garden is a great contrast to the rather austere environment in which it sits, with the tower block an ever-present feature looming over it.  Five years ago Melvyn Smith sat in his flat looking down at the windswept scrubland that it was - a neglected garden, the odd evergreen shrub, pruned religiously, with the odd useful feature such as a brick pergola.  The council announced plans to turn the 'garden' into a car park and this galvanised Melvyn into action - and he was swiftly joined by fellow resident Ken Davis.  The rest is history.

Now the organic garden has a small pond, to complement the flowers, vegetables and chickens.
Vines now trail over the brick pergola.  I didn't enquire as to the vintage of the produce it gives, but feel sure that its grapes or its wine would be delectable.

The residents have successfully established one raised alpine bed and are starting on the second, alongside a dry garden with grasses and gravel.

They take their veg growing seriously here, and Ken started chitting his potatoes in January - now they are bedded down in this home grown solarium, next to a recycled greenhouse below.

Ken already has the seeds sprouting in the greenhouse he has created from discarded materials - with the local market and district a good source of resources.  Local school students with learning difficulties  look after two small veg plots in the main garden and  cabbage, kale and flowers were already sprouting in the greenhouse.

The people who garden here and fill these allotments with an abundance of produce for the summer come from all walks of life and backgrounds. Gardening is a marvellous leveller.  Actors brush shoulders with social workers, consultant psychologists, post office engineers and managing directors with many people from different professions now enjoying their retirement here.  A Bulgarian prunes and tends the grapes, others are Londoners, with their rich heritage from so many countries, Yorkshire, Birmingham and Bangladesh included.

Last year they won an innovation award for growing cotton, and not to be outdone, they are planning on trying to grow flax this year.  The cotton flower is shown below.

The roses in summer are superb. They have great teas and plant sales over the Open Garden Squares Weekend.  Their fame spread, and attracted a senior civil servant, who brought along friends from her  church to sample the delights of this hidden gem.

So impressed was she with the displays of flowers and the tale of the creation of the garden, that she decided to lobby for recognition for Melvyn and Ken and pestered the Cabinet Office until she won its attention.  Invitations to a Buckingham Palace Garden Party have just plopped through Melvyn and Ken's letterboxes and they are both overjoyed.  So good to see the perks of life sometimes go to the right people.

Winterton House Organic Garden are now used to winning garden awards - the  innovation award for  growing cotton, Tower Hamlets in Bloom award, an  RHS Gold in 2016 and Outstanding and Diploma of Recognition awards in other years.  The gardeners are joined by  2-3 regular volunteers each year.

This is Melvyn at the front of the block, which is managed by Tower Hamlets Community Housing. Watch out for the 2017 Open Garden Squares guidebook. An emerald green gem logo will delineate gardens selected for the 'Hidden Gem' competition with details of how to enter. 

If I lived in this tower block I'd be down in the garden every day. There is a warm welcome for all the residents in the block - don't just look down and admire, glorious as that must be in summer - go down to smell the flowers.

Information on visiting Winterton House Organic Garden on Open Garden Squares Weekend »

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