“If you want to have a chat and a cup of tea, you can, if you want to put your hands in the dirt you can,” says Denise Farrell, site manager at the Wolves Lane Centre, a community garden of glasshouses and planting beds set within the suburbs of Wood Green, north London.
Over the past decade, community gardens have started to occupy a similar place in the nation’s psyche as the allotment, with the number of plots increasing nationwide. While the latter can offer quiet sanctuary, gardens like Wolves Lane focus on the collective endeavour and have helped bring a “dig for victory” spirit back to gardening and localism. The RHS introduced community garden awards last year.
Like many similar sites, Wolves Lane was an area of underused public land. In 2017, Haringey council, which for decades had used the site to grow the borough’s ornamental flowers – think memorial gardens and roundabouts – transferred its three acres to the local community. “We pay a small amount of rent, we weren’t given any money to run it,” Yvonne Field, founder of the The Ubele Initiative, says. Ubele, a local Black social enterprise, is one of three organisations that secured the site, alongside Organiclea, a growers’ cooperative, and Cropdrop, a veg box delivery scheme.
Wolves Lane Flower Company in London. Photograph: Janne Ford
Gardens like this have played an important role in food security, feeding parts of the country where hunger is a stark reality. Wolves Lane, Farrell later points out, provides 400 meals a week to people living in food poverty.
Besides this vital service, the centre is keen to focus on education and experimentation and the nine glasshouses and outdoor beds are split between a range of growers, including a local flower company, a cacti gardener and Black-led growing initiative Black Rootz.
Grower Norbert tends the “hot beds” in one of Black Rootz’ glasshouses, a space that holds plants from the Caribbean and the global south. Norbert, originally from Guadeloupe, points to photos of last year’s aubergine and callaloo crop, while standing beside towering tobacco plants. “We don’t use pesticides or chemicals, everything is natural.”
By the gates, a noticeboard shows a bird’s-eye vision of the site’s future. Led by architect firm Practice Architecture and Studio Gil, with the builders due to arrive next month, the £1.9m project will deliver a community hall, classrooms and workshops. Farrell points to the location of a new orchard and the prospect of apple juice and wassailing. Part-funded by the Greater London Authority and National Lottery, the development marks a significant achievement for those running the garden. “It’s like a little laboratory … I feel really lucky. Things keep happening.” she says.
• To find out how to create a community garden, contact the charity Social Farms & Gardens. The RHS has tips and information. Groundwork is another great resource, with advice about funding.
You don’t need a forest to start a forest garden. Also known as a food-forest, or an agroforest, it’s an approach to gardening that imitates the structure of a natural forest and you can apply its principles to a space as small as your balcony or backyard. In essence, it’s a system for growing where multiple layers of trees, shrubs and ground plants work together in an integrated and self-sustaining way.
Currants can grow in the shade of an apple tree and wild strawberries might be seeded as a ground layer establishing a diverse and interactive ecosystem, where a traditional orchard would rely only on apple trees and grass. This biodiversity in turn regenerates the soil and creates resilience in the face of disturbances, such as climate change, as does the system’s preference for perennials over annuals, which also calls for less digging (emitting less carbon), less maintenance (hurray!) and less reliance on pesticides or fertilisers as the interaction between these diverse layers and species moves the garden towards an equilibrium of its own.
Brought to the UK, after a spell in the tropics, by Robert Hart in the 1970s, his book Forest Gardening (1996), reflecting on decades of cultivation of an eighth of an acre in Shropshire’s Wenlock Edge. It serves as an accessible introduction to agroforestry, as does Patrick Whitefield’s How To Make A Forest Garden (2002). For more developed insights, Martin Crawford’s Creating a Forest Garden (2010) is essential reading. The Forest Gardening Design Course that Crawford, through his charity, the Agroforestry Research Trust, runs from his bountiful plot in south Devon is, by now, a rite of passage for budding agro-foresters from all over the world.
Rewilding the walled garden on the Knepp Castle estate in West Sussex. Photograph: Knepp Rewilding Project
Two decades ago, Isabella Tree and her husband, Charlie Burrell, started rewilding a “polluted piece of land” depleted by decades of intensive farming on the Knepp Castle estate in West Sussex. Now Knepp is one of the biggest biodiversity hotspots in the UK and a touchstone for the rewilding movement worldwide.
Rewilding aims to restore natural ecosystems by allowing wildlife to reclaim land and it’s urgently needed, says Tree, who wrote about her experiments at Knepp in the book Wilding (2018). “We need to restore our soils and wetlands; sequester carbon to prevent floods. Having rewilded areas around cities can act as the lungs to filter and clean the air. And threading them through productive agricultural land will actually increase yields.”
This may work beautifully at a 3,500-acre estate such as Knepp, but what about a modest back garden? Is rewilding possible there, too?
“Absolutely,” says Tree. “The first thing is to go chemical-free, cut out herbicides and pesticides.” If you can’t do without a lawn, she advises not mowing in May, to boost biodiversity, or planting “a scented, mossy chamomile lawn” instead of grass.
Rewilding her own walled garden at Knepp recently, Tree created “lumps and bumps and hollows” to provide more surface area and greater diversity of terrain. “Once the plants establish, then we’ll take our hands off the steering wheel a bit, and see what actually wants to be there and what doesn’t. Hopefully, by then, we’ll have masses of diversity. And, in miniature, we’ll have the same kind of mosaic of habitats that we have in the wider landscape. And that will be a bonanza for wildlife, for insects and birds.”
• Knepp is running “rewild your garden” safaris
Creating a spiritual garden is about understanding the spirit of the earth beneath our feet and how our patch relates to the wider, natural world. In the process, the garden becomes a place of sanctuary, contemplation, and meditation, rather than somewhere just to grow veg or put a trampoline.
Nature becomes the guiding principle, whether it’s by using geometrical shapes and patterns found in nature (circles, spirals, hexagons) to design the garden, creating a wildlife-friendly area, or working with the five elements (earth, air, water, spirit, fire) and introducing firepits, pools or a compost heap. It can be as simple as placing a bench in a particular spot to sit and be still, or as involved as dowsing energy lines to find the best position for a stone labyrinth (used as a meditation tool).
Sacred gardens have historical precedents, including Moorish paradise gardens, which were inspired by the teachings of the Koran and have four square compartments and a central fountain, and Japanese Zen Buddhist gardens with their “stroll” paths of paving stones set amid gravel to slow the pace and encourage walking meditation.
Thinking of a garden as a spiritual space makes you look at it differently. You begin to regard yourself as a “guardian” of the earth, rather than a “gardener”. This is the ethos driving the work of Irish garden designer and environmental campaigner Mary Reynolds. She suggests that by understanding the spirit of a place, we restore and replenish the earth and ourselves. This can be as simple as leaving things alone – allowing the land to heal and wildlife return. But sometimes bringing change reawakens the magic present in even the smallest garden plot.
Modern medicine evolved from the carefully tended soil of physic gardens. These were cultivated across Europe from the 16th century on to teach apprentice apothecaries how to identify and grow plants with healing properties. According to Nell Jones, head of plant collections at London’s Chelsea Physic Garden, they were essentially “a training ground for the precursors to modern day doctors and pharmacists”.
The first such garden in the UK was developed more than 400 years ago and is now known as The University of Oxford Botanic Garden. (In the 19th century, the focus shifted to the science of botany and plant classification.) Professor Simon Hiscock, director of the Oxford Botanic Garden, explains their relevance today: “Early physic gardens like Oxford are important centres of research and teaching in the plant sciences, as well as being critical for plant conservation and communicating how important plants are for daily life and the sustainable future of our planet. Botanic gardens are also places where people can engage with plants and nature for their mental health and wellbeing, reflecting their original medical roots.”
Queen Victoria Water Lilies at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden. Photograph: Chris Hellier/Alamy
In London, the Chelsea Physic Garden was set up in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries. It’s a serene, four-acre plot strategically positioned near the river. From here, the apothecaries could vet new plants entering the country via the Thames. “Over the years, the garden became one of the most important centres for plant knowledge,” explains Jones, the head of plant collections. “It started out helping to develop and standardise medicine in this country, and evolved to help people understand how to grow plants in the best possible way.” According to Jones, physic gardens are much more than a “tranquil, ecological space” to while away an afternoon – they are reminders of the “medicinal, economic, cultural and environmental importance of plants to the survival and well-being of humankind.”
The award-winning landscape architect and horticulturalist, Marian Boswall, has written about the benefits of planting your own modern apothecary garden. “We know that a little gardening is good for us, so why not combine this with what we grow in a health-giving garden?” She reasons.
Boswall suggests looking to see what already grows in abundance in your garden: “For example, today, I found lots of violets which I had not noticed all winter, so I put some in tea.” If you’re short of space, don’t underestimate the presence of a pot of basil beside your kitchen sink. “Basil is meant to be good for the brain, so I used to feed it to my children around exam time. I try to inhale mine deeply when trying to think through something,” she says.
Boswall, whose forthcoming book, Sustainable Garden (Francis Lincoln), features projects and advice for the eco-conscious gardener, says. “If you have a sunny window box then lavender is loved by pollinators, gives off a calming scent, you can put it under your pillow to help you sleep, and place it in drawers to help prevent moths eating your best jumpers.”
For those with outdoor space, Boswall suggests calendula. “The petals look beautiful in salads or frozen into ice cubes and are said to have healing properties when used in an infusion … I also keep digestive-aid mint in pots and allow comfrey to creep under the hedge for tea.“But remember, some healing herbs can be powerful medicines and even poisons, so always read up on how to use them before applying them to your skin or eating them.”
Charles Dowding at his farm in Somerset. Photograph: Emma Kane
Dig your soil and you’re causing active damage to a complex ecosystem. “You kill centipedes, millipedes, spiders” and other tiny creatures, says Charles Dowding, the UK’s best-known advocate for no-dig gardening. “You’re also breaking the mycelial threads that make up the fungal networks – that’s a key mechanism for how plants feed.”
That’s one reason why Dowding hasn’t had to use feeds or fertilisers in four decades on his Somerset farm: “We’re leaving the feeding network intact.” Nor does he use slug pellets, because his healthy soil contains ground beetles that eat slug eggs.
Dowding has been experimenting with no-dig since the early 1980s. He says the strategy has two tenets: “Leaving soil undisturbed, and applying a mulch on the surface of organic matter to feed the organisms in the soil.” These organisms then “build structure and keep the air in the soil, and that means good drainage”.
If you want to give the method a go, the first step is to get rid of weeds. “Light deprivation is the key principle,” says Dowding. “If you can keep the light off [a weed] for long enough, it will die.” Reckon on as little as one month for lawn grass or chickweed, or as much as three years for bindweed.
Dowding suggests a layer of cardboard put directly on to the weeds and an inch or two of compost on top. You don’t need to wait for the weeds to die: you can plant into the compost straightaway and the cardboard will eventually decompose. “In seven to eight weeks, plants will be rooting through it.”
It’s not for everyone, as Dowding explains: “Sometimes people will say to me, ‘I don’t like no-dig, I enjoy digging.’ And I say, ‘Well, your soil won’t and your plants won’t either.’” He laughs. “They haven’t considered that.”