Aerial edible gardening with Helen

Adventures on a north London roof

Writer Helen Babbs tells us a little bit about her year of aerial, edible gardening.

I’ve been roof gardening in Holloway for about a year and a half now, this is my second summer and I’m currently waiting with bated breath for my tomatoes to ripen and my beans to grow big enough to eat.  So far this year I’ve lost all my strawberries and radishes to a squirrel but have managed to feast on several delicious courgettes and many salad leaves and herbs. Click here for more.

Helen's small balcony: food farm, nature reserve and dining room.

I live in a tiny first floor flat in Holloway and my outside space consists of three metres square of flat roof, accessed through a door in my bedroom.  My garden is basically a large balcony balancing on someone else’s kitchen roof.  I grow everything in containers, which range from traditional planters to old paint pots, crockery, baskets and bottles.  My strawberries live in a hanging basket and an evening primrose blooms in a colander.

I’m a big fan of creatures and so have tried to make my garden wildlife friendly.  As well as the destructive squirrel, I get lots of bird visitors, including a handsome great spotted woodpecker, a crowd of Cockney sparrows, a pair of fat wood pigeons and London’s most dishevelled blackbird.

London's most dishevelled blackbird

I’m also growing flowers that are known to attract bees, butterflies and moths.  It’s not just nice to see such bugs on the rooftop, they are precious pollinators of my crops.  My lavender is currently dancing with bees, though the night flowering tobacco plant is probably my favourite.  Its long white petals peel open as dusk descends and the trumpet like flowers give off clouds of fragrance.  Moths use pale colours and perfume to navigate, making the tobacco rather irresistible.

Beautiful tobacco flowers: Sirens to moths

Last year, simply growing plants from seed was adventure enough, but this year I’ve got a little more experimental.  I’ve been growing potatoes in a hessian sack, which to be honest hasn’t been a great success but this is perhaps due to my planting too many.  Another experiment has been growing things upside down.  It’s an idea I’ve stolen from the New York Times and I thought it would be good for my garden because it’s space saving and is meant to put off pests like snails and squirrels.

Upside down tomatoe in recycled plastic botttle

I’m growing two tomatoes upside down and hung from a fence post and a drainpipe.  Home for them are compost filled lemonade bottles.  A small piece of cardboard, with a small stalk sized hole in it, keeps the soil from falling out of the bottle opening.  I started the plants off the right way round, then planted them upside down when they were sturdy but still small enough to manipulate.  They look great, the best bit being the fact you can see the roots creeping up the sides of the clear bottle.  The plants are small though, they’re behind their right way up siblings and have yet to flower.

The roof garden sits in the middle of particularly busy bit of London, caught in a cloud of city noise and dust that blows in off the Camden and Holloway Roads, but somehow it is also immensely peaceful.  Warm summer evenings on the roof with friends are the best kind, especially if drinks can contain freshly picked mint and dinner can be made from something I grew myself.  I’m a writer and the roof has given me much material.  I blog about the space at www.aerialediblegardening.co.uk and my rooftop tales are forming part of a book that will be published next spring, which will also be about London and urban ecology.

Squirrel eats lettuce

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