With one in eight UK households having no access to a garden, green spaces really are a premium. Especially in big cities: in London for instance, gardens are 26% smaller than the national average at about 140 m2, or half the size of a tennis court according to the ONS. My garden here in Richmond, Surrey, meets much less than that definition, as do millions of others across the UK: a long, narrow strip of 4 by 15 meters flanked by a fence on each side. Sounds familiar? Add to this the peculiars of rented spaces such as full paving throughout and absence of privacy from neighbours, and you could say that my backyard constitutes the archetypal British city garden. If this resonates with you so far, then what comes next may interest you even more.
After five years in the vibrant Fulham, south-west of London, like many others I took advantage of the lockdown to re-locate outside inner London in 2020 whilst still within the M25 perimeter – out, but not “out-out” you may say. Motived by a desire to ‘re-green’ my small corner of the world and help the declining pollinator populations, I went on to build an entire garden from raised beds and pots, equipped with one screwdriver, no car and a desire to create something unique, which could inspire other to-be city gardeners to do the same.
My initial idea was to create a cut flower garden to provide some most needed cheer indoors during those long lockdown months. Over time, this project has become much more: an essential part of my work/life balance, and a reason to get out regardless of the weather to check on my plants.
The first few weeks were spent building six 6’x3’ raised beds, which I then filled with layers of grit, cardboard, dead leaves, compost and topsoil. After that, I planted perennial plants selected for their attractiveness to bees and pollinators such as Salvias, Lavender, Veronicastrum and many others. I then under-planted these with 500 spring bulbs, to ensure lasting interest throughout the year.
When your planting space is limited, one of the ways to grow more is by going vertical. To that effect, I created wigwams by collecting branches left along the Thames path, which I use for plant support – growing climbers such as Sweet peas, Nasturtiums and Cobaea Scandens vertically. For additional natural effect and structure, I weaved silver birch branches around the wigwams – birch trees abound in the streets of my neighbourhood, and storms leave hundreds of their highly pliable branches on the ground in their wake.
From there, I took every opportunity to gain more growing space – whether that meant nailing pots to a fence to grow ferns vertically, to creating a green wall of climbers using trellis at the end of the garden, to loading up a potting table with pots to create some interest.
Ultimately, the smaller your garden, the more “vignettes” and points of interest you want to create. These need to give a viewer a reason to stop by and can be updated with seasonal planting for year-long interest.
One key aspect of your gardening journey will be to master the art of growing plants from seed. From the tech-savvy gardeners using heat mats and grow lights, to the ‘old school’ windowsill gardeners, all acknowledge how key a skill seed growing is to reduce costs (full-grown plants are expensive), grow rare plants that are not commonly found and nurseries, and nurture that symbiotic relationship a gardener develops with their plants over time. To that effect, acquiring a patio greenhouse or cold frame will change your life and allow you to grow much more for less.
If you are contemplating starting a garden either to grow edibles, flowers, or a bit of both, then jump right in regardless of your space and don’t let anything stop you! There is so much resource and creative ideas online and social media to help get you started.
My advice would be to start by drawing a plan of your growing space and make a list of the top flowers or vegetables you’d like to grow and where they would fit in your garden. The step after that will be to buy the plants or grow them from seed (using a second-hand windowsill propagator for instance) and get going – every day is a succession of small wins, mistakes and failures but you learn so much along the way. Besides, there is nothing more rewarding than growing a garden entirely from seed – you’ll find that over time, your knowledge of plants will increase drastically and you will be able to name every flower in a bouquet or in a public park.
Whilst you will find that gardening strongly binds generations together (parents and grandparents are full of helpful tips and gardening wisdom!), the gardening community is exceptionally strong on social media with people sharing best practices globally – you’ll make many friends on your journey!
Would you like to see more of Alex’s gardening skills? Check out thei Instagram account @theenglishgardener