Thursday, 28 April 2011

Battersea Park: then and now

Battersea is one of my favourite London parks, dating back to when I first saw the Pogues play there in the mid-1980's, when it was more of a fun-fair-and-festival type of park in those years pre-gentrifcation. Then years later I lived up the hill and it was my refuge and escape and the destination for many a dogwalk. It's still a gem to rival those big green spaces North of the river: Regents Park, Primrose Hill, Kensington Gardens and Hampstead Heath.
I always like to drop in when I'm passing through and I went to see Dan Pearson's new winter garden there. It's so freshly planted that it was a little eclipsed by the surrounding froth of bluebells, tulips and newly green trees. A winter garden is at its best when there is no competition really. But it's great that Battersea has commissioned some new design and planting that doesn't hark back to it's Victorian heyday.
But I think that come next January, this latest planting of his in London will be a welcome refuge, with lots of hellebores, ferns and woodland delights nestling at the foot of some 20-odd white-stemmed birches and a cluster of wonderfully bent and twisted stems of some old lime trees that look as if they have been there for years - perhaps they have? I don't really want to think ahead to next winter already, but at least this gives me something to look forward to when the bleak days come round again.
Dan has been writing eloquently (as ever) about his ex-garden in Peckham and about green oases in the city these past few weeks. It's obviously a chance to plug his new book, but he does sound a little wistful for a small patch of urban green now that he has moved to Somerset and is surrounded acres of countryside. Ah well, I won't feel sorry for him, but thank him for leaving with a flourish of public planting..

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Herbal enlightenment

Today I learned that to get the blue dye from woad, Isatis tinctoria, you have to dig up the plant, put it in a bucket of water and pee on it. The water turns blue, you strain the plant debris and you have your dye; it's also a very pretty plant (see above), so two reasons to grow it. I also learned that angelica is one of the main ingredients in gin (I knew about the juniper). And sempervivums can be used on small cuts and grazes in the same way that you use aloe vera, for the succulent juice that oozes from the leaves once cut. 
Okay, so sempervivums are not strictly considered to be herbs, but if a herb is a plant that is valued for medicinal or culinary purpose, for its scent and flavour and special properties, then that would cover a very large slice of the horticultural firmament.
Of herbs you have probably never heard of: Stevia was used by the Aztecs as a sweetener, and it's 30% sweeter than sugar. The reason we haven't heard much about it, apparently, is that the politics and countries involved in the sugar trade have deliberately opposed its growth. Something to investigate further.
Meanwhile, the little known Meum athmanticum, a member of the carrot family is a native British herb, eaten by crofters in Scotland to stop them feeling hungry. And Tagetes limoniae gives off the most amazing scent from the merest brush of its leaves.
These are just some of the  fascinating herb facts I learned at Jekka's Herb Farm. It was a special visit, in my newly freelance capacity, to sample her new range of teas that taste as good as they look - you've gotta love a tea that has blue cornflower petals in it. Jekka is a very generous fountain of knowledge, makes great marjoram biscuits as well as teas and growing all those herbs. I could hardly keep pace, but I'm looking forward to the next pub quiz with a special round on herbs. I will be quite smug about knowing all the answers.
Here are some of the acres of seeds trays at Jekka's, which I love for the geometry. I wish mine looked so orderly.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

The Garden Classroom

It doesn't get much more seeds-and-the-city-ish than taking over a neglected rose garden on the Islington/Hackney borders and transforming it into a beautiful, vibrant space to teach kids about nature, wildlife and growing food. That's what The Garden Classroom is all about and thanks to a tip off from Joe Swift, who is their patron, I went to meet founder Marnie Rose today to find out more about the project.
It all happens in King Henry's Walk Garden, tucked away off the charmingly-named Balls Pond Road. There's a small flower garden, woodland walk, pond, raised vegetable beds and a whole range of fruit trees growing against the wall,  as well as some small allotment plots which are rented out to the local community. This place is humming with growing, learning and gardening.
It's an inspiring story, because the first aim when Marnie got together with a few other local residents in 2004 was  to raise money to turn a sad rose garden in to a loved community garden. It was a tucked away  abused space that left visitors feeling threatened. Out of this project they realised there was a real need for inner city kids to learn about nature and the Garden Classroom started in 2008 and they now work with most of the local primary schools running curriculum related learning sessions outside the classroom.
The learning outside the classroom movement seems to be getting stronger and stronger. When you get results like the primary schools with a typical inner city demographic (50% getting free school meals) earning prizes for their science achievments which are directly linked to their outdoor lessons - it's a very positive story.
I know there are many parallel stories for the urban green community spaces in London and I hope I'll have a similar story to tell about St. Mary's Burial Ground in a few years and about The People's Plot (about which more to come).