Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Tough plants for tough places

Once of the best gardening lessons I ever had was from the esteemed designer, Jill Billington, who pointed out sagely that plants don't read books, so the only real way to see if they work in a particular spot is by trial and error. I find this a useful, comforting and entertaining gardening attitude (as long as you're not spending tons on very expensive plants). It's particularly liberating when it comes to guerilla and community gardening, because anyway the books never take into account the added complications of dog and human abuse, the  usually horrendously poor soil, lack of watering, feeding and any real tlc at all. Plants out there in the city need to be very thick-skinned and able to fend for themselves.
In my encounters with community gardening I have found out the following: penstemons, billed by the RHS website as "easy to grow in any fertile, reasonably moist, free-draining soil in full sun or light shade" will also flourish in the poorest of rubble-laden soil (yes, it is free-draining), that is prone to drought; in fact, just to really annoy me, they do much better than the same cuttings in my own garden.
Some plants positively thrive on neglect. I have battled with rosemary for years, trying different varieties, in pots, in soil, new cuttings. But my biggest success is a tiny cutting stuck into rubble-soil on top of a neighbourhood wall; it's going great guns now, clearly happy in the illusion that it has escaped to some craggy mediterranean hillside.
Meanwhile, the oleander I donated to the same wall-garden, hoping it too might think it was at  home on some mediterranean roadside, is sick and struggling when it's supposed to be 'tolerant of poor soils and drought'. Hollyhocks in the same spot thrive unravaged by snails, unlike those in my garden and look quite healthy (apart from the bindweed).
Another other top performer is red valerian, although it doesn't seem to self-seed quite as merrily outside my garden as it does inside - I'm hoping for the same look around my neighbourhood as those pink and white festooned lanes in the countryside, where valerian has found its way into every nook,cranny and crevice. But for sheer persistent flower-power you can't beat it - it literally doesn't stop from early May right through to September (in fact I almost get sick of it) and the bees and butterflies love it. Lychnis coronaria on the other hand will self seed anywhere, and manages to look rather exotic in a sparse guerilla border with its velvety leaves and blooms. My other sexy stalwart is the  fabulous geranium psilostemon in the picture - it never seems to stop producing gorgeous bright magenta pink flowers all summer in sun or shade.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Tomato glut

Well, not juicy, red ripe tomatoes, but definitely a glut of plants. Can't give 'em away and most diasppointingly they were not hot sellers at the fundraising plant sale last Saturday - curse those Gardeners' Delight that are so easy to grow and the whole grow-your-own trend. Now that more folk are in on the secret of growing food, they have no reason to buy my lovely homegrown plants!
I am gradually finding homes for them - the Vicar has pledged to take on a few and donate to the plant fund. Hallelujah!  Which is good news as so far we have £34.60 in the coffers, but have just been invited to apply for match funding from the council. This may well be the last year they have any money spare at all for green spaces, so hopefully we can get some Friends of the Burial Ground trowels into that pot and do truly something transformative.
It's a long haul this urban community gardening lark; equal parts heartening to see volunteers turn up and people dropping by to see what's going on and soul destroying to see plans for a 10-storey block of flats that will cut light dramatically and substantially reduce the charm of the strange little green space at the end of my road. That's another battle to come: maybe if we can create a beautifully planted space it will add more weight to our objections? But such is gardening and living in London - always under threat from planners with no imagination except for building more retail and residential developments.
Still, it was heartening, if rather damp, visiting some great spaces in Hackney on Open Garden Squares weekend  with Ian, Vic and young baby Kitty, who at 2 months old, was on her first garden visit. The Dalston Eastern Curve Garden  (pictured up top) is a triumph of greenery over derelict space with food growing, pizza oven and a welcome covered area. Farm:Shop is a fine demo of hydroponic growing in the smallest of spaces, with chickens on the roof and a polytunnel in the back garden; and Fasset Square (below), is a heartwarming tale of residents transforming a mattress-swamped dumping ground into a restored Victorian garden at the heart of the neighbourhood - and reportedly being the inspiration for Albert Square in  Eastenders.

So they officially announced a drout a week ago. Great - and now that we have caught up with all that missing rain, can the summer sun return please?