It’s not often one gets the chance to show off… The tomatoes are gradually blushing and turning from yellow to orange to ripe red, loads of them. I can’t tell you how proud I am to have gone from shameful tomato plant killer (last year’s vague attempt to look after one inherited tomato plant was a complete disaster) to being responsible for a seriously healthy crop to harvest this summer, grown by my very own hands, from seed no less.
I know I’m being sentimental, nostalgic and possibly a little ridiculous, but it really does feel funny to think back to the little tom seedlings that shared my bedroom in early spring and to look at what they’ve now become. I’m pretty pleased with myself and with them. They taste wonderful by the way, in the way only home grown tomatoes do.
The demands exacted on a gardener…
The toms have been a pretty demanding bunch over the last month though, requiring much attention from my watering can and fainting dramatically if I dare to neglect them during a hot spell. The roof has been looking a little frazzled of late. We’ve had some biblical downpours here but a lot of the pots are quite sheltered and sometimes they need watering even when it’s raining.
I do enjoy watering, it’s got an almost meditative quality, but after a long day in the office followed by a late night I admit it can be a struggle to satiate the plants’ thirst. It’s been the main job on the roof recently, that and keeping the beans and toms under control. Both have grown huge and unwieldy so I’ve had to do lots of trimming and tying back.
My flat is truly tiny and having the roof doubles the size of my bedroom. I often find myself out there after hours or first thing in the morning, and, if it’s dry and I’m home, I always eat out there. It’s a vigorously urban spot, watched over by many windows, under several flight paths and wafted by the songs of sirens, helicopters and various parties, but it’s still my most peaceful place.
It’s from here I can quietly spy on foxes running between houses and admire dew drops sparkling on spectacular spiders’ webs. It’s here I feel most at home and most at one with the city, like I’ve staked a claim to my own little spot and that I’m also part of a wider ecosystem.
I recently spent an afternoon at Dalston Mill, a temporary installation in a patch of wasteland in east London, which was part of the Radical Nature exhibition that’s currently on at the Barbican arts centre. It sat on a wedge of land behind the busy Dalston Junction interchange, and sandwiched between a crumbling disused building, a garage and shopping centre car park. The area was taken over by a collective of architects and environmentalists and transformed into a working windmill and wheat field, with performance space. We only planned to spend an hour there but somehow lost four, pulled into various workshops and just generally charmed by a space that had found new life for a few weeks as a community garden.
The idea was to break bread with anyone who entered the space, made with freshly milled flour and baked on site. The wheat looked stunning on the Sunday afternoon that we visited, ripe and gold, stretching out silkily like a tumbling sandy beach and brushing against the graffiti sprayed brick walls of the neighbouring buildings. The temporariness of the site and the project, the speed with which it was conceived and realised and with which it was to be dismantled, was what gave it its energy. It was fantastic to be able to access one of those mysterious yet numerous patches of disused land that exist all over London, and probably all cities, to explore its undergrowth and realise its massive potential.
Magic by moonlight
A second little trip this month opened up another bit of green London to me, this time an ancient site way out west. Chelsea Physic Garden was founded in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, and happily opens late in the summer so office bound types like me can escape there after work to watch dusk drop with a large glass of wine.
My friend and I picked a marvellous evening to go, the weather was incredible and, once it got dark, we were treated to a garden full of exotic plants (many with magical powers) lit by a full moon. I have never seen so many frogs and toads as I did in the botanic garden that night. They were absolutely everywhere, each step we took sparked several amphibians into action, tiny shadowy forms leaping all over the paths and grass. It was brilliant, to be in Chelsea, hidden behind high walls next to the Thames, and to be surrounded by hundreds of jumping toads and frogs.
Before and after
Back to my own small slice of London green magic, the roof really has turned into a little jungle over the last few months. I’ve been looking back at some pictures I took of the space in March and the difference between then and now is dramatic. The roof has looked so alive in the last few weeks. As we creep closer to September, it’s probably passed from its most verdant stage to looking a little rough round the edges. Most of the flowers have gone to seed now, the strawberries are in need of attention and salad leaves are sparser. Crumpled bean leaves keep blowing into my room, hinting at autumn. They do still have flowers though, so my bean suppers are safe yet.
I’ve started thinking about winter crops and will use the August bank holiday to work out some kind of cold weather plan. Reluctantly in part, as I’d like to pretend summer will last forever, but also with some excitement. Winter will be a happier season if it involves growing or at least nurturing crops. I’ve been reading about hardy lettuces that you sow over winter to harvest in very early spring. Bob Flowerdew’s ‘Going Organic’ book suggests sowing winter lettuces, Japanese and spring onions, winter spinach, turnips and Chinese greens in late summer, and planting garlic and daffodil bulbs in early autumn.
I intend to make the most of the warm weather and still light-ish evenings for as long as possible. There’s still lots left to eat – beans, herbs, salad, maybe another courgette if I’m lucky, my new chilli plant, plus all these glorious tomatoes. But I will start my autumn and winter planning now I suppose, while secretly praying the summer lasts a lot longer yet.
This blog also appears on the Kitchen Garden website