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October 25, 2009

1 autumnal SouthbankIt’s warm and windy in London this weekend.  Whipped up leaves are dropping everywhere.  Despite gloomy skies, walking along the tree lined Southbank yesterday was like walking through a golden Thames-side forest, yellow plane tree leaves tumbling all over the place, softening the concrete and painting it with autumn.  It’s always joyful to walk through just fallen foliage.

Today it’s bright and sunny as well as blustery, good conditions for the fair weather gardener, and I’ve finally finished my winter prep.  The beans came down last weekend.  I did battle with tough vines tangled with netting and bamboo sticks for about an hour.  And so today the large pots that housed the runners over summer have been freshly dug and planted with bulbs.  Flowers and garlic.  The netting and sticks have become a complicated squirrel deterrent system, which I fear probably won’t work.

Autumnal rooftop prettiness2 evening primrose

Despite being good for nothing as a gardener if the weather isn’t up to scratch, I have been managing to enjoy the roof as things get cooler and wetter.  I’ve actually more than tolerated recent rain as I’ve seen the plants appreciate getting a good soaking.  And the roof’s actually looking really pretty at the moment, crispy and crunchy, but also colourful.

Months on, my tobacco plants are still flowering and I’ve had some surprise late evening primrose blooms.  My heather is dazzling with purple blossoms, while the lavender flowers have dried to a crumbly grey and are smelling amazing.  I’m going to use sprigs to perfume my room.  Even my basil plant has been sporting d3 basil flowerelicate white flowers this month.  The roof’s less of a jungle these days but it’s definitely still jungle-ish.

Spotty peckers and African shield bugs

One sign of a thriving jungle is the creatures that visit.  October has seen not just the usual wood pigeons and squirrels doing acrobatics in my neighbouring sycamore tree, but also a beautiful black, white and red great spotted woodpecker.  I knew peckers lived in London but I’d never seen one in the city.  It was a ridiculously exciting moment when I peered out of our steamy bathroom window, over the roof and into the tree, and saw it tap tap tapping at the sycamore’s trunk.

Colour and marking wise, the pecker has a lot in common with the mystery bugs that are living on the roof.  Made temporarily homeless by the felling of the runner beans, they’ve happily relocated to various other spots.  A lovely person who’s been reading about my rooftop adventures made it his mission to identify what on earth these bugs were. He tells me they are the mid instar nymphs of the southern green shield bug (Nezara viridula).

Exotic bugThe British bugs website ( explains that the southern green shield bug is a newcomer to UK shores.  It is “native to Africa, but frequently imported to the UK in food produce.  It’s widespread in southern Europe and has been recorded annually from sites in southern Britain since 2003 on various foodplants including tomato, beans, golden-rod, Viburnum and hemp agrimony. Given climatic warming and the current tendency for milder winters, its establishment seems likely.”

Climate change species

Mystery solved and also very interesting…  Maybe this is an indicator species of how our climate is changing and the effect such changes are having on wildlife.  As the weather gets warmer and wetter, different creatures will be able to live here, but others, who favour cooler temperatures, will be pushed further north.  Climate change is going to have a massive impact on wildlife, perhaps especially so in built up areas where the heat island effect and a lack of absorbent surfaces are going to make hotter, wetter weather more of a problem.  Which is one reason why having healthy networks of wildlife friendly, shady and absorbent urban gardens and green spaces is so important.

Doing a little more research, I’ve found a Garden Organic ( article on the bugs.  It explains that they do damage crops like beans, causing loss of blooms, leaves and distorted fruit.  Sally Cunningham from Garden Organic says they are a “clear indicator that climate change is impacting our gardens. We’re not suggesting that the southern green shield bug species will destroy gardens or crops, but we are urging people to be aware that as the climate warms up, new pests will appear.”

New River wanderings

7 floating pink leafLeaving bug worries behind, out and about in Islington this month I discovered a new local green space that winds from Highbury down to Angel.  The short New River Walk follows the course of the manmade New River, which once brought water to Sadler’s Wells in London from springs in Hertfordshire.  Much of the London stretch of the river is now underground but an overground section gives shape to a long thin park near where I live.

I wandered along it on a mid October afternoon.  Huge and elegant weeping willows cast the silvery, green water in shifting shade, bushes were studded with brilliant red berries and all kinds of trees flashed with red, orange, brown and pink.  Ducks cut trails through the pond weed that was slicked thickly over the water.  5 new river duckAnd people walked – in couples, with kids, with dogs, alone.  I think it was the first time this year that it truly felt like autumn and London looked beautiful with it.

Cider apples in the south

After said walk, I took a train to Brighton where an old university friend is now living. She’s volunteering on a community allotment that sits on top of a steep hill above the seaside city.  The rolling one acre plot has gorgeous views – Brighton and the sea in one direction, the South Downs stretching out in the other. We spent a couple of hours up there that weekend, picking snails off cabbages and harvesting rocket and late raspberries.

The best job by far was apple pressing.  The project had borrowed a traditional apple press and was on a mission to juice as many apples as possible to turn into cider.  I really enjoyed using the chopping machine, which had a particularly mean looking set of teeth.  Chopping vigorously, I got plastered in apple juice and pulp, which I decided must be good for one’s skin.

Size matters

8 the roofThe allotment is producing a huge amount of food, shared between the people that work on it.  I took a bag of rocket back to London with me, which brought me cheer for almost a week.  In comparison to the roof, the productivity levels there are immense.  I haven’t really spent any time on allotments before and so was slightly in awe of what this one was achieving.  My roof top growing seemed fairly meagre in comparison, or at least miniature.

During an urban agriculture workshop back in London, a few of us discussed the value of the local growing spaces we knew.  Thinking about the roof, it appeared that, in terms of yield, my space’s value was more qualitative than quantifiable.  Its true value came from being a progressive project, something that brought a small amount of food onto a table, enough to stop one person needing to buy as much fresh produce and reducing food miles, but also bringing joy and a greater sense of connection with the natural environment.  9 tomatoesSize doesn’t really matter, as long as you have some successes and get to eat the results.

And I’m still harvesting tomatoes as November approaches.  I just popped out and picked one in fact and it was as delicious as ever.  Things are slowing down though, it’s taking a lot longer for them to go red.  I’m attempting to ripen a few picked green ones inside now. A ripe, red tom is being used to coax a bowl of green ones to blush.  It’s working but it’s also a slow process.  I’m practising patience and savouring them as they turn.  Last weekend I planted more winter lettuce, and the hardy salads and leaves I planted in September are doing well, sending up lots of lovely green shoots.  I think the roof will keep providing for a while yet.

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