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One year in the urban garden: A few things I grew and how they fared

by timber press on November 28, 2012

in Gardening

Helen Babbs’ goal as a first-time gardener was to transform her bare rooftop into an urban garden oasis.

Inspired by a campaign to make her city greener, Helen Babbs decided to transform her tiny rooftop into a garden. The problem was she didn’t know much about gardening. Never mind. Helen began a year of planting and nature watching in the heart of London (that’s hardiness zone 8/9 to those of us in the States) and her experience became a blog and then the book, My Garden, the City and Me. Helen shares here a list of what she grew that first year and how it fared.

Basil – cheat. I tried to grow basil from seed but wasn’t successful. As a disappointed basil lover, I cheated and ended up nurturing a large, supermarket-bought plant.

Bay – easy. It was important to include some trees on the roof, be they tiny ones. The bay tree was low maintenance and extremely hardy. I hope we are together for a long time. A bay leaf is a good addition to any winter casserole, making it much more flavoursome.

Coriander – also easy. This cut and come again herb tasted gorgeous raw in salads, as well as lightly cooked. The flowers were white sparkles and left behind strongtasting seeds that could be dried, crushed and used to flavour curries and stews.

Evening primrose – stunning seedheads. These plants were a colourful addition to my night planting. Shop-bought plugs sent up tall stalks and flowered throughout summer and early autumn, and even survived the winter. The pretty seedheads, dried, decorated both my room and roof.

Flat-leaved parsley – fast growing. At first we didn’t get on, the taste not quite to my liking. I persevered and we became firm friends. Its strong, almost bitter leaves became a staple in all my salads and as a garnish. It was a hardy crop, which kept me in fresh leaves during autumn and winter as well as summer and spring.

French Breakfast radishes – all flower, no fruit. They grew well, but I only harvested one radish due to being overly sentimental. The plants bolted and bloomed, so pulling them up became a violent, de-flowering act. The bulbous seedpods looked brilliant, both on the plant and then dried and arranged dramatically in an old bottle. Next year I must be less sensitive.

Lavender – a hero. Silvery, grey and even almost blue, this bushy, spiky-looking plant was incredibly easy to look after, barely needing any attention. Drought resistant, it flowered in late summer. The purple prongs danced with bees and smelt divine when brushed against. I saved and dried the flowers and used them to decorate my room in winter.

Lupin – disastrous. It was incredibly dapper at first, with star-shaped leaves that twinkled with dew, but ultimately this plant was a failure. Slugged to within an inch of its life within days of moving to the roof, it never recovered, withered and died. Not sure I will try again.

Mint – magic. I grew two varieties of mint on the roof and now want to try out many more. Thirsty but keen to multiply, my plants seemed to get bigger and bushier the more leaves I plucked from them. Mint is my new favourite drinking partner.

Rocket – peppery perfection. Rocket made every salad superior, tasting particularly good with tomatoes and strong cheese. Not as easy to grow as I thought it would be, possibly due to my impatience and not leaving the plants alone long enough to establish. I actually had most success growing this crop over winter. A hardy species, I grew my biggest and best-tasting plants when the weather was cooler.

Runner beans – a great success. The runners formed a heaving wall on one side of the roof. In spring they were strung with tiny, bulb-shaped flowers that looked like ruby fairy lights and were beloved by bees. In summer, they were strung with long vegetables that looked just how runner beans should and were beloved by my friends and me. Delicious steamed and eaten a little crunchy.

Salad leaves – for the impatient, space-poor gardener. Throw a few seeds in any kind of container, sprinkle with soil, keep dampish and within weeks you’ll have endless supplies of home-grown salad. The strongtasting and good-looking mixed leaves that I grew beat anything I’d previously bought wrapped in plastic and sealed in a vacuum.

Strawberries – a minor triumph. The strawbs loved their hanging basket abode, producing big glossy fruits. The berries lasted about five minutes once ripe, and the plants then spent the summer sending out lots of runners. Next year I must grow more.

Tobacco plants, one of Helen’s favorites: “The big white flowers glowed in the dark and smelt sweet.”

Tobacco plants – my absolute favourite. Not edible but enchanting. The big white flowers glowed in the dark and smelt sweet. The tall, dried stem and seedpods of the dead plant looked pretty on the roof throughout winter, especially when iced with snow.

Tomatoes: A labor of love.

Tomatoes – a joy. These were a labour of love and a source of immense pride – there’s nothing like bringing them up from seed, sharing a bedroom with the seedlings and then seeing them graduate to outside space and watching them become strong, handsome plants. They cropped at the end of summer and into early autumn, and every day I ate one was a good day, especially as the weather got cooler and winter felt like a threat.

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1 Alan @ it's not work, it's gardening! November 28, 2012 at 3:10 pm

So many wonderful plants! Oh to have a rooftop to garden on…

Be careful with mint — you’ll soon have a dozen different varieties and will be looking for more even when out of room. (Same goes for thymes!)

2 Brian Ridder November 28, 2012 at 3:58 pm

More mint = more mojitos, no? What could be bad about that? Thanks for the comment, Alan. Do you have a favorite variety of mint?

3 Ann June 14, 2017 at 11:38 am

I love these ideas for urban gardening! I had basil for awhile and it worked pretty well out on my balcony. I do have lavender and am thinking about adding mint to my container garden. Thank you for sharing!

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