We’re a nation of gardeners, but, according to the Office for National Statistics, one in eight British households have no garden. If you live in one of these 3.3 million garden-less homes, but feel the need to get your hands muddy, there’s good news: you don’t need a garden to garden.
From window boxes to parks, community gardens to allotments and street plantings, anyone can, with a little ingenuity, experience the wonder of growing things. This can be a rewarding and altruistic form of gardening – giving back to your local community, and improving the neighbourhood for yourself, for wildlife and for others.
Gardening is a mindset; it’s about appreciating and understanding nature, watching the seasons change, while helping and enjoying wildlife. By viewing gardening as an act of connecting with nature, beyond simply buying seed packets or mowing a lawn, you’ll soon find the whole world is a garden to play in, share and enjoy.
Plant under street trees
Across the country, people are breathing life into the soil beneath street trees – and many councils are actively encouraging it. To plant beneath a street tree near your home, first speak to your council’s street trees team to ask if it is possible in your area. You want to make sure the maintenance teams don’t remove plants as unwanted weeds.
It’s best to plant local wildflowers in these spaces, or nurture existing self-sown wild plants, which insects will love. These are usually tough, easy-to-grow plants capable of tolerating drought and trampling, and many will flower for months on end.
Get started this spring by adding a layer of peat-free compost, between 2cm and 3cm deep, over the soil around the tree, keeping it slightly away from the trunk. Gently fork it in to break up the soil, which is often compacted. Do this carefully so as not to harm the tree’s roots. Sow seeds of drought-tolerant wildflowers (trees suck up a lot of water) such as Achillea millefolium (yarrow), Echium vulgare (viper’s bugloss), Daucus carota (wild carrot), Knautia arvensis (field scabious), Leucanthemum vulgare (ox-eye daisy), or Hypochaeris radicata (cat’s ear). Water with a fine-spray watering can and let nature do the rest. Try Naturescape or Landlife Wildflowers for seeds, or collect free from flowers when plants nearby set seed later in the year.
The Britain in Bloom competition sees volunteer groups compete to grow the most colourful street plants. Speak to your local group or start one yourself.
Fill window boxes – inside your home and out
Window boxes are miracle containers, allowing anyone to grow all sorts of plants with no outdoor space at all. Find the longest, widest and deepest that will fit on your window ledge (the best are usually from garden centres, or try worm.co.uk). Use metal brackets screwed to the wall if you don’t have ledges. Wet compost is heavy, so fasten the brackets securely if your property is on the first floor or higher.
Plant window boxes with small perennials, which come back every year. In full sun, try hardy succulents such as Hylotelephium Bertram Anderson, Sempervivum arachnoideum (cobweb houseleek) and Aloe aristata (lace aloe), underplanting in autumn with spring-flowering Narcissus bulbocodium Arctic Bells. Or look to alpine plants that won’t outgrow the space, such as Armeria maritima Splendens and Saxifraga White Star. In shade nothing beats a fern, especially spreading Polypodium cambricum (Welsh polypody), partnered with flowering Tiarella cordifolia (foam flower).
A large window box is perfect for indoor houseplant displays, too, doubling your growing area. Choose one with a tray to catch water, and try mixing succulents and cacti, using 50% compost, 50% horticultural grit. Rebutia “Apricot Ice” and Pachyphytum oviferum (Moonstones) are beautiful.
Dazzle with doorstep pots
A nice gesture for your local community is to plant a pot or two by your front door. Plants for window boxes will work well, though a large, 40cm-60cm wide pot allows for bigger plants or small shrubs. For sun, try Salvia rosmarinus (rosemary), Hebe Wiri Joy and Salvia officinalis (sage); and for shade, Hydrangea paniculata Little Lime or Mahonia Soft Caress. A handful of pots can offer as much planting space as a small patio. Add a wigwam of canes for honeysuckle and sweet peas. Apple trees, in blossom now, can grow in large pots if on M27 dwarfing rootstock.
Join a community garden
Most areas have a community garden of some sort, so find out who runs your nearest and offer to lend your services. Some will have small raised beds for vegetable growers; others, such as charity network incredibleedible.org.uk, raise a shared crop. Community gardens are particularly keen for volunteers who know dandelion seedlings from sunflowers. You could even start a community garden yourself if you spot an abandoned space – find the owners and seek permission.
Spend time in public parks
Although gardening involves lots of doing, there is as much joy in observing plants. Think of public parks as yours as much as anyone else’s – shared gardens with plants to enjoy through the year. See how things grow; smell and touch them; discover which plants draw wildlife. Parks are often part-maintained by volunteers, which offers extra levels of involvement, though they usually require some gardening experience.
Help a neighbour
If you have no garden, eye up a neighbour’s. Many people who are elderly or less able to garden will be delighted if you volunteer to look after their neglected front garden. And the joy of helping with a front garden is that you get to walk past and enjoy it without buying your own.
In sun, try Achillea Terracotta, Digitalis ferruginea Gigantea and the grass Jarava ichu; for part-shade, Astrantia Shaggy, Brunnera Mr Morse and Dryopteris cycadina (shaggy shield fern). You might start a trend and improve the look of your entire street.
Take on an allotment
If you’re serious about growing, an allotment is the obvious answer, giving enough space to grow an abundance of fruit, herbs and veg. The challenge these days is that they’re popular, often with long waiting lists, because the government has been reducing their number to make way for property development. Add your name to the list at your local allotment site but be prepared to wait a year or two. While it’s better to garden close by, don’t be afraid to travel if allotments are available elsewhere. I commuted 40 minutes to my London allotment for five years and I don’t regret a minute of it given the freedom of space it afforded me.
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