It’s late April and I’m writing this sitting on the steps to my building. The screen’s barely visible in the bright spring sunshine. It’s a few days after England’s pubs and restaurants have reopened, and I have fractured my foot to mark the occasion. Plans of long rambling walks - the kind that have kept me sane during the last year - are no longer possible. Seeing friends will now be limited to anywhere that is accessible by a taxi and a short hop on crutches to a chair.
It goes against my nature to be still, let alone cooped up inside. I am a garden and landscape designer, and writer, and have spent much of my adult life travelling, meeting people, and longing to be outdoors whenever I’m not. This is how growing up in rural Northamptonshire, with long days spent exploring the local countryside, has manifested itself in my city bound adult life. I do not own a garden or any outdoor space of my own, but in my late twenties I suddenly had an overwhelming urge to be submerged in nature again, as much as possible, interacting with the land. So now I make a living spending time in other people’s gardens.
And that is also how I came to be sitting on my front steps even though I can’t see what I’m doing and my foot is strapped up in a boot - because after a year or so of various lockdowns I cannot bear to be kept inside. I’ve lived in a top floor flat for five years and during that time had a thyroid problem that saw me housebound and barely able to look after myself for the best part of six months. Then there was the pandemic. I have spent a lot of time staring out my windows looking at the gardens below with envy and sadness.
And this sadness is partly because my neighbours, who between them have access to the rows and rows of gardens that I can see from my top floor window, do not seem to share my enthusiasm for Vitamin D and fresh air. It mainly made me cross and frustrated initially, sitting upstairs wondering why all this space was being left unused - even during the late spring lockdown last year when there was nothing else to do. But I’ve come to accept that not everyone sees a garden as a space of respite and salvation in quite the way that I do.
On private gardens
Perhaps these small strips of greenery (and artificial greenery for that matter) are not really suited to modern living. Even when people are spending more time than ever at home, and we are constantly told by the media that people are now focusing more on their interiors and gardens, I can still see piles of rubbish, neglected lawns and spaces that are so overgrown no one could possibly get into them.
Long, thin urban gardens that get little sun are difficult to establish, hard to plant up without a bit of knowledge and definitely not great for growing vegetables. I think a lot of people are still intimidated by gardens and gardening, lacking the vocabulary to talk about what’s happening outside their back windows and therefore not engaging with them at all.
Historically the long thin stretches of land behind many terraced houses were not fenced or walled or hedged off from each other, they were connected. There was space for children to run around the edges of individual vegetable patches, playing outside at a time when growing your own food was essential, not a luxury. Of course it wasn’t perfect, but having a communal sense of responsibility for the land beneath our feet is definitely one element of this we could - as an increasingly urban species - benefit from returning to.
We are told that we don’t understand food provenance or care enough about the environment, in my bleaker moments I wonder how anyone is supposed to when so many of us now live in densely built up areas with no access to green space, never seeing animals, wildlife or vegetables outside the supermarket.
Recent research shows that the UK’s private gardens make up an area bigger than all the country’s nature reserves combined - over ten million acres. With widespread biodiversity challenges and the threats to our environment, this suddenly seems like a huge amount of wasted potential. Wildlife corridors, planting to help combat pollution, planting to help prevent flooding; we don’t need to wait for our leaders to do this, we can come together and start doing this ourselves.
On urban forests
Many organisations and people much more knowledgeable than me are already exploring this vast opportunity - I have come across many of them in another of my endeavours to help realise the potential of undeveloped urban land - planting mini urban forests.
I recently became a founding member of a charity called Dream for Trees. Thought up in lockdown last year by Ben Cooper QC, a human rights barrister, we plant dense mini forests in London to help improve air quality.
The ‘Miyawaki method’ we follow was developed in Japan in the 1970s. I have written about it in detail for FT House & Home if you’d like to find out more, but the basic methodology is that you plant whips (tiny bare root saplings) at a very dense rate of 3/square metre. This encourages super-speed growth and as the trees grow they capture carbon, store water, improve the soil, and can improve air quality.
One of the things that inspires me most about this project is that these forests can, with a bit of preparation, be planted almost anywhere. Our mission is to plant them in parts of London where air quality is poor and green space is lacking. A huge amount of research has and is still being done into the success of these forests, but by partnering with global organisations and collecting data from our own forests, we are hoping to contribute to this growing grass roots movement in environmental restoration that will hopefully help more people undertake similar community-led projects all over the world.
On ‘finding’ nature
I’m one of those single-minded people who - when they find something they love - cannot understand how the whole world doesn’t love it too. Nature, plants, trees, landscapes - this is what I live for. But I have to remind myself, these are not things that many people think about, or have the luxury to think about, on a day to day basis.
But I’d like to help other people find their way to nature sooner, enjoying it in the way I learnt to as a child. My modus operandi when setting up my garden design business was to ‘help people connect with nature’. For a long time I felt separate from it myself, and reconnecting has given my life new purpose and brought so many wonderful things to me. It’s helped me learn to grieve, helped me learn to love, helped me recover from serious illness.
When I was in my twenties a palm reader told me I was going to find a new career in my thirties, as some sort of healer. I was a journalist at the time and loved what I did, so I didn’t believe her. But now I wonder if garden design and working with nature is the healing route she was talking about.