Homes & Gardens

Helen Babbs talks about Rooftop Gardening

Helen Babbs explains the call of rooftops and green spaces, and gives some tips on how to create your own urban oasis.

As a writer, editor and journalist, Helen Babbs is passionate about urban gardening and wild spaces. Helen’s first book, My Garden the City and Me – Rooftop Adventures in the Wilds of London, was published by Timber Press in the summer and she blogs at and Here, we talk to Helen about her rooftop garden and what inspires those eloquent green fingers of hers.

My garden isn’t the ordinary sort…It’s the flat roof of my downstairs neighbours’ kitchen - there’s a narrow glass door in my first floor bedroom that opens out onto it. When I moved in it was a three metre square patch of grey, albeit one that boasted surprisingly green views of gardens running wild and grand old trees. I would stare at it through condensation curtained windows that winter and think I’d like to get to know my square of grey better.

In spite of the inevitable sirens, helicopter buzz and bus roar of the Holloway and Camden Roads… the space is calm. It took me a year to get started in earnest, but within just one growing season I’d turned it into the aerial, edible garden I wanted.

When I decided to plant my garden I didn’t have a clue what I was doing…I still don’t really – it’s about experimenting and finding out what works. There’s death as well as life on my roof, but that’s fine!

For the beginner gardener, who is perhaps short of space
…I would suggest easy edibles, such as salads, vegetables, fruit and herbs. I have a small window box and a hanging basket with winter salads growing in them at the moment – things like giant red frills mustard, mizuna, land cress and lollo rosso lettuce. Plant some cloves of garlic in a deep pot to harvest greens next spring and bulbs in summer. I’ve found that runner beans, tomatoes, potatoes and squashes are easy to grow. Aromatic herbs are fantastic – sage, bay, rosemary and thyme are all low maintenance and hardy.

For brilliant resources for practical gardening information and inspiration….check out the RHS, BBC and Guardian websites.  For cheap, no frills seeds from Scotland I go to Alan Romans.

My favourite garden blogs….have a look at Vertical VegOrganic Lea, Fennel and Fern and Life on the Balcony. For readymade garden gifts I go to The Balcony Gardener.

I’m pretty lazy in winter…I still have green tomatoes and tiny yellow squashes on the roof – I’m running late! I need to plant my garlic and spring bulbs urgently… I’m growing winter salads and nurturing an ornamental window box planted with hardy grasses, shrubs and flowers - I’m keeping a window box diary for the Guardian website so you can follow my progress there.

I think I’m most drawn to growing vegetables…but I do love flowers too. Night flowering tobacco, egg yolky evening primrose, tiny violets, ‘love in the mist’ and explosive alium have all been rooftop favourites. This winter I have some laser white cyclamens that are very pretty and have heart shaped leaves printed with white graphics. Vegetables and herbs can have lovely flowers – white strawberry flowers, yellow tomato flowers, red bean flowers, fluorescent orange courgette flowers... And some flowers are both pretty and edible – like rocket flowers and nasturtiums.

My urban growing adventures were partly motivated by….London Wildlife Trust’s Garden for a Living London campaign – I was working for the charity when I inherited the roof and began to really appreciate and understand the importance of urban green spaces and gardens.

London is full of rooftop space that could be made wild…either for growing food, creating space for humans or valuable habitat for wildlife. It would be wonderful to stand at the top of the tallest building in the city and look out on a sea of green roofs – there is currently so much blank grey space. London needs green spaces to help us cope with hotter, wetter weather – vegetation is both cooling and absorbent.

I think gardening in odd spaces is becoming more common…and people are looking to rooftops. The Food from the Sky project in Crouch End is using the top of a supermarket to grow food that is then sold in the shop; the Dalston Roof Park has hosted all kinds of events this summer.

I don’t really have favourite gardens as such…although my mother’s garden in Wales is always beautiful. My favourite green spaces in London are Camley Street Natural Park in King’s Cross, Hampstead Heath and Walthamstow Marshes – I like places that feel wild.

You really don’t need a garden to grow things…just a window ledge, a wall, a set of steps, even a drainpipe. There are containers that will hang or clip onto all kinds of odd things. Hanging baskets are not just for pubs. And anything can be a container – I have a planted colander, cat travel basket and paint pot on my roof. Don’t be afraid to claim a little bit of space for growing your own. Be empowered by projects like ‘Pimp Your Pavement’, which encourage you to plant in street tree pits and the like. Chilies, salads and herbs make great house plants.

I think there’s something extra special about growing things in a city sprawl…I love being an urban grower and the fact I’ve turned something grey into something green. I don’t yet yearn for a country garden, maybe I will one day. But I doubt it.

28 November 2011