Turn around (Every Now and then…)

The hardest part of this entire project has without a doubt been de-rooting and turning the soil in the garden area. Considering the size of the space, a rarity in London, it has taken a lot longer and been a lot more work than we thought. However, we got there in the end, and the brambles and landfill waste have actually been sitting on what seems to be some pretty decent soil.

At a friend’s party the other day I got chatting to a girl about permaculture (as you do…) and she said if your garden is full of brambles, the key is to work with their presence, and understand that they are trying to tell you something- for example, that your soil is too acidic or alkali. You can then adapt your growing style accordingly without using litres of weed killer, which would go against the whole ethos of this project.

Generally speaking, I’ve learnt that the soil in London is usually quite clay-like and acidic, but of course, it all depends on where you live. With a bit of Google searching, you can get a pretty quick idea of what will and won’t grow well in your space.

Many Sundays later since starting off, we have now cleared the brambles, de-rooted the soil and turned it over at least once or twice to a depth of about one foot. We are now ready to set up the big squares that strike fear into the heart of any Tesco store manager… our own vegetable beds. We were lucky enough to have loads of old scaffolding planks at the bottom of our garden, which were hidden under piles of soil, grass, leopard print bras, magnets, children’s toys, plastic bags and Amstel cans (you stay classy, London). If you don’t have a huge stockpile of scaffolding planks simply lying around (!), but live somewhere urban like London, keep an eye out close to local skips, alleyways and roads for nice bits of wood that you can adapt and use- I guarantee you will find something good.

G58_MeasuringOutVeggieBeds

After measuring out how many beds we could build, and to what size with the wood available, we proceeded to saw them into shape and attach them with L-Brackets into squares for stability. We then ordered 800 litres of soil for the relatively cheap price of £70 from Compost Direct. It’s sort of like Sports Direct but with less fluorescent lighting and smaller pangs of dread and desperation.

G58_VeggiebedBeingSawedToRightLength

The £70 should should more than pay for itself once you’ve harvested a few rounds of vegetables versus what you would have paid in your local supermarket (for Toxic Death Courgettes that cost you £1.80 a pair), so definitely a good investment if you have the space and can share with a few willing housemates. Have a garden and need something to talk to them about? Bring up soil, always a good ice-breaker.

What would I change if I could do it all again? Getting the timing of the soil delivery wrong, and having to empty a pallet’s worth at 9pm before going on holiday… #LondonProblems. Don’t do this at home kids:

G58_SoilOnTheRoad

The next step will be to prune and cut back the perennials (i.e. ‘annual’ plants and trees that stay up all year round) such as our amazing apple tree. My mate Harry, a tree surgeon (no, nothing like an ER episode), was telling me the other day how to treat fruit trees. When you cut back the branches, the tree sends all its energy to the tips where you’ve made incisions and removals, inspiring new growth and making your fruits healthier, larger and sweeter for the coming season. Although how these apples can get much better is beyond me, they send a Braeburn all the way down my Cox (…)

Another great thing about regenerating any outdoor space, especially in urban areas, is the ability to plant flowers to attract bees. Their populations are being decimated globally by intensive agriculture and malevolent pesticides, which spurn from a demand for more food for the world’s growing population. There is now a scientific consensus that if bees die off (a very likely scenario), hand-pollination by humans to compensate would cost trillions of pounds (and in practical terms) would be almost impossible. So any help they can get to re-establish themselves is well worth the effort.

We have therefore re-planted a honeysuckle against the wall of the garden. We’ll also be sticking some re-claimed bamboo cane in the ground to help it grow up the wall. In May/ June, we should now have a full-on bee rave taking place and I cannay wait.

Blog written by Martin Jacobsen

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Yeah, Science Bitch!

If Jesse Pinkman lived in Hackney, he’d definitely have a compost pile. Said no-one ever. Regardless, the science of leaving stuff in a pile, having a peak inside a few weeks later and it suddenly belching out a waft of avocado and banana steam does draw certain parallels with Breaking Bad. Again, said no-one, ever. Still, pretty fascinating stuff.

Building a compost bin was actually very easy and took just an hour or two, once all the materials had been scrapped and found in the surrounding streets and alleyways. All you will need is:

  • Four pallets, and a flat piece of wood for the roof (i.e. an outdoor space not on concrete, but earth, measuring about 1.5 X 1.5m). Try to make sure the pallets are equal sizes (standard European size is 80 x 120cm), if not, you will have a compost bin that looks wonky and/or drunk
  • A bag of long (3”) nails or standard 6mm screws, depending on whether you intend to hammer the bin into place or drill
  • 4 or 8 L-brackets, depending on how ‘gnarly’ you are about stability (I take my stability very seriously)
  • Zip ties at least 20 or 30 inches long, if you are N.L.S.G. (Next Level Stability Gnarly)
  • Two hinges, barn-door style
  • A few metres of garden netting
  • Two wooden blocks or the like, between 5 and 10 inches tall
  • A spirit level so you can measure how straight your construction is at the end. Then take a picture of the spirit level, staple it onto your compost bin, and show off to all your friends about how friggin’ level your compost bin is (“Look! It’s so friggin’ level!”)

Assuming you already have a saw, hammer and a staple gun (easy & cheap to buy if not), then the above will cost you less than a tenner. Sorted.

The idea is you create a compost bin with four sides and a roof, and the side facing outwards will have a flap facing downwards or sideways, depending on the pallets you have, so you can open and close it.

1. Clear the earth in the space you want to build your bin, so you remove all plastic, rubbish and other rubbish (I forgot to do this properly and had to go back and dig out more Whispas wrappers than any man should ever have to remove).

G58_Step1MeasuringOutCompostBinSpace

2. Measure and mark out where the pallets will stand using twigs, pylons, bamboo cane or the like.

G58_Step2MeasuringOutCompostBinSpace
3. For the flap, you will need to saw a pallet in half (which is easier than it sounds). If you can, find another plank or flat piece of wood to stabilise the back of whichever half of the pallet ends up without the middle plank piece, for stability.

G58_BinWithHingeLid4. Attach the hinges at whatever angle makes sense to “hinge” from (yes, hinging is a verb). You may want to test out all the mechanics and moving parts before attaching everything, to make sure it all slides nicely into place.

G58_BinWhenClosed

5.  Get Santa’s Little Helper or equivalent to hold the pallets in place, as you hammer or drill the L-Brackets into place, on the inside of each corner, for stability and strength. If you want, apply the zip-ties between all the pallets to graduate to the N.L.S.G. stage.

G58_HoldingBinInPlace

6.  Attach the two blocks of wood to the front left and right corners of the compost bin- and now attach the flat piece of wood on top, if you have one, to create a slanting-roof type structure. This will stop the rain draining your compost pile of all those ‘well sick’ nutrients that it needs.

7.  You’re done! Now use the staple gun to cover the entire bin (heads, shoulders, knees and toes) with garden netting. Of course, remember to not cover the flap/ doorway with netting- that would just be silly.

For a much more professional description and instructions, check out this lovely YouTube link of a gardener who calls it “cam-post”:

And now for the “Science, Bitch!” bit… Always mix two parts green with one part brown for your compost pile, like a layer cake- and don’t contaminate with things that won’t bio-degrade like plastics, metal and your mate Jeremy’s Crocs. If you follow these basic rules you can’t go wrong.

My recommendation would be to keep food waste in a separate bin of its own, and take out whatever you need when you have to layer. This also makes it easier for potential housemates, your neighbours, etc. to throw away their scraps without worrying about the exact nitrogen/carbon content mixture of your pile (something “front of mind” for every conscientious housemate, I’m sure).

Once you start to layer, aim for:

  • 2 PARTS GREEN:
    • Food scraps (no dairy products, meat or fish!)
    • Soft tissue/ plain cardboard (i.e. not cardboard covered in all that lovely Bruce-Willis-Unbreakable-style ASOS tape, fantastic as I’m sure that graphic tee was)
    • Dead plants & flowers (Columbia Road eat your heart out)
  • 1 PART BROWN:
    • Short, broken down twigs (i.e. no Mordor-style death metal branches)
    • Leaves
    • Soil

Avoid throwing in invasive weeds that look dead, such as supposedly-dead brambles or supposedly-dead nettles (it will just continue to sprout again and again no matter how much you want to kill it, sort of like Dapper Laughs).

If your compost pile looks wetter than Nigel Farage’s forehead at a Brixton reggae party, you’re doing it wrong. If it looks drier than a Weetabix covered in sand, you’re also doing it wrong. Aim for somewhere midway between Nigel Farage and a Weetabix and you should be spot on (general good life advice).

And now, you wait… Turn the pile every 4-6 weeks, and you should be on the path towards Compost Nirvana.

Blog written by Martin Jacobsen

“But seriously, what can I do, I’m just one person”

Is the most common thing I hear against taking small and potential game-changing steps towards sustainable life choices. The response to this, though, is a lot.

As I write this, a couple of dozen indigenous peoples from pacific islands like Vanuatu, just decimated by storms exacerbated by climate change, sailed thousands of kilometres across the Pacific to blockade one of Australia’s largest coal exporting ports. They refuse to sit idly by as their future is written by stakeholders that have no interest in their people and country’s future whatsoever. Their blockade, “just” a handful of wooden indigenous canoes, is now causing serious disruption to the development and exporting of coal from Australia, and attracting global mass media attention. It ties in with an emerging consensus, where even conservative investment banks and institutions recognise coal is not financially viable to extract in the short or medium term given the need to keep it in the ground to avoid catastrophic climate disruption. It is issues like this that will be at the forefront of the upcoming climate negotiations in Paris in December this year- and even though my personal hopes for a good deal are low, the action on climate change will come well before, during and after at the grassroots level.

What is the relevance of blockading a coalmine in Australia to a small-scale garden project in urban Hackney? Not very much, you could argue- but the ethos of it is certainly inspiring. We are also less than a dozen people in our building, but have decided to turn the derelict land behind our house into a sustainable source of food and regeneration. We’ve also switched our flat to being supplied by Good Energy, meaning all our electricity now comes from renewable sources and not from British Gas. Not only are we saving money, we’re also not dependent on fossil fuels- and all it took was a quick Google search and a phone call. I would definitely recommend anyone in the UK to do the same!

When looking at the space, we thought it seemed a shame to leave somewhere with such unbridled potential disused in an incredibly dense urban area, where dilapidated Victorian townhouses on our road are selling for £1.6 million. It’s not much- but it’s a start, of sorts. And more than anything, getting outside in the fresh air to transform an area into grass, vegetables, plants and soil is a lot of fun- and a perfect break from the sedentary 9 to 5, or yet another Sunday spent gorging on brunch (London life can be so tough).

We are hoping that the project can be an inspiration to the neighbours and the community, who we sometimes catch peaking down at us from half-closed curtains, thinking who these nutters are out in the rain with shovels and hammers flying left, right and centre. And growing at home is easy, even indoors when you don’t have a garden- check out some of the options on www.tomorrowmachine.se, a website a friend of mine highlighted recently, for some very cool and design-friendly inspiration! You don’t have to be rich (to be my girl), or a horticulturalist expert- to make a difference.

Watch this space…

Blog written by Martin Jacobsen.

Bang! And the brambles are gone (mostly)

Well what a day we had on sunday. I don’t think I realised the scope of this project until about halfway through the afternoon; knee deep in mud, with a questionable brown substance all over my jumper, I realised we didn’t have nearly enough bins to keep storing soil and the full impact of the size of the space hit me…

G58_Field of Brambles

We decided to start attacking the day from a cleaning point of view, pulling out pieces of plastic and broken mirror from around the garden before we started the big stuff. Turns out the ‘cleaning’ part is pretty big. Huge. Colossal, in fact. After retrieving an entire cupboard, lots of plastic bags, something that smelled like a dead cat, two large bits of decorative iron, the polystyrene contents of a bean bag, and various bits of trash from the so-called compost pit, we decided to condemn all the soil as not-organic – a no-go for our veggies.

G58_Clearing out the old compost heap

It took the whole day and 3.5 people to shift all of the decaying soil and mulch into several bins. Whilst we won’t use this for our new compost pit (we want our veggie patches to be as organic as possible), we are now thinking we can use this soil to make a nice little hill somewhere in our new garden.  To keep a mound of soil stable we are also thinking of using some of the vast amount of decaying wood to form layers between the soil to help it retain some structure. Once seeded with grass, the roots will help bind the soil and keep it from erosion.

G58_Soil Soil Soil

The excavation of the rest of the garden also turned up several plastic dinosaur figurines, two very broken water pistols, two perfectly working plates, one playmobile figure and a crude elephant’s trunk curio that looked worryingly like..well…nevermind. It was about halfway through Le Freak C’est Chic on the speakers that we decided to go full throttle on the hedge trimmer and attack the waist high swamp of brambles.

G58_Fight with tools

A couple of hours later we had created a sizable clearing created within the thicket. But we were still a long way from being totally clear.

At that point we were presented with a couple of problems. We had too much garden waste and we didn’t know what to do with it. Some of it can be used to form the ‘brown layers’ of our compost pile (the ‘green layers’ will be formed from kitchen food waste and grass clippings), and some can be taken by the council, but we just have so much more left over! Our options at the moment are to pay for it to be taken away with the more random bits of metal and crap we have discovered, or have a series of small and controlled fires and burn it all to cinders.

G58_A clearing appears

By this point we were just about half an hour away from sundown. The further we got through the brambles the more we realised the scale of what we had left to do. The prickly stuff was just never ending. It was also at this point that we reached the end of the eastern boundary wall and discovered that it turned a corner around several large buddleia’s and extended for another 8 feet! Maybe we’ll put the hot tub there…

By the end of the day we were tired, caked in dirt and smelling no better than the bottom of the freshly excavated compost heap. We had, however, still achieved a great deal. We now have two large bins full of good quality topsoil, several more containers full of soil for landscaping, a brand new space for the compost pile, a huge clearing, and several miniature dinosaur mascots cheering us on from the top of the fence.  Bring on day two.

G58_Sundown on Hackney

A Bird’s Eye View

So here we have the aerial view of our garden. At the moment it is looking like a big green mass, which is pretty much what it is. After the Operation-Garden-Clearance session we will look at an overall design for the space, based on sun patterns, areas of shade, wind and shelter, micro-climates and, of course, the best sunbathing spots.

The beginning

Hi and welcome to this blog first of all! This will (hopefully and eventually) be an account of the journey of 6 or 7 twenty-something-year-old neighbours who are trying to turn their scrappy back garden into a place of relaxation, growing and sociability.

So a bit of background I guess…I moved into the building which houses three separate flats about a month ago. Being a landscape architect, the first thing I noticed was the frankly huge area of scrubby bushes and flowers growing around the back of the house. The minute I bumped into my neighbours for the first time we started discussing possibilities for the space.

Martin and Carolin (downstairs flat) had just been on a permaculture course and were keen to turn this space into a functional and sustainable growing space. At their behest an impromptu ‘neighbours meeting’ was arranged (by the cunning use of a sign stuck on the front door) and seven of us gathered in their living room to discuss options.

The garden itself is south facing, bordered on two sides with brick walls to adjoining properties, the house and by the mature hedge that faces the road. It is home to a large apple tree, which I’m told produces delicious fruits, some clusters of rocket and other herbs from times long past, and a thicket of woody shrubs much taller than me.The overall size of the garden is in excess of 70m² so we have plenty of space to play with.

After our meet on Sunday the 8th Feb my fingers were already itching to get stuck in. I bought myself a pair of gardening gloves and secateurs and set about some research…

Part of my job as a Landscape Architect, as well as to design external spaces, is that I have a responsibility to natural and semi-natural flora and fauna, habitats and ecosystems. The background knowledge that I have gained in my profession so far has already helped in finding out key bits of information that are fundamental to our Garden 58 project. First stop, as we live in Hackney, was a ganders at the council website to read their Biodiversity Action Plan. Most local authorities will have one, or will have a chapter on biodiversity in their Core Strategy or Area Action plans. Whilst these are often aimed at planners, designers or developers, there is always information within them useful for the general public. If you are planning any sort of venture like this for yourself I would recommend checking out your council’s website first.

Reading the Hackney BAP I was able to discover some of the species of animals and plants that are on the Hackney Priority List for conservation and enhancement. For us this includes hedgehogs, black redstarts, common starling, house sparrow, bats, small-leaved lime, hawthorn, and honeysuckle amongst others.

In terms of design and construction for the garden, we are aiming to work on a budget of, well, very little! We wish to source as much building material as we can by scavenging (London pavements tend to be pretty good for this type of urban scrumping) or haggling, and we will be building most small structures on site, such as raised planting beds, seating areas, potting areas etc.

Our main aims for this project are food production, enhancing biodiversity, promoting a sustainable lifestyle, recycling, creating social spaces and areas for relaxation. We aim to do this by creating areas within the garden that have specific purposes; for example, a fire pit and barbeque area for socialising, a potting area and raised planters for food production, retaining existing hedges and adding wildflower meadows for increased biodiversity etc.

Our first action for Garden 58 is clearance. Years of habitation have provided the once ‘composting area’ with new visitors such as bits of plastic, toasters, old shoes and Barbie dolls. This weekend we aim to clear the garden of all detritus and surplus plant material. Again, if you are planning anything similar it’s worth checking out when your council picks up garden waste from your property, usually its every couple of weeks.

For us, we are not interested in completely demolishing everything that is currently standing of growing in our garden. We want it to retain its natural feel, and wish to preserve any microclimates and beneficial flora and fauna that currently reside here.

For all of us this is a new venture. One we hope will be successful, wholly beneficial and fulfilling.

So here the journey begins.