My Garden, the City and Me: Rooftop Adventures in the Wilds of London
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Helen Babbs is a self-proclaimed city girl who lives on the second floor of a flat in a chaotic corner of London. An urge to find more green in the city and a stronger connection to the natural world leads her to create her first garden, an organic edible garden on her rooftop. This year-long adventure is the story behind My Garden, the City and Me.
The journey begins in the dark of winter, where Babbs finds herself at a seed swap on a February morning, seduced more by packaging than by any true understanding of the plants. As the year progresses, Babbs revels in failures, like waking up bleary eyed and stomping on her seed starts, and triumphs like her summer-ending dinner party made with homegrown produce. Along the way she discovers “that I like gardening in my pajamas and that growing something from seed, watching it develop and then eating its fruits is truly joyful. I’ve daydreamed out there and entertained out there. It’s the force behind new friendships that I’ve forged. The garden has opened my eyes to a whole new side of London and urban living.”
My Garden, the City and Me is a lyrical narrative about a twenty-something in search for a bit of wild in her city. The journey is charming, honest, and steeped in the lore of London, a city equally known for its gardens and its grit. In the end Babbs has achieved a new perspective on what it means to live green in the city she loves.
I stand still in this freshly exposed landscape and my eyes cast out over the river. Gulls settle on floating platforms, geese bob, a heron hunts on the water’s edge. Tracing the lips of the far shore, a white parasol weaves through dark green. The trees seem darker because the sun is in our eyes and the lady with the umbrella seems all the whiter, like a ghost, you say, or driftwood. We walk, we chatter and we all try and claim a bit of this for ourselves, a quiet moment apart. I crouch down in the damp and push my fingers into cool silt.
It really is incredibly hot in the city at the moment. The Evening Standard billboards declared that it reached 41 degrees yesterday. In need of a long lunch away from the sweaty misery of our desks, a work friend and I decided to walk across the river and up the Monument, a sixty-two-metre-high column built in the 1670s to commemorate the great fire of London. We climbed to the top and watched London shimmer and warp in her heat bubble. The tower is quite modest height-wise nowadays; you can get more panoramic views from other London buildings, but the Monument view is interesting for the details you get – the emergency escapes from office blocks, air conditioning units, blank grey space.
We walk until we reach water and I discover that my dazzling red Wellingtons aren’t watertight. 12. December into Early January THOUGHTS ON ENDINGS I’ve felt more rooted and grown up since moving to this flat and inheriting the roof. I guess it’s having things to care for and watch develop, something to worry about other than my own silly dilemmas and neuroses. Since having the roof, I’ve noticed new subtleties about London too – her many green and brown hues, how the sun tracks across her sky, her light and shade and how much rain falls onto her streets.
Hard surfaces absorb heat, meaning built-up areas get hotter faster and then take an age to cool down. The urban heat island effect is a killer. Hard surfaces also don’t absorb water, so the risk of flooding is increased. Sudden downpours result in great lakes on city streets with nowhere to go. Any urban space that’s green and absorbent is therefore useful when the weather is hot or wet. It’s easy to feel fairly despondent when thinking about challenges like climate change, but filling our world capital cities with wild and beautiful gardens is a great way to do something constructive.
I’d like the roof to be busy with bees and butterflies. Crop-wise, I’d like lots of salad leaves and herbs but also an abundance of red fruits and a ‘Red Rum’ runner bean mountain. CREATURES The roof is already a stop-off point for some local wildlife. I guess it’s a good vantage point from which to spy on other beasts and generally check out the lay of the land. I have a pair of blackbirds that visit regularly and often, plus a squirrel that likes lounging on my fence posts and rooting through any pots.