July Garden Walkabout

Despite the drizzle and the weather forecast the annual garden Walkabout on 3rd July was very well attended and we made up a very jolly crew pounding the streets of N1. Here is a brief summary:

  • We started at St. Peter’s where Elizabeth Haines talked us through the planting and funding of the church gardens as well as the introduction of bird boxes and beetle hotels!
  • Next up was Jayne’s lovely purple and blue garden in Mortimer Road. There was more than one member marveling at her clematis expertise.
  • This was followed by Mary’s pretty cottage style garden in Lawford Road. An abundance of flowers and the air filled with the delightful scent of lillies.
  • Just along Northchurch Road we visited a garden in transition where a new garden office (complete with sedum roof) has meant that Maggie, the gardener, has had to move a lot of plants and work around the builders.
  • This year we included the award winning Ockendon Road tree pits – we didn’t quite have time to see all 35 of them but we were given a great tour by Tony and Tessa Campbell. They have who have kindly sent along an advice sheet which I include at the end of this post.
  • Onto Oakley Road where local designer Jenny Bloom has created a peaceful, low maintenance garden for DBG member Barbara. An urban sanctuary with distinct eating, sitting and woodland areas.
  • Lastly we all ended up at my own garden (Avril) further down Oakley for drinks and nibbles. Luckily my Big Daddy hostas had staved off the slugs and snails!

A big thank you to Miranda for helping me organise the evening and for taking these wonderful pics:

Things to think about when planning to create and plant a tree pit
(the experience of Ockendon Road)

Ockendon Road, in East Canonbury, Islington is regularly lined on either side with 35 trees. Eleven of the trees are new; the remainder were planted in the 1970s and a number of those are coming to the end of their life. One resident created a treepit garden about 20 years ago, a few others followed, and in 2002, when two of us retired, we decided to extend to the entire road.

Ours is a community effort. While there are three residents who deal with the street as a whole, there are about ten others who assist in one way or another – in one case taking care of one end of the street.

1. Check or gather materials

  • Earth – from neighbours or, as last resort, buy
  • Compost – ideally make, otherwise buy (non-peat)
  • Edging
    1. tiles – already in some Victorian gardens and, if you’re lucky, are thrown out. Expensive to buy (probably even reproductions cost c.£4). Might need 15-30 for a tree pit.
    2. bricks – we found the best and cheapest at Homebase – attractive (8 x 4 x 2 inches., slightly smaller than standard) grey bricks at about 45p each. Need fewer than tiles and require less depth.
    3. stones – similar in size to the bricks, again from a builder’s merchant.
    Tiles/bricks/stones can be tamped down (with a hammer and strip of wood). Drop in small stones behind/under them to make the fixing stronger.
    4. strips of small wooden posts (wired together – ‘half log roll’). These are relatively cheap (B&Q) but will rot after about 3 years. Islington Council recommends continuous, bendy Everedge strip, whose spikes you push into the soil.
    5. however, if faced with the spreading base or roots of an established tree it may be impossible to edge all the way round, which may rule out the options above.  An alternative is to make a rectangular box using strips of preserved wood, placed level with the surface. Those can, if necessary be nailed together and anchored into the earth with vertical wooden strips (placed so as to avoid the roots) or held together by brackets at the corners.

Allow for the earth level to fall. Keep well below the height of the surround and leave a groove for the water.

Waterproofing. To stop water running out through the gaps in the edging, plastic strips can be cut and pushed down. For example, B&Q sell green rolls 3½ inches high (‘Lawn Edging’), which are easy to cut.

2. Prepare the bed
It is likely that the existing ‘soil’ is of poor quality. There may be sand, rubble, bricks, concrete etc. Taking great care not to damage the tree roots, and ensuring that they remain moist, you may want to dig out the existing materials to a depth of 6 inches where possible and replace with earth and compost.

For illustrations of the bed preparation process see (http://www.orra.org.uk/work.html)

Suckers coming up from the base of the tree or its roots can be cut back. This should be done cleanly close to the base.

3. Organisation
Each group will find its own route but it might be helpful to share one street’s experience. There tend to be three levels of involvement:

  1. watering one or more nearby beds [though not all who agree will actually do it]
  2. maintaining a nearby bed, e.g. weeding, pruning  [ditto]
  3. total ownership – agreeing to take on a nearby bed (perhaps already prepared for them), source and put in the plants, and look after it continuously

In any street, much of the effective work is likely to be done by a small handful of people.  If a whole street is to be tackled, the hard-core helpers will probably have to take on a number of the ‘orphan’ beds.

Cooperation (e.g. over sharing equipment) and good co-ordination (for example about any watering rota) is essential.

4. Funding
If a group of beds, or even an entire street, is involved, and if no other source of funds is available, it is probably necessary to have a whip-round. In Ockendon Road we found a number of people happy to offer – indeed most would rather pay than do the work!

5.  Starting off
Look at the bed first. Are the edgings intact? A gap makes watering all the more difficult. Does the compost not quite reach the top of the edging? But remember you will be adding earth as you plant, though not so much as to cover the base of the trunk. How much is taken up with the tree roots? The depth of the soil will vary according to the root spread. How much shade is cast by the tree?

6. Choosing the plants.
Try and mix small shrubs with perennial flowering plants. The beds look very empty when first planted, and the bare earth is attractive to passing dogs. Ground cover plants are useful, especially those that can grow over the edging as it softens the bed. Scented plants add to the attractiveness of the bed.

Use bedding plants for instant colour, but they are comparatively expensive and perennials are better value. Plants sold as suitable for patios and containers are invaluable. Low-lying and long-flowering, they are excellent ground cover. New varieties are produced every year. Herbs are hardy and there are many attractive varieties.

If you are planting a group of treepits you might like to give each a different theme or colour range.

Choose plants of varying heights and hopefully find some that aren’t too demanding of water. Remember the WOW factor: beds at the end of the street ‘set the scene’ and strong colour at a bed’s inner corners can be seen when looking down the street.  Climbing plants again soften the appearance of the bed (nothing too dense as that makes inspection difficult for the Urban Forestry Team, who may have to remove the plant): clematis, honeysuckle, perennial sweet pea. Remember granular or liquid feeding: watering in Tomorite occasionally is helpful.

7. Watering
This will be the biggest single commitment. In the case of a mature tree it is a double whammy because the tree’s leaves stop most of the rain reaching the pit at all, and the tree roots take what they can. For this reason try to achieve a critical mass of plants so that little earth is exposed to the sun.

In summer it will probably be necessary to water once a week; in a heatwave, at least every other day.

When dealing with an entire street, and facing up to the reality that much/most of the watering will be left to the main organisers, it may make sense to acquire a water-carrier.  If houses have outside taps (and willing owners) those can be very helpful.

8. Problems
Expect and accept a few minor set-backs, e.g. dog mess, careless individuals and occasional vandals. There may be a plant thief, too. If so, see what they take and avoid those. In general, best not to put in expensive and unusually attractive plants [and remove the price label!]

For more details see the Ockendon website: http://www.orra.org.uk/gardens.html


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