by Abigail Willis
The Dutch Caribbean island of Saba is a long way from Fitzrovia but its rocky landscape provided fertile inspiration for Wendy Shillam’s high-rise vegetable garden in W1. Seeing the way the resourceful Sabans raised veg crops in containers or in thin soil on the mountain terraces surrounding their cottages, Wendy realised that lack of cultivatable land need not be an obstacle to growing food on her fifth floor roof terrace in central London.
In 2011 she set about converting the 17 x 19 foot (5 x 6m) space from an under-achieving blank canvas to a fully-fledged potager among the chimney pots. As an architect and urban planner, Wendy’s approach was disciplined, and resisting the urge to smother every square inch with plant life, she installed a handful of 600mm square raised beds, interspersed with decking panels of the same size. The dimensions of the beds work well in the small space – “easier for reaching over and navigating around” notes Wendy, as well as allowing space for a café table and chairs for al fresco relaxing.
As with any new garden, Wendy had to consider the plot’s orientation and climate when planning its layout (“that’s the hard part – growing things is easy!”). The roof terrace’s elevation,combined with London’s toasty microclimate, offers a light and virtually guaranteed frost-free environment but lack of shade was a problem, leaving plants exposed to sun and wind. Growing climbing crops up trellises was Wendy’s solution, which had the added benefit of generating more growing space as well as shade. Her vertical success stories include Courgette Tromboncino Albenga (a vigourous variety which produces plentiful flowers for deep frying as well as attractively curvy courgettes) and the pretty purple French bean Cosse Violette (“my best bean crop ever”). Morning Glory is another favourite – albeit non-edible – climber up on the roof terrace; Wendy says, “It’s very quick to get going, lures insects in and is good for growing among crops.”
With only 6” planting depth to play with, root crops are not generally part of the Rooftop Vegplot equation but by using deeper containers Wendy can harvest new potatoes as a Christmas treat. Salad crops are a constant however, with Salad Bowl the reliable mainstay, although Wendy is still hunting for the perfect rocket variety that doesn’t bolt too quickly. A devotee of raising from seed, Wendy has catholic tastes, recommending Kings Seeds for radishes, and The Edible Flower Shop for bee-friendly borage. The Morning Glory seeds came from Franchi and Chiltern Seeds is another go-to supplier; Wendy also likes French seeds such as Vilmorin as they work well in hotter climates and “the French care about what they eat!” One plant she would not be without is wild celery (Apium graveolens), which willingly self-seeds but “never outgrows its welcome. It smells nice and you can use it to flavour autumn salads and stir-fries.” The seeds can be also used to make celery salt.
The Rooftop Vegplot is run organically, with nematodes being unleashed against an outbreak of wine weevil, and the slugs that have somehow found their way up to the fifth floor. To show how effective the nematodes have been, Wendy points out the pansies growing among the lettuces: both are in peak condition, with not a hint of slug damage. Other predators are few – no cats venture up here and the trellising deters pigeons. Even Rosa Bar, Wendy and Mike’s lively miniature Schnauzer, knows to keep out of the raised beds.
Without a lift to transport materials up and down five flights of stairs, Wendy operates the garden as a closed system, composting all green and brown garden waste in situ in an old school trunk. Purchased online and insulated with polystyrene, this unusual bin is teeming with brandling worms, which Wendy says arrived of their own accord. She finds that coffee grounds make a good soil conditioner while egg shells help regulate the compost’s acidity – handy, since Wendy runs a highly acclaimed B&B in her home (http://www.bb-london.co.uk) and therefore has a ready supply of both ingredients. The homemade compost is mixed with vermiculite and coir to get the right consistency and Wendy constantly tops up the beds, to keep nutrient levels high.
Even in such a tiny space there are climatic variations that need to be accommodated. Overseen by the iconic silhouette of the BT Tower, the plot is walled on the north and south, but open to the east and west. The raised bed that gets the least sun has been successfully furnished with a Japanese wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius), whose arching bristly red stems add winter colour to the garden whilst its flavoursome raspberry-like fruits go into Wendy’s signature Eton Mess.
In this compact garden space has still been found for both a shed and a 4ft timber greenhouse. Peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes thrive in the greenhouse – the tomatoes being grown in bottomless pots standing on terracotta balls in trays filled with water. Wendy admits this is unconventional, but the searingly hot conditions on the roof make this essential. The main crop is Gardener’s Delight, complemented by an annually changing palette of heritage varieties such as Blue Bayou and Yellow Banana.
As for the shed, it is a writer’s retreat, a place for plotting rather than potting, since Wendy has added fiction writing to her professional repertoire (she also blogs about the Rooftop Vegplot at http://www.rooftopvegplot.com). A spot of pottering in the garden she says makes the ideal displacement activity to which all writers are prone, admitting, “I have rather a relaxed gardening regime”.
Finding that most books on container gardening weren’t that helpful for the unique conditions of her rooftop, Wendy, like all pioneers, has found her own way to success. Taking her inspiration from the medieval cottars, she has evolved a dense, cottage garden planting style, in which everything is mixed up, reducing the likelihood of pests and diseases building up.
Wendy is passionate about the benefits of rooftop growing, describing herself as a ‘potagista’. If everyone grew something on their roofs, she says, it would improve building insulation, cut heating costs and water run-off, counteract pollution by absorbing carbon dioxide, and reduce inner city overheating. On a personal level, the Rooftop Vegplot has encouraged her to become less wasteful, but for Wendy gardening is about more than just fresh, low-carbon produce, “It’s relaxing and good for the soul”.
An inspirational blueprint for a more ecological way of inner city living, the Rooftop Vegplot is bigger than the sum of its parts and its fame is growing. As well as sharing her rooftop veg experiences on her blog, Wendy opened the garden as part of this year’s Chelsea Fringe, and the RoofTop Vegplot can also be seen by appointment, or as part of a stay at Wendy’s B&B.
© Abigail Willis, August 2014
The Rooftop Vegplot
122 Great Titchfield Street
London W1W 6ST
Kings Seeds (www.kingsseeds.com)
The Edible Flower Shop (www.theedibleflowershop.co.uk)
Chiltern Seeds (www.chilternseeds.co.uk)
Franchi Seeds of Italy 1783 (www.seedsofitaly.com )
Vilmorin (a small selection available from www.suttons.co.uk , otherwise from their Paris shop; the website lists other points of sale in France)
4, quai de la Mégisserie – 75001 Paris
Tél. : 01 42 33 61 62 / Fax : 01 40 26 18 28