Making and Doing

Urban regeneration: Creating paradise by your back door

Written by Elizabeth Woodcock

Six months ago we – my daughter, myself and Mushka our dog – moved into a small terraced property in a town literally a stone’s throw from the local secondary school. The ‘garden’ is small by UK average standards at approximately 130 square metres or about two-thirds of a singles tennis court. According to the Office of National Statistics, the national average garden size for a house is a few metres short of a tennis court. Orkney’s average garden size in Kirkwall is 272 square metres, about one and a half tennis courts.

So why am I writing about this? I’m an ecological gardener, not a tennis player, which means I care for and tend garden spaces thinking about all life on earth. Really. And the more I focus on this, the more I realise caring for microbes and insects is the way forth to a diverse, edible jungle right outside your back door.

A blue blue sky

When I arrived at my new abode, the ‘garden’ was over three levels; bricks, membrane and gravel, and then more bricks. Not a green thing in sight, apart from one neighbour’s leylandii hedge on one side and a small hawthorn poking over the fence on the other.

The last six months have seen many acts of urban regeneration to create a diverse habitat and I want to show you what you can grow in a small, urban setting. Currently, I have around thirty different vegetables, fruits and herbs growing. Parking for two cars and a hard patio are so far saved, project areas for next year, but overall the yard has transformed from a barren wasteland of paving to an oasis of life, and it isn’t high maintenance.

I wanted to see blue tits, blue streaks flashing against a blue blue sky. I hope for hedgehogs, and I dream of damsel flies. I want to witness woodlouse and spiders, ants and earwigs, alongside fat worms and centipedes. I want to savour strawberries on a summer’s day, blackcurrants and raspberries, juice dribbling down our chins, apples in autumn, and have cabbages and kale to eat in the winter. I want my daughter to have access to home-grown, fresh, nutrient-rich food.

As soon as the pond was built a curious young blue tit swooped in, checking out this new place, and inspected the blue tit nesting box. But it’s all just a bit new for them, and we haven’t been blessed with their chicks this year, but as habitat is created, they will come. I heard the phrase “If we build, they will come” back in 2005 when I lived in Dubai, except there it referred to skyscrapers and tourists.

From work to water

It starts with hard work. Yup, removing around four tonnes of concrete and rubble, peeling off the bricks to find sharp sand, then membrane, down into hardcore and rubble. Jack-hammering out concrete to go down to the old outhouse’s sandstone foundations, that are now the edging for the pond. Removing decades of each resident’s ‘dream’ back garden/yard, decades of wildlife suppression and eradication. At times it was elating, at times it was bone-crunchingly, soul-suckingly demoralising with rain dribbling down my neck and mud sliding up my wrists, but always with that vision in mind … green, water, life, nourishment, home for all.

Then I’m left with a stinking, earth pit. Having been encased for decades the dirt stinks, lacking oxygen. And right then it was dirt. Lifeless. I found six skinny worms. So time to dig, adding oxygen and organic matter to nourish the ground and call in the vital microbes needed to bring life from the bottom up. Burying dead wood, my entire un-decayed compost bin with cardboard, a bit of top soil from freecycle and finally compost from the council green waste scheme. I was after roadkill too, blood and bone, but the only badger I came across was too far gone.

Then came the pond; all gardens need water, however big or small. Mine’s about 2.5 metres by 1.5. And even before I’d finished filling it up, an aquatic diving beetle is frolicking at the edges. I can see the soundless, swirling clouds and the broken blue sky in its’ depths, like a portal transporting me to a different aspect of heaven. The birds simply think of it as the biggest bird bath on the street.

And so the harvest

More deadwood to make the edges of the beds, curling oak and ash logs from the winter storms’ tree damage. Two net tunnels to protect vegetables and one un-netted bed for the birds. A wildflower bank and two clover lawns, all planted from seed in April. Potted apple trees right by the back door, soaking in the sun and heat from the house wall.

Paradise is possible. What a gift we are given with nature’s intelligence and beauty, and we can return that gift by helping to create vibrant, life-affirming spaces, with no need to reach for murderous chemicals because if we go with nature, a balance is struck, the giving and taking in the flow of existence.

I can only be at peace in my home when I am surrounded by nature, when I am looking after the land in my care so that it provides a life support for all the local wildlife; except the cats. They were one of the biggest problems, because cats like bare earth. Tree sparrows flutter in the dust and that’s cute, cats shit in it. Mushka was the canine biocontrol, so none dare to claim this space as theirs now; they prefer my front garden, a tiny strip under a new deciduous hedge I’m trying to establish.

As I write, it is early June and the harvest is beginning. Stir-fried spinach and pak choi with a side of lettuce, mangetout and herbs. The rainbow chard isn’t far off and as I thin the beetroot their leaves are a tasty treat, now labelled ‘micro-greens’. Eating your own food that is rich in vitamins, minerals, trace elements and beneficial microbes is a gift. Microbes from the local microbiome to your gut microbiome are now being proven as an important aspect for human health.

If you want to know more about these rich biomes and growing your own food, join myself and ethnobotanist Anna Canning at this year’s Orkney international Science Festival in September.

Elizabeth Woodcock and Anna Canning will be speaking on ‘A Different Type of Garden’ in the Orkney Theatre on Monday 5 September at 7.30 pm.

About the author

Elizabeth Woodcock

Elizabeth Woodcock is an RHS horticulturalist with training in regenerative agriculture and permaculture, a garden organic master composter, Lake District National Park walk leader, and is training as a mountain leader. She has been a journalist, science communicator, writer, and adventurer of many high, and low, places. She lives in Cumbria with her daughter, dog and chickens.