Laidback Permaculture on the Roof

Read how this self-proclaimed lazy gardener picks fruit and vegetable plants for her rooftop oasis in central London.


High on a roof above a busy street in central London, in the shadow of the iconic BT Tower, something special is going on. A greenhouse glints in the sun, filled with tomatoes and climbing cornichons. A grapevine scrambles over a pale blue wooden pergola and Japanese wineberries clothe the walls. This space among the chimney pots is no more than 5 x 7m (16 x 23ft) yet somehow it manages to provide room for a tiny shed complete with writing desk and comfortable chair, a bench strewn with cushions, raised beds full of herbs and salad and pots galore. The paving-grade asphalt that once covered the surface is now decked with wooden squares infilled with pebbles. You wouldn’t think busy Oxford Street was a mere minutes’ stroll away.

This is an edible roof garden, but there are no rows of cabbages or potatoes. Owner Wendy Shillam, an architect turned nutritionist, instead chooses crops for “piquancy” — those that make a big impact when you eat them, but are only a small effort to grow. She divides these into three groups: fast-growing crops that look beautiful on the plate and are full of flavour, such as red basil or pea shoots; “watery” crops such as cucumber or tomatoes that taste best picked really fresh; and those full of protein, such as the beans she lets dry on the plant and stores for winter.

Most of the plants grow in only 15cm (6in) of compost in shallow raised beds. Others, such as the grapevine, are in larger pots. All are irrigated by an automatic watering system that comes on twice a day. This keeps the weight down to a minimum. This approach rules out root crops like beetroots, turnips and carrots — apart from stubby Chantenays, but most other plants are happy.  “It’s volume of soil not depth of soil that’s important,” Wendy explains, “roots can spread outwards.”

The more she gardens on this rooftop, the more Wendy leans towards perennial edibles, giving less space to annuals or letting these self-seed around where they are happy. “I’m a very lazy gardener, and a very soft one,” she says. “If it seeds, it stays — that way you get pleasant surprises.” She points to the wild celery, parsley and French beans that have self-seeded in the shallow wooden-edged beds. Elephant garlic was planted once many years ago and has been a feature ever since.


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