Climb the cast-iron steps to the roof garden at the Reading International Solidarity Centre (RISC) and you can almost forget that you’re in the heart of the city. Just 30 by 6 metres, the garden manages to fill every vista and the breeze through the trees drowns out all but the loudest city noises.
The cherry tree reaching for the sky, the mature fruit bushes and the exuberant range of groundcover plants all belie the fact that five years ago there was nothing here but a leaky roof. The garden contains more than 160 varieties of plant, and all of this has been achieved with only a foot of soil.
Each plant here was chosen either because it has multiple uses and illustrates our continuing reliance on plants, or because it has a compelling history.
In spring, the medlar tree is a magnet for insects with its large white blossoms. The fruits are left on the tree until October, then harvested and stored on straw to ‘blet’ (a more enticing word than ‘rot’!) until the softened flesh can be eaten with a spoon. There is no place in our commercial world for a fruit that needs so much processing, but the medlar was a popular tree in times gone by.
A shrub that was commercially grown in Victorian times, but has since fallen out of favour is the Chilean Guava. An excellent hedging plant with the bonus of tasty fruit in October, the Chilean Guava deserves a renaissance.
The crab apple ‘John Downie’ would also make an excellent addition to many gardens. A good pollinator for other apple species, it is useful in its own right – producing sweet crab apples that make delicious crab apple jelly.
Climbing plants cover all the vertical surfaces. The golden hop, known for its role in flavouring beer, has flowers that can be dried and used in pillows to aid restful sleep. Its vines can be used for basketry, and above all, it is a feast for the senses – aesthetic values being as important here as any others.
The underplanting is an integral part of the design, with continuous groundcover preventing water loss and soil erosion. Paths wind through a carpet of plants such as strawberries, lovage and lemon balm. Splashes of colour shine out of sunlit corners as flowering plants such as pot marigolds and borage catch your eye.
Although mesmerising, the plants are not the only things here with a story to tell. Some of the stonework in the hard landscaping was originally part of Reading Abbey, brought to this spot after the dissolution of the monasteries – the disused building was seen as nothing more than a convenient source of building materials.
The hurdles edging the garden are made from locally coppiced hazel, and the decking from wind-blown oak, sawn where it fell by a mobile sawmill.
Throughout, the garden is an example of how sustainability can be achieved in an urban setting. Rainwater is stored and pumped around a drip-feed irrigation system, powered by a wind turbine and solar panels.
The centre composts vegetable waste from its café, and paper waste from the offices, in green cone composters. Scattered around the garden, these composters make composting easy – they don’t need to be emptied, and feed the bed in which they are located. Surrounded by nettles or comfrey they form fertility patches used to make liquid feeds for use elsewhere in the garden.
With the current trend for low-maintenance gardens, the forest garden concept deserves to be more widespread. Although careful thought needs to be put into the design and selection of plants, once established the garden fends for itself and requires only minimal weeding and pruning whilst providing a year-round harvest and feast for the senses.
Even for those of us with regular gardens, there are plenty of ideas here to take home. And you can be safe in the knowledge that when you’re following in RISC’s footsteps, you’re treading lightly on the Earth.
This article first appeared in some local editions of Country Gardener in August 2008.
You may also like to download an article I wrote on the RISC garden for Permaculture Magazine, in PDF format with colour photos: Roof Top Oasis Revisited.