Low-impact & the city 4: front gardens – concrete or plants?

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Posted Sep 16 2016 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org

My partner’s mother lives in Hounslow, under the Heathrow flight path and next to a dual carriageway. But she has filled her front and back garden with flowers, trees, bushes and vegetables. When she visits, she often brings pears, plums, spinach, tomatoes or flowers from her garden. But when we visit her, and take a walk around Hounslow, it’s a bit like walking around a giant car park, or a motorway service station. Hounslow seems like a town / suburb with the soul ripped out of it. Below is a typical Hounslow front garden – so typical in fact, that it’s difficult to find a front garden with any plants in it at all.

hounslow

Front garden Hounslow-style.

We live in south London, and in our street, it’s not as bad. But it’s starting to happen. Every now and then we see people busy ripping up hedges, pulling out plants and concreting or paving over soil. Why is it happening? Well, mainly it’s because of cars. Insurance premiums are lower if cars are parked off-road, and in London at least, it means that people can avoid the fees charged for parking on the road.

So what’s the solution? I suppose there could be legislation to prevent insurance companies reducing premiums for parking on concreted front gardens. It makes sense really – your car is no safer parked on a bit of concrete in front of your house than it is parked in the street in front of your house. Also, local authorities could charge parking fees for cars anywhere in certain areas – whether in the street or a paved front garden. I doubt that these would be vote winners with most people though, so I’m not holding my breath.

I suppose the root of the problem is the number of cars. In London, and maybe other cities, very few people need a car at all – it’s criss-crossed with a huge network of underground and overground trains, bus routes, night buses, taxis and a growing number of bike lanes. The tube has begun to run all night at the weekends too. So it’s ironic that the worst place in the country for paving over front gardens is London, with half of all front gardens paved over and a 36% increase over the last ten years. London also had the biggest reduction of plant cover in front gardens in the UK, with five times as many front gardens with no plants compared to ten years ago.

The Royal Horticultural Society’s 2015 Greening Grey Britain Report reveals that three times as many front gardens are paved over compared to ten years ago, a total increase of 15 square miles of ‘grey’, and that plant cover in front gardens has decreased by as much as 15%. The North East is the only place in the UK that has reduced the number of completely paved gardens. Front gardens in the North East with 50% plants or more also increased by almost 30%.

We moved here three years ago, and this is what the front garden looked like:

front-garden-paved

Before.

We knew that one of the first things we were going to do was to bring it back to life. The back garden had some concrete too, but we got that out as well and planted vegetables, fruit trees, wild flowers and grass. It had a grove of trees in an alley behind it, which gave privacy, beauty and a home for birds, insects etc. We just felt that there is so little nature in cities, that we’d like a natural oasis to hang out in. We’d been there a few months when our neighbour told us that another of the neighbours had offered to cut down the grove of trees, as if they were weeds, or a nuisance in some way. They’re not, and they’re at least 10 metres from the house. Luckily, our neighbour declined.

So we hired a skip, dug up the slabs, found a concrete screed and some more slabs underneath that, dug that out as well, and easily filled a skip. We planted an apple tree, gooseberry, blackcurrant and redcurrant bushes, strawberries, periwinkles (to provide green cover in winter), rosemary, lavender, a couple of ornamental bushes, scattered some wild flower seeds (that didn’t come up), some daffodil bulbs and some ivy to climb up the wall. Somebody had left some plants outside their house up the road, with a sign to say that people could take them. We took a couple and planted them – they turned out to be the most beautiful orange flowers – no idea what they are.

After 6 months, we emptied our first batch of home-produced compost (from our kitchen and garden waste) onto the front garden to help build the extremely poor soil that had been buried under concrete for who knows how long. It’s now full of worms and other creepy-crawlies. The image at the top of the page shows what it looks like now. Here are a couple of pics – one just after planting and one now, from a different angle to show that it really is the same garden. It may look a bit wild for some people, but we love it.

front-garden-after-planting

After planting.

Taking advantage of the full potential of front gardens for growing fruit

..and now.

We hope it will inspire others to plant up their front gardens and get rid of the concrete – or maybe not to concrete in the first place. I picked a large bowl of strawberries, gooseberries, blackcurrants and redcurrants one summer evening when the neighbours were in the street. I offered them some fruit and they tucked in. They were completely amazed that you could grow such delicious fruit in a small patch in front of your house – as if supermarkets were the only place you could get fruit.

We love our productive and beautiful front garden now – but around the same time that we exhumed our garden, the next door neighbours had the kerb dropped and paved their front garden to park their car. You win some, you lose some.