Monday, May 23, 2011

Shush! The not so Secret Garden

Or Mira’s Gardening Adventure.

When I heard that Ilford's most famous front garden was at its freshest and most luxuriant, I called up its owner, Shushila Patel, to arrange a visit, picked up my camera and got on the 150 bus via Gants Hill.

Shush began to garden in earnest when poor health forced her to downshift to flexible working hours. More time at home meant more time noticing the garden. An article in The Times titled 'East of Ilford' and reported on this blog last year describes how the paved over front was transformed, with help from friends and neighours, into “an exotic extravaganza ... an oasis of colour and scent in a grey-paved desert”.

Arriving in front of the house, the garden is a vivid and alluring scene you can smell before you see it. From the pavement your eye is drawn over the tiny wild strawberries, sempervivum, flowering onions, geraniums and sedum to a rose with masses of deep pink blooms, which climbs over the tomatoes, up the wrought iron pillars at the porch, and wanders along the balcony above. On the other side of the doorway is a tea tree plant, also in full rich pink bloom.

House front
The balcony is the best place to survey the main attraction, an ornamental garden on a wave theme laid out in bright scotch moss, alpines and cape daisies, framed with lighter and darker pebbles in precise curves and curliques, winding outwards from an enormous agave cactus at its base.

Wave garden
The recent restoration of Valentine's Park brings birds to the area and if they venture further afield, they find that Shush's garden has opportunities. On my visit, blue-tits were exploring possibilities in the jumble of roses at the top of the balcony. A pair of blackbirds named Pintu and Tinu seek out particular long papery leaves from the garden for their nests. Shush allows the bark and wood there to rot naturally, providing a home for many beneficial creepy crawlies. The flowers attract butterflies and bumble-bees.

We discuss unused space and the reservations which may prevent people from cultivating theirs. She laments the unused space next to her building - although there is a mostly empty garage at the side and more space at the back of the house, she has not managed to persuade the freeholder to rent them to her. On paving over front gardens she says, “I think we have to accept that times have changed. Almost every household has a car and there's a lack of parking. The other thing is that where people don't have time to maintain anything, they prefer something they consider tidy and clean, and that can mean having one or two small plant pots, or paving over the front. I think we have to accept it – I was just fortunate that I was able to pursue the vision I had for the front garden.”

That said, when it comes to other people's front yards, who wouldn't rather see a garden than a car? Local residents – often those with children - have told Shush that they make diversions to pass the garden and look at the flowers. She frequently notices people standing and admiring the roses or intrigued by the UN sculpture centrepiece of the wave garden. The pavement outside the garden is a place where neighbourly conversations are started – people encounter each other there and as they chat they begin to share local knowledge.

Shush is very down to earth about gardening, something that would reassure anybody with reservations or a tight budget. With the exception of the wave garden, which she designed in detail along the lines of rangoli, the decorative folk art of India (and Walsall where she grew up, and Ilford) she doesn't plan much. I ask how she gets her plants and she says “Well, I'm economical - I pick and choose bargains. Sometimes big stores like B&Q and Wilkinson do not have adequate staff to water the plants and look after them, and so they are reduced. I find that I often pick up good bedding plants from Mandys' store, which is outside the Exchange and opposite Ilford station.” Her seeds and cuttings are given or swapped with friends or the Commonwealth Gardeners – the group of enthusiasts with homes in the area of Valentine's Ward referred to as the Commonwealth - or impulse buys from the pound shop. When the fascinating tea tree pictured below suffered in the long freeze this winter, a fellow Commonwealth Gardener who had taken and cultivated a cutting was able to supply one back to Shush in turn.

Tea tree
In terms of tools, a basic fork and spade which fits your height and size will do, she says. Ceramic pots look lovely but they lose water and they crack so she favours plastic ones, though she plants fewer pots than she used to because the watering became a chore.

For people who haven't gardened before, the first thing to cultivate is a liking for plants and greenery. “You need to like it – once you like it, inspiration will come to you. It's quite magical – you plant something and within two weeks it's grown! I don't believe you need to go on a course to learn a great deal about different soils and plants – you experiment and you look – for example, if I see many daisies or geraniums around, I know they will grow well.” The other thing is to be flexible, and not dogmatic. “Everybody's front garden can have herbs next to roses, edible plants next to decorative plants. Even broad beans can look very beautiful with their orange flowers.”

Cape daisy
Like many before me, I left inspired. Our house has off-road parking but we don't have a car. In any case, why not get rid of the concrete, maybe reserving two wheel-width strips, and plant alpines instead? I had a little time off work. Today after Barkingside 21's last coffee morning (where I learnt from Ken Coe that you can buy compost, lime and some other necessaries from the Trading Hut at the Fullwell Avenue allotments on a Sunday morning 10-12 - please note the entrance is 31b Tomswood Hill, further down the path to the BodyShop auto repairs place) Matt and I went for the first time to the plant nursery just past Fairlop tube on Forest Road (Fairlop Nurseries, 020 8501 5535) to find something to grow on our front patch's heavy clay. We were quickly seduced by the colours and shapes, and decided to spend just a little bit more time improving the soil (some compost mixed with a bit of sharp sand) and go for plants to attract insects instead. We came away (not much lighter of pocket) with some flowers which look a bit like sea pinks, a big pot of scabious, some mini snap-dragon type flowers in red and yellow I'd seen a bee go to, two purple fennels, and some pots of the nearest thing to the beautiful scotch moss I could find.

Planting them that afternoon, I saw what Shush meant. Everybody coming and going said hello, people admired the garden, a newcomer I hadn't met before introduced herself, and I had a nice long and unusually wide-ranging conversation with my neighbour arriving home from school. If you have a garden and you want to meet your neighbours, give them something beautiful to look at.

Scotch moss

Balcony portrait

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