Sustainable Gardening

Jesse Lock, Community Gardener Jesse Lock Community Gardener
The upper lawn at Rainham Hall with paths mown into the long grass.

In this blog, Community Gardener Jesse explores the early beginnings of his passion for the environment, how gardens can help out natural habitats and wildlife, and suggests some easy things you can implement in your garden at home, too.

Looking for silver linings

Covid-19 is hard. It’s hard not seeing families and friends. And it’s hard to see all the work that everyone at Rainham Hall has been doing over winter suddenly grind to a halt. It’s easy to get down in the dumps about the huge amount of weeds. Or that the Orchard project, that should have been launching in late May, is now on hold, looking sadly unfinished. But there are positives to draw from this crisis. Fewer cars on the road = less pollution. Dolphins swimming in the clear waters of Venice (I visited a couple of years ago and the waters were definitely not clear then!) And my own personal favourite of the Llandudno Goats coming down from the hills to take over the town! (My wife is from there so we had lots of friends and family messaging!)

In the Garden at Rainham Hall I feel like there has been a distinct rise in wildlife. There are more birds, huge collections of starlings and groups of goldfinches. The butterflies, bees and dragonflies are enjoying having the plants to themselves and all the additional blossom from the weeds! We are participating in No Mow May, leaving large areas of unmown grass to go wild. I think we will see the benefit of that later in the year, as insects move in. Since I have been at Rainham Hall, we have always had an area of unmown grass. It encourages biodiversity, and the mown paths through it are great for kids to play in.

This year though, I would say 50% of our lawns will be unmown, returning to a wildflower meadow of sorts. The benefits are not just for the bees! The lawns by this time of year are usually dry and worn from the Easter visitors, but they are having some time to recover, to achieve their destiny and set seed. The large hill that children love to roll down is green and inviting, so much so that our custodian rolled down there for the first time in 6 years! There is a feeling of recovery, and I hope we keep a hold of that over the coming months. As always there are lessons to be learned, and I think one I am seeing now, is that as the Garden becomes a little wilder, it becomes a different kind of beautiful. More ethereal, less human and overdesigned, more about the beauty of nature.

Jesse building his first raised bed from reclaimed stone
A young Jesse builds a raised bed out of stone beside a stone outbuilding.
Jesse building his first raised bed from reclaimed stone

Where my passion for the environment comes from

There is an element of these changes that justifies our approach over the last 4 years at Rainham. Letting the grass grow long, no use of pesticides, permaculture raised beds and creating insect hotels are the norm for our garden. I think a lot of my approach to this comes from home. I come from a traveller family and my Dad would bring all kinds of things home from where he was working to make planters out of: milk churns, tyres, wheelbarrows. Growing up it was always ‘waste not, want not.’ In one of the pictures, you can see me building my own raised bed out of some reclaimed stone. We had a little cottage in Ireland that we would go on holiday to, but as you can see there was a lot of work to do usually, my brother was not best pleased about it! We are both moving Turf (peat) which at the time was a widely used fuel source in Ireland. I’m really proud to now work for a charity that implements a peat free policy. Peat is a fantastic habitat and carbon store. I didn’t know it at the time, but it’s great to see how far we have come in such a short time.

Jesse and brother Kieran unloading peat on 'holiday' in Ireland
Two young boys moving peat from a pile outside.
Jesse and brother Kieran unloading peat on 'holiday' in Ireland

I think a lot about my Geography A level classes and how a lot of the predictions for climate change back then (20 years ago) are coming true now. We worried then that our common garden plants would struggle in the increasingly hotter summers. We knew that cities getting hotter would increase desire for cool green spaces. We have seen the decline in biodiversity continue to get worse. I have spent most of my career trying to tackle some of these challenges. Planting trees all over London. Building gardens in schools to educate the next generation on the benefits of caring for nature. At Rainham, we have really gone on a journey with these ideas, you can see them throughout the Garden.

What we have implemented in the Garden and what you can do at home

Simple things we have done in the Garden have had a huge affect on helping nature. We create a lot of dead hedges with sticks, branches, any woody material that we are looking to get rid of. A dead hedge is essentially a wall made of piles of this woody material, we use it to enclose our compost areas, create play areas, and as a feature in the wildlife woodland. It’s an amazing habitat for animals, we have had hedgehogs living in them, birds nesting, ladybirds hibernating. And of course, once they are set up, it’s an easy way to use some of the biggest and most awkward garden waste material.

We built a Hugel bed very early on. The initial idea was to create a raised bed that some of volunteers with mobility issues could work on. Our Hugel bed is built of 3 layers. 1) Old tree trunks and branches that are laid down the centre of the bed; 2) brash, branches, old grass which we lay over the trunks like a thick blanket; and 3) home made compost, about a foot deep, spread over the brash. The bed is made entirely from waste materials we already had in the Garden. Because it doesn’t use any virgin materials for the sides, you can plant direct into the slopes. This is excellent for people who have bad backs and knees, because they don’t have to bend down too far! It also means we didn’t spend any money, crucial for a charity-based Community Garden. And we have grown all sorts in there, rhubarb every year, potatoes, Brussels sprouts!

We also built a spider den! This is a space that is essentially a fun area for kids to play, that also creates a habitat for spiders! The kids love it because it’s a raised area to climb on, with an elasticated spiderweb to clamber through. By stacking lots of logs together, we have created perfect little gaps and holes for spiders to hide in. This is excellent as a conversation starter with children and adults about the benefits of spiders. A lot of people fear them, but without them we would be swamped with flies and mosquitoes. They really help to keep the balance. It’s important to have these conversations, and to help people see that not only can you make space for nature, but that this has benefits and can be fun!

We don’t really know what the new normal will look like, hopefully a bit wilder and a bit greener! That will continue to be the aim at Rainham Hall, I hope.