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Summer blog 2013

What a busy summer!

The garden was a hive of activity with herb and vegetable production increasing, volunteers harvesting, youth groups experimenting with earth building, lectures, courses and parties!

In June the flowers were out in force and the bees were working overtime! Our garden was alive with colours; huge purple poppy heads, gentle mustard flowers, towering hollyhock and everything in between.


Wildlife, too, was thriving. Dragonflies and frogs hung around the pond and our local fox family was starting to leave us skull-y presents.

On Sunday 9th June, The London Wildlife trust hosted a moth walk in the area, ending with a talk in our garden. Moth traps had been installed the evening before and we looked closely at the fluttering specimens in plastic tubes before they were released...commonly underestimated; up close their patterns are both beautiful and complex.

At the end of June we had an exciting week putting the final, vital, touches to our round wood shelter. A week of scrambling around on an angled roof with buckets and sacks, soil and turf, to create the now stunning wildflower, living roof!

This has been one of the best projects I have worked on in the garden, from hefting giant sweet chestnut posts around in freezing February to watching the roofs first flowers open this summer.
The dedication of the team, come mud or sun burn, brought this project together to create a space that will be used for many exciting things in the future!

We began by preparing the roof with a water proof lining, made of ‘up cycled’ boulder mat covers from inside the climbing centre. Soil needed to lay over this surface to a dept of 100mm, even on the steepest section of roof. So to prevent a land slide covering some unfortunate passing climber, Ida managed to procure a load of donated Hessian coffee sacks. Not only would the sacks contain the soil, but young roots would be able to weave themselves into the fibre making the whole top area even more stable.

Now all we had to do was go about filling them with soil, sewing them up (with make shift wire needles) and hefting them onto the roof where they were to be secured around the steepest point. What a nimble handed team we had.

On the lower sections we laid the 100mm of soil directly onto the liner with the wooded braces underneath working to prevent slippage as the soil built up in steps.

As it is a climbing centre garden, we are never in short supply of rope…important when haling bucket after bucket of soil onto the roof!

Once the ground work was complete we moved on to the more delicate task of laying the precious wildflower turf. With deliberation and patience, lead by Frank, we manoeuvred each strip so that gaps were avoided and roots were never left bare. The time taken at this point paid off!


The wildflower turf was supplied by  and is made up of 34 UK native wildflowers and grasses. We saw poppies, yarrow and cornflower all flower in the first couple off weeks, following that flowering thyme and chamomiles were among the young heads that peered down on the garden.



July was strawberry season - Late they may have been, but once they started there seemed to be no end!


Following on from the strawberries, we spent the rest of the summer picking all our other berries. The garden volunteers produced punnet after punnet of Raspberries, Blackberries, Logan, Tay and Japanese wine berries to keep the kitchen busy with jams and cakes.

For our garden party berries even made it into the Prosecco!

One of July’s early Sundays was spent in good weather and good company with The New River Clear up project. Here lots of lovely volunteers from The Castle, LWT and the local community came together in waders armed with litter pickers to fish for junk discarded in the historic 400 year old waterway.

We worked in teams along the length of the river between the Castle and the East reservoir, leaving all the recycling and rubbish at pick up points.


It is amazing what you will find in a river, sometimes it is just better not to look to hard!
At the end of the day Francisco, who had coordinated the whole operation, led us to the LWT garden for refreshments while he drove round picking up all the bags to be disposed of...what a star!

Looking out from London Wildlife Trust over the Reservoir you would never believe you were in central London!

In the balmy month of July we also kicked of our free Friday Lecture series. Held in, or around, our newly covered shelter we offered free talks to staff and volunteers. The topics gave an insight into our garden, suitability, growing and wildlife. Experts joined us to discuss pleasures of compost, bee keeping, vegetable growing, crop rotation, foraging, earth building and medicinal herbs.

Sean, who has worked in our garden before as well as at Organiclea, shared his knowledge on bees and soil. Gemma and Jo from Edible Landscapes nibbled their way through our less commonly eaten 'weeds', telling us stories of past experiments of the palate: both good and bad. Frank shared his passion for earthen plasters, Ida explained what we grow in the garden vegetable plots and why, and Nick looked at what plants go into healing hand balms.

The best response I had after a course was from The Castle Shop’s James, who informed me, seriously, that he had never known soil was so interesting!

This was the beginning of a summer of courses and education centred in our garden shelter, allowing adults and children to experiment with materials and nature.

The end of July saw the biggest class in the season, with 10 young adults joining us from the Princes Trust Scheme.

The group wanted to volunteer for a week as part of their course. The scheme aims to build skills, from team work to organisation, giving them better job or volunteer opportunities.

Delighted by the offer we proposed a project that needed planning and team work but was essentially hands on, as most things are in our garden. We asked them to design and build two protective windows for our cob oven, made of only natural or recycled materials!

Frank our cob expert tells you how it went!

Following on from the laying of the” living roof ” on the roundhouse in the Castle Garden Min invited me to join her on running a workshop build for a dozen or so young adults as part of their 12 week Princes Trust Team program.

After rummaging around in the skips of our local pubs we soon found ourselves surrounded my masses of smelly booze bottles ready to be transformed into bottle bricks and used in the construction of a cob bottle wall.

Cob is the olde English word for earth mixes used for construction and is essentially the sub soil beneath our feet mixed to a sticky paste with water. In practice this often means adding clay or sand to whatever you have to get the right ratios of clay to sand

Glass bottles have been up-cycled for a long time as building blocks and a member of the Heineken family once even shaped a beer bottle to be used for construction which he called the “Wobot”- World Bottle!

Impressed by their visual delight and the re-use of glass bottles I was dead excited to get going and raise two earthen walls which would protect the outdoor oven from driving rain as well as adding some colour to the interior space.

Our first task was to cut bottles ih half and taking the two bottom halves stick them back together with gaffer tape, thereby creating a “glass brick” which is cobbed into the wall with the earth mortar.

After an afternoon spent with builder Gerry looking at the skills needed to do this by hand we reverted to an electric tile cutter which is a beast of a rotating blade and slices glass like a knife through butter and after a little practice an easy way to cut hundreds of bottles in half.

Min got a few made up and after digging out some local garden subsoil  ,which is rich in clay the magical ingredient for sticking the mix together we were ready to go.

Day one opened with introductions and after a quick warm up stretch we got stuck into mixing cob and preparing the woodwork for building...Mixing requires a fair amount of team work stomping and heaving a pile of sand and mud around a tarpaulin which could be done by a cement mixer but who needs a cement mixer when we got wellington boots and the power of youth!

Earth building is a great practice as it’s easy to get into as a novice and you quickly learn on the job what’s needed from simple soil testing to making mixes and applying the “mud” to build applications. It’s a forgiving material that can be applied by hand and chopped changed and added to as you go. As long as the proportions of clay to sand are good the mix works and you can get building.

Over the next three days everyone got stuck in and by the end of day three we had raised one wall and made a start on another. The young adults who joined us were brilliant in their attitude and work rate. I think they really enjoyed being in the castle garden and learning about natural building practices and sustainable gardens.

We decided on a bee theme for one of the windows so the spirit of bee has now been well and truly cobbed into the wall. If you take time to check out the living roof its now in full bloom and the honey bees are all over the flowers.

Finally on the last day we had a pizza bake using the cob oven and as in days of yore celebrated the wall raising with a fiery olde cobbers munch. A great outreach project to be involved in…many thanks to all who took part.

Frank Agnew

Princes Trust Bottle Window Build: July 22-25 2013






August was full of colour and activity, with an army of volunteers harvesting vegetables and drying herbs as well as visitors relaxing in the sun or participating in creative courses!

Although the majority of the summer food harvests came a little later, the beginning of the month was warm enough to get arm loads of pumpkins, French beans, beetroot, cucumber, tomato, courgettes. We did so well with our harvests that we ended up winning the Hackney In Bloom, best food growing category, and best newcomer!


Colour was also brought to the garden through art. One crisp Saturday Lauran and Tabbi ran a kids crafts day. We saw sculptures with old bike bits made, paper and plant jewellery crafted and seed bombs molded. All this, while parents and children explored the garden along our nature trails.


So as not to leave them out, we even invited some staff to join us the following evening to finish making our scrap into sculptures!



At the end of August, we decided to run a more in depth medicinal plant workshop to follow on from the short workshop Nick had run as part of the Friday lectures.

Herbalist Ness ran a Survival Medicine Course that took participants through the garden foraging, naming and exploring. She gave a practical course in teas and tonics for all occasions, foot soaks and poultices for injuries and natural additions to a wilderness first aid kit. She explained natural remedies through touch, smell and taste while people nibbled and scribbled and sketched notes.


On the same day we had our very own survival expert Luke around sharing his knowledge of a machete (being a paramedic made him doubly useful for this topic!).

We hope this will be the first of many ‘bush craft sessions’ in the garden as even passers by looked impressed.


All this activity at the end of the season and the berries were still fruiting, the bees were still flying and the flowers were holding strong!

Now we must brave the winter and look to the coming spring!

by Min Willis