CASHING IN ON THE CITY GARDEN
London’s Square Mile is now in full bloom, says Lindsay Swan
High above London’s teeming streets, once unloved concrete spaces are being transformed into bountiful fruit, vegetable and wild flower gardens. At the Strand headquarters of Coutts, the Skyline Garden yields a breathtaking variety of the freshest vegetables, herbs and fruit for the bank’s busy kitchens, while a short distance across the rooftops, staff at the international law firm Olswang tend the edible roof garden in their lunch breaks and enjoy eating the fruits of their work. Olswang is one of five central London businesses to be inspired by inmidtown, the Business Improvement District for Bloomsbury, Holborn and St Giles, to turn unused roof spaces into productive gardens. “It’s just the beginning, there’s massive potential,”explains inmidtown business manager Mitch Steprans, who has a vision of a much greener urban landscape in the future. “Of our 570 member businesses, probably half could be greened,” he explains. There are many pluses apart from the environmental benefits of rainwater runoff and sound reduction, improved biodiversity and heat retention. The most obvious is the positive effect on people. The Olswang gardening club members glow when they remember the day they brought up the garden materials in the service lift, calling on the lawyers to do the heavy lifting, “We only had half an hour to get it all done and we said to the fee earners, ‘Instead of going to the gym, why not hump compost?’” laughs Alison Delaney, the horticultural queen bee, who together with colleague Sue Fitzharris, runs the gardening club. The challenge was picked up gamely. Lawyers and other staff enjoy the complete change of scene and breath of fresh air in lunch breaks, as well as the chance to meet people from different parts of the business. Benjamin Shore, a senior associate in the real estate team and, by his own admission a novice gardener, is glad to learn about growing food and the challenges of planting in a microclimate to create a year-round scheme producing fruit, vegetables and herbs while sustaining the resident bee colonies. “The gardening club is a great opportunity to be part of a new and exciting way to be green and help the community, too,” says Benjamin. “Thanks to the roof garden people from different departments, lawyers and support staff, interact in a way that makes it easier to work together, whether it is to plant marigolds or draft a contract. Making the most of our outside space has had a real visual impact and has provided inspiration and practical know-how to the staff, our clients, potential clients and charity partners.” Olswang’s roof garden is bursting with all kinds of herbs, peppers, strawberries and lavender in special growing pockets, which fit with weight restrictions and allow good drainage. Large potted trees and three beehives give structure. Extra manpower is provided by north London charity Jobs in Mind. Its Urban Growth programme works with local residents with mental health problems to develop the skills and confidence needed to get back into employment. A team of six to eight gardeners comes in weekly to help, providing an opportunity to be reintroduced into the business environment. Memories of Italy where he spent part of his childhood and the experience of eating freshly picked produce inspired Coutts executive chef Peter Fiori to set up a rooftop garden on the narrow terraces skirting the kitchens and dining rooms at the top of the building. Working with kitchen garden specialist Richard Vine, he has created a green space that is at once beautiful and spectacularly productive. Growing in wooden planters specially made in workshops at HMP High Down is an abundance of herbs, vegetables and fruit, all in peak condition. Insect-attracting flowering plants including buddleia, roses, lavender and fuchsia flourish in a meadow area. The garden is now an essential part of the food created in the busy kitchen where eight chefs cater for breakfast, lunch and dinner for up to 700 clients a day. They are proud of their garden and enjoy being able to cook with ingredients in such peak condition. “Every single thing cooked in the kitchen includes something from the garden, with dishes created to use produce at its peak,” explains Peter. Sweet cicely imparts a hint of aniseed to ice cream, sorrel and lovage are added to summer drinks, lemon verbena gives a delicious edge to oily fish, tiny radishes and beetroot decorate plates with a flash of red and green. Winter leeks, peas and a new crop of carrots are already planted and borlotti beans – “I couldn’t have a garden without them,” says Peter – are not long off harvest. Despite its location, this really is a superb kitchen garden. While it may be too soon to put figures on the green roof effect, there is much to suggest that employee wellbeing and productivity will increase and having something of the country in the heart of the city – rus in urbe – is proving popular with companies’ clients too.
Dig this: Coutts’s skyline garden; chef Peter Fiori and Benjamin Shore, a lawyer at Olswang, below