Photos of things in gardens and on the streets in my local area that show what grows well in urban gardens, how food can be incorporated into the front garden, how structures can be used and a couple of great ideas for making the most of your space.
E.g. It’s bananas that there is a banana tree here. I’ve not seen fruit on this tree but even it’s existence just makes me incredibly happy.
We could actually afford a garden. A real one. That has soil.
Schools. Turns out a lot of the people who have moved to our area of Streatham have also moved for the schools.
What I didn’t realise until after we moved was how friendly the neighbourhood would be. We actually know, as in have real conversations, with people who live on our road. There’s even a Whatsapp group. I’ve even met people in 3 of the houses in the road parallel. In my 20 years of London living, I never knew such a thing was possible.
As well as the friendly natives, I absolutely love some of the gardens that I’ve seen. So today I’d like to share some of these wonderful things.
If anyone recognises any of these pictures as their property and you’d rather not have the photo up – please do let me know and I’ll take it down.
I love it when people use all the space they can, even in the walls. In the photos below, the dividing walls have planters built in:
I love it when people don’t resign themselves to flora-less gardens when they don’t have bare earth:
I’ve also seen some very clever planters:
Not only are there planters in the gardens but sometimes in Streatham you see planters on pavements with signs saying you can help yourself to the herbs. Unfortunately I don’t have any photos of those planters, but I love that these are planters just on the streets:
Sometimes things make it into the streets by themselves. I make a mental note of plants like these. If they seed themselves happily in cracks, then there’s no reason why I wouldn’t also be able to grow them in my own garden.
Sometimes they just spill onto the streets from the gardens.
Here are some more big bushes/trees. I am often surprised by how big a tree you can actually fit in London gardens if it’s slow growing enough and not too close to the building:
Those trees, being so large, would have taken many years to establish. There are some shorter term ways to utilise the vertical space:
There’s also ways to make the most of any space lower down:
You can also incorporate edibles into hedging:
Of course my favourite option is to go all out and just grow edibles in the front garden.
These photos (so far) are all just things you can see from the road so I love to imagine that there’s a plethora of BACK gardens in the area that hide edible treasures and ingenious gardening ideas. Of course I couldn’t get photos without trespassing and probably jail time. I don’t think the defence ‘I’m just really really nosy’ would stand up in court. However… there was a 5th birthday party in a centre that had a fantastic vegetable patch in the back that excited me much more than the bouncy castle!
Finally, just to show that I don’t have a one track mind and can also appreciate a good wild flower meadow:
Actually… I think I might be lying. I love this wild flower meadow because it’s great for bees…and well…. bees are important for anyone who wants to grow their own food. Turns out I really do just have a one track mind. It’s not dirty, but it does think about the composition of dirt quite a bit.
I’d like to show you how we built the easiest and most convenient one. The others, in more detail at the end either require either more than one pallet, a lot more work or can be more difficult to maintain once finished.
One Pallet Check for safety. Generally if they have no markings then they have not been treated. Markings like DB – debarked, KD – kiln dried, HT – heat treated are all safe. MB means treated with methyl bromide and is to be avoided. Check for spillages on the pallet. If you can’t identify the spill then be aware it could be an unsafe chemical.
Screws – length and number depends on your pallet and how many pieces of wood you need to go through and how you’re putting it together. The pallet you have may be very different to the one I used. Here’s your chance to get creative! If in doubt about 30 self tapping wood screws around 5cm in length should do. They will typically be phillips (cross head) screws. Self tapping means you shouldn’t need to drill a thinner hole into the wood first.
Landscaping fabric or plastic sheeting – thick black bin liners or rubble bags will also do for plastic sheeting. Landscaping fabric won’t help protect the wood from rotting but may feel more natural.
Electric screwdriver with a Philips screw bit – I’d call this essential as a manual screwdriver will have driven you insane after the first two screws and you’ll give up unless you’re really tenacious.
Protective gloves – why get avoidable splinters?
Circular saw (with safety goggles)
Step 1 – Get a pallet
If you don’t have your own have a look around your local streets for anyone who having works done. I have seen them left outside people’s houses for the taking. This seems to be the new unofficial London way of reusing. For anyone unfamiliar with the practise, residents leave unwanted but still usable things outside on the street and anyone passing can help themselves. Sometimes it will have helpful note attached.
Step 2 – Plan and cut the pallet
With this particular pallet there were 9 slats so it was perfect for cutting into 3 sections. The top and bottom thirds made the front and back and the middle section provided the two sides. It should go without saying, but please be extra careful here if you’re not used to DIY. If you’re using a circular saw, make sure you use eye protection.
Step 3 – Remove unwanted bits
Here we removed most of the bottom frame of the pallet. We kept 2 edges to support the base, but also mostly because we were too lazy to remove them. We kept all of the blocks for something to screw into during assembling.
Step 4 – Line the planter
You can line with plastic to keep the moisture in, protect your wood, if the slats are too far apart or if you feel uneasy about the source of the pallet. You can line with landscape fabric if you want a more organic feel whilst keeping the soil in. It won’t be a moisture barrier though.
As we weren’t worried about the pallet and the slats were very close together, we just did it to protect the wood a little, so we didn’t ensure full coverage of the insides. Lining the pallet can be done at the end too, but it can be difficult to get a good angle with the staple gun.
Step 5 – Assemble your planter
Decide which is going to be the bottom and try and keep that bottom edge level. Start with a corner and attach them together. Assistance with holding things in place helps to speed things along. Try to screw into some nice thick wood. We kept the blocks in the middle of the pallet for this purpose. I’ve used a random assortment in previous pallet planters.
If you have good self tapping screws you can screw straight into the wood. If you’re worried about splitting the wood or getting stuck part way then feel free to drill a pilot hole with a wood drill bit that is thinner than your screws.
This helps to keep your screw going in the direction you want and avoids this:
Basically here the screw would no longer go in and the cross in the head began to shear so the screwdriver was turning but no longer gripping the screw. I gave up when the screw would not go in and wouldn’t come out either. When this happens there really isn’t much you can do. To avoid it sticking out I used bolt cutters which then shortened it to a dangerously sharp, ankle height stump. I used a glue gun to cover it and then let the rosemary grow to hide it. One of my many garden failures that basically teaches me what not to do next time.
Put 6-8 screws in each corner. We put in 2 at the top and bottom of each side.
When filled with soil and covered in plants you’ll realise that it never needed to be perfect.
Step 6 – Place in situ
I recommend on top of soil. Doesn’t have to be bare and weeded. If you put it on top of turf, as long as the planter is deep enough, the turf will die from lack of light and provide you with some organic material at the bottom. On top of soil, though, means that the roots of the planter are not restricted to just the planter. It can grow down and then have access to the water table so your plants may not need as much watering. If you’re placing it on the patio or on a hard surface you may want to add a bottom to your planter but ensure, if you line it with plastic, that you pierce the plastic in several places to allow for water to drain. Personally I see very little point to adding a bottom as the wood at the bottom will be moist most of the time and rot fairly quickly. Even if you wanted to move the planter at a later date it’ll be very heavy, especially if it’s full of plants.
Step 7 – Mix in composting waste
Vegetable waste from the kitchen and grass clippings or old un-diseased plants are good. Just chuck it all in and mix it up a bit with the soil at the bottom to introduce some microorganisms. Feel free to skip this step but I like to do this because:
It’s a good use of uncomposted kitchen waste
It provides more organic material for the plants later
It’s the laziest form of composting, even better than hole composting (there’ll be an article or video on this soon)
You use less actual compost to fill the planter
Don’t do this if you planting something quite deep (or if the planter is very shallow) as your plants may compete with the microorganisms for nutrients while the breakdown process is happening. Typically though, when microorganisms and worms have access, it will break down fairly quickly. By the time the roots reach it, it should be ready to fertilise.
Step 8 – Fill with compost
If you’re going through the effort of building a planter then you may as well provide the best start, especially if you’re using a planter as a raised bed because your soil (like mine) is pretty pants. We made this one as a raspberry bed and it was filled with shop-bought ericaceous (acidic) compost. I don’t have the right chemicals/products and am far too lazy to make pre-existing soil acidic enough to make raspberries happy.
Single pallet planter
It’s good for pallets with wide spaces between
For more growing space in small foot print.
Staple landscaping fabric to the inside of the front first. Then wrap either a double or triple layer around the back and staple it at the front (you can see the fabric folded over and stapled at the left and right edges in the right photo above). If you have spare planks of wood (we used two old floor boards) it’s a good idea to screw these in place over the back AFTER stapling the fabric to support the weight of the compost on the fabric. Fill with compost. Put plants at the top. Poke holes into the landscaping fabric. Squish plants in. Here strawberries worked well, as did perennial rocket, Egyptian onions, sorrel, chives and especially watercress, which went crazy at the bottom. Salad Burnett did really well here but I discovered that none one in the family (including me) liked eating it.
Fiddly to put plants in the gaps. So annuals (plants that die within a year) are hard to grow. If you start with it lying down it’s easier to put the plants in and they settle their roots better, but it’s very heavy to put into place once it’s full of compost and plants. Also when it goes from horizontal to vertical the compost shifts down and can pull some of the plants down inside through the gap.
You can water the top easily and it will find its way to the bottom (our watercress loved this), but the flat surface dries up very quickly and the vertical wall is hard to water without washing the compost out.
Watering eventually had to be done in summer with a spritzer – which, as you may have guessed, was very tedious.
The second year, when the plants are re-growing, sometimes shoots grow behind the fabric rather than out the front. You just have to check every now and then and tease them out.
As you can see from the gaps, as things died in the summer it was really hard to replace them as the dry compost couldn’t be made damp enough to support new young seedlings.
Must be fixed in place as it’s pretty heavy and could do serious damage if it fell on someone.
Makes a large planter which retains water better
Don’t be afraid to play with shapes. This one is tapered to one end to fit into the space better.
The plants in front don’t dry quickly like the single pallet planter
This won’t apply to many people but this planter and the one next to it are also helping to stabilise the fence panels behind by breaking up the flat surface that the wind pushes against and because the planters are also screwed to the fence, they provide a large weight to hold the panels too.
Much the same as the main planter in the article but used
additional wood left over from building a raised bed.
Needs more than one pallet or some extra wood.
Need to be choose plants that don’t grow too tall or bushy in the gaps otherwise they overcrowd what is in the main body.
Slanted Slat Planter
Makes a large planter which retains water better
With the slanted slats providing ‘pockets’ for the plants they get a better purchase and it is easier to water.
When using both the front and the top you can grow loads of different plants in a small foot print
The strawberries hang so they don’t lie on damp soil and go rotten
Much the same as the main planter in the article but the
front side has slats pulled off a pallet. Screws go through the slat, through
triangular bits of wood and into a support in the corner. The plastic sheet is
slit to allow roots to grow into the main body.
Needs more than one pallet or lots of extra wood
Those triangles are a major pain in the backside for someone like me who isn’t a carpenter and doesn’t have the fancy tools.
I stupidly cut the plastic sheet all along the whole length of the slat so compost kept pouring out onto the strawberry plants in the front. I’ve had to prop it up with bits of bamboo canes.
Big Block Planter
This is the first pallet planter I made about 7 years ago. It was in our previous house which just had a paved ‘yard’ and not much growing space. Everything was in pots. I’m afraid these are the only photos of it and the quality is pretty poor.
Grow a blimmin’ tree! Our climbing squashes and tomatoes went crazy in this.
Retains lots of water and had plenty of nutrients
A pallet at the front and another the back. The sides were 2 planks of wood on each side holding the pallets together. 3 layers of landscaping fabric were wrapped around the sides and stapled to the back and front to hold the compost in.
You need 2 pallets and, realistically, more than 2 planks of wood on each side. After I realised how flawed this design was I had to keep shoring it up with more spare bits of wood as they became available (I try not to buy wood if I can avoid it and use old shelves and random planks left over from DIY projects).
Took about a 5 huge bags of compost to fill it.
You feel like the compost at the bottom is just wasted, unless you really do plant a tree.
The plants in the front grew so well that they choked each other out.
The plants in the top grew so well and choked each other out. Maybe that’s a win…?
It was so tall I had to hang out of the window to harvest some of the stuff, and of course opening the window damaged the plants.
A cat decided to use it as a scratching post until it started leaking compost.
So that’s it. Hopefully you’ve learnt what not to do from reading about my mistakes and I’ve given you a few ideas about what you can do. I also hope that this articles illustrates that you don’t need a big garden, or even any bare earth to grow things. You don’t have to buy a raised bed, though I guess you do need to pay for screws and compost. All the plants in the photos, except for the strawberries and the yacon, were raised from seed – which isn’t expensive and you get hundreds in a packet. Do a seed swap and save money there too. It does seem like quite some hard work but the planter in the main article took less than two hours and once you’ve made it you’ll have it for years.
Let me know in the comments if you have any questions or feedback and thanks for joining me!