Friday, 20 February 2015


It's half term and, as such, the Forest Gate Community Garden Organic Gardening Course is on holiday for a week. Here's a little taster of the course so far and how we might apply our new knowledge to our own garden and the Forest Gate Community Gardenat 136 Earlham Grove. Steering Group Member and 'student' Sonya Patel Ellis reports

Companion planting in the vegetable garden can help keep pets away and makes your plot look beautiful

It's nearly March and Week 6 of the Forest Gate Community Garden Organic Gardening Course is on the horizon. Half term provides a week off in which to contemplate what we have learnt and maybe begin to implement some of the things that we have been taught as the advent of Spring begins to throw up shoots. Here's a little recap of weeks 1-5 – can't believe how much we've learnt already. The power of osmosis...

Organic gardening is all about working with
nature and creating a sustainable space

Week 1 of the Forest Gate Community Garden Organic Gardening Course begins with an introduction to the course, by tutor Stephen Mason, and a warm welcome to all the students – all 13 of them. As with most courses, there are a few forms to fill out and a list of aims to discuss. It's obviously helpful to Stephen if people tell him what they want to achieve from the course and how much knowledge of organic gardening, or even gardening basics, they already have. That way he can streamline the course to fit the needs of the students and not waste too much time teaching people what they already know.

A quick recap, of course, is always handy, especially when dealing with the science behind things such as soil, water and photosynthesis. All things we learnt at school but very easy to filter out some key facts in the passing of time. From Week 1, Stephen has shown himself to be an inspiring and articulate teacher of a fascinating and vital subject, with great generosity when it comes to answering everyone's questions. The lesson may sway off course in order to answer a specific question or questions – and we all have many – but Stephen is happy to help where he can and then steer the group back to the core subject that we are studying that week.

As laid out in our first batch of notes, the course will last for 10 weeks and cover the following subjects, one week at a time: Week 1) Introduction to the course and organic principles; Week 2) Soil and Compost; Week 3) Water conservation and irrigation and wind; Week 4) Plant nutrition and fertilisers; Week 5) Plants, plant structure and photosynthesis; Week 6) Planting and propagation; Week 7) Pests and diseases; Week 8) Trees and Hedging; Week 9) Tools; Week 10) Mulches and lawns and seasonal work.

As far as organic gardening is concerned, Stephen is well set up to impart knowledge on the subject, with a real passion for the green environment and concern about how our species interacts with it. As an environmental educator and garden designer, he has designed and created many organic, sustainable spaces, with the aim of delivering a real long-term impact in both urban and rural settings and has worked with people of all abilities and ages. Organic gardening is about working with nature and Stephen imparts this idea brilliantly.

This knowledge and in-depth experience really shows through, whether he's talking about plants and their habitats, biodiversity, climate change, growing food or soil management. Spaces you may know, that Stephen has or is working on, include Hackney City Farm (of which he was a founder staff Member), Bethnal Green Academy / Lauriston Academy and Richard Cloudesley School (among a long list of London schools), Woodberry Down Community Garden and various private garden projects. If you want to know more about Stephen's work visit and look under projects, education, Greenspace Management or the regularly updated blog feed – or join the course. Much to digest after only one week and itching to get stuck into some serious conversations about soil!

A good compost heap provides riches
for your garden and wildlife

It's a good job that Stephen hands out homework after each session as it's easy to forget the art of retaining knowledge - or look, listen, read, write and inwardly digest as an old teacher of mine used to say. When everyone is present and correct (this week with three extra students, which is great news for the longevity of the course), we receive hand-outs about various aspects of soil and compost that we will cover during the lesson.

The sheets and lesson to follow include details about the make up and structure of soil; how soil is formed; what happens in soil and what type of organisms live there; how do we keep soil healthy – a key component of organic gardening; cultivation and improvement; what is compost and what is it used for; how is compost different to soil – and therefore where and when we should use each; types of compost available and their differences; why we should make compost; and last but not least, how to make compost successfully.

Stephen's openness to a certain amount of questions during each session is great as it really helps the students to see the relevance of each topic to their own garden. It's also fascinating hearing about everyone's gardens and, by default, the history of the area. For example, when discussing soil structure we talk about sandy, clay or silty soil, we hear about gardens that are built on old rubble piles formed when clearing Wanstead Flats and gardens that were once used to harvest bricks. It all makes a huge difference as to what will grow in that soil – and importantly, how to care for and feed your soil so that it is as healthy as can be.

We learn that it can take up to 500-1,000 years to form 25mm depth of fertile soil, but this can be destroyed in a moment through pollution or contamination. It is also often said that a handful of soil has more living organisms in it than there are people on the planet Earth, with one gram of fertile soil containing up to one billion bacteria. This is the medium that supports life on Earth. It allows things to grow. It is the most important part of your garden. Essentially, the key to organic gardening starts here. If you can understand and work in a natural way with your soil then your garden will grow well.

We talk about examining our soil, which many people probably gloss over or never do. Examine it and then you will know how best to feed it and make it healthier. This includes using rotted compost, types of manure, and mushroom compost. There is so much you can do at this stage to improve the foundations of your garden and it will produce dividends we are assured.

The latter part of the lesson covers how to make successful compost, using shop-bought compost and a brief overview of garden design – what to think about when designing your garden (to be discussed in more depth in Week 6.

Some plants could benefit from a little
nutrition from a suitable organic fertiliser

We've covered soil, we've covered water, next we're onto food. A plant is a living organism and as such needs to be fed to survive – much as we do. In the most part this feeding is done through the soil or in some cases through the leaves. However, nutrient deficiency can occur when we have poor soil or a plant has a particular taste for something – nitrogen or potassium for example.

Non-mineral nutrients are hydrogen, oxygen and carbon – these are are found in the air and through photosynthesis and energy from the sun, turned into starches and sugar for the plant. Plant food also comes in the form of 13 minerals which are found in the soil and dissolved in water. Macronutrients include nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium and are required in large doses by a plant during the growth process. Different plants use different quantities of these nutrients. A secondary tier of these nutrients includes calcium, magnesium and sulphur. Each gives a different benefit to a plant – for example, sulphur improves root growth and seed production and can be supplied to the soil from rainwater. Finally micronutrients are needed in very very small amounts and include boron, copper, chloride, iron, manganese, molybdenum and zinc. Not so very different from humans then with our various nutritional requirements.

Before you panic at all the scientific stuff, it's a lesson well worth swotting up on if you want prize-winning plants, or indeed just lovely healthy ones. Know your plant nutrition and then you know what to best feed plants with.

I've always run away from plant fertilisers, as the word fertiliser has some negative associations and if we're honest, we just didn't quite understand what each one was for. Fertilisers are just concentrated sources of plant nutrients, however, and you can get them in organic form (derived from plant or animal). Stephen explains really well when and why we might use a particular feed for our plants, with some fascinating insights into the use of milk (an American thing apparently; one part milk, four parts water, one cup once a week) to deliver a nitrogen-building protein, and liquid feed made from nettles, brambles, dock and comfrey (great if you have a deluge of the stuff in your garden).

We learnt about the signs, causes and treatments of various nutrient deficiencies: yellow spindly plants or yellow leaves with pink tints could means a nitrogen deficiency due to nitrogen having been washed out of the soil – treat this long-term with mulching and short-term with nitrogen-rich fertilisers such as sulphate of ammonia or poultry manure pellets; similarly yellow or purple leaf tints and poor fruiting and flowering could mean a deficiency in potassium due to an over-sandy soil – treat this with high potassium fertilisers such as sulphate or potash or tomato feed. We also learn about which plants like which nutrient best – lawns love nitrogen to help make them green for example.

A good tip when choosing a fertiliser is to look at the NPK ratio on the packet, which denotes the nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) levels. Also choose an organic one such as seaweed, hoof and horn, dried blood, fish blood and bone, bone meal, poultry manure pellets, liquid comfrey or nettle feed.

You can also make your own feeds such as calcified, potassium-rich seaweed collected from the seaside, cast dry and crumbled onto the soil or directly onto the lawn – great for veg patches too. Or add some liquid seaweed feed to soil when you're on holiday to feed plants while you're away. Similarly liquid feed made from alkanet (similar to comfrey and rife in Forest Gate) is a great way to feed soil if you don't want to dig it up.


Water is a vital component particularly
when plants are growing

This lesson begins with a thought-provoking discussion about the impact of the floods in various parts of the UK over recent years – about how the soil's nutrients were just washed away. We learn (or are reminded) that around 70% of the planet Earth is saltwater but that we can't just take that and turn it into fresh water or it would drain the oceans and seriously affect life-giving ecosystems.

There is a worldwide water shortage (fact) and humans are making this worse all the time by polluting it with things like petrol. Humans, who are, in fact 70% water themselves. You'd think we'd have more inbuilt respect!

Water – it's powerful and vital stuff and none more so than to plants who are made up of 90% of the stuff. This is evident in times of water scarcity when a plant can quickly become limp and if not watered, die – there is a point when cell structure collapses and cannot recover.

Water fills every every tube inside a plant, helping to support weight, growth and development of each individual part from roots through to stalk and branches to leaves, flowers and fruit. Plants lose all of their water through transpiration so that carbon dioxide can get in and photosynthesis (when sunlight is transformed into energy/food) can take place. It does this through the plant's stomata (small holes on the underside of leaves) which balances the carbon dioxide and water levels in a plant. This process also allows cooling, much as sweating does for humans.

Back to soil, and we discuss how well the soil in our gardens holds water. Once again it's about making your soil healthy so that it retains water well but doesn't become water-logged. As we learnt at the beginning of the lesson, a deluge of water can simply wash all those hard-earned nutrients away. So where possible, control your application using a watering can rose or fine spray on a hose. Also, try to mimic nature – light to medium rainfall around the roots is best.

The time of day you water is also crucial. Water in the early morning and at dusk / evening to achieve maximum consumption and minimum waste / evaporation. Do not water leaves! This will not only evaporate faster, it can scorch or burn leaves like a magnifying glass. Install a system to drip feed water when you are away and set up a water butt to collect water. We discussed water conservation and application in detail with great recommendations on the best systems to use to cover both.

But water isn't just about getting a bit of H2O to your plants. It's also an amazing feature to have in your garden and can be incorporated into even the smallest garden. It provides a habitat for wildlife including frogs (aka slug eaters), toads, mayflies, damselflies and dragonflies. It can provide a relaxing element through its sound and appearance. A pond can also naturally cool the garden.

On this note, Stephen imparts some brilliant advice on how to create a pond. I have two small kids and wanted to know how to address the safety issue and he had some great ideas about making bucket ponds set into the earth (use oxygenated pond weed to eliminate risk of stagnant water and mosquitos) or creating a bog garden, where soil is permanently moist. He has created a number of these in schools recently and the kids love them. Who doesn't love a mud pie! I also love his idea of putting a mirror at the bottom of a pond or in the garden to lighten it up and create reflections / new spaces.

Plants need sunlight, water and carbon dioxide
to create food for them to grow

Week 5 already – how time flies! The course is so interesting I can't wait to get out into my garden soon. It's also extremely relaxing to focus on plants and gardening for a few hours each week, when the weather is not so great and when life is pretty hectic the rest of the time.

This week, we're talking about plants, from the roots up to the stalks, leaves and flowers. We touch on the basic parts of plants: how the roots are the 'feet' of the plant, how healthy roots should be white in colour, and how to recognise the dreaded vine weevil, which live on the roots and often come from garden centre plants; how stalks carry water like a 'lift shaft' and will be the very last thing to collapse in drought; how leaves carry out photosynthesis to create food for the plant; and how flowers are needed for pollination, create seed and are the end of the life cycle.

We talk more about photosynthesis – how humans should learn to do this as well as plants to create clean energy. Apparently the Japanese are working on it. As plants produce more oxygen at night the air is cleaner then – perhaps we should all go for a regular moonlit walk to up our oxygen levels! We also talk about life cycles and some of the oldest plants on Earth, including trees and some mosses. The oldest living plant is 80,000 years old and is a clone of a tree found in an isolated spot in America; other ancient trees include bristle pine cones. The next oldest group of plants are shrubs such as magnolia, then sub-shrubs, then perennials.

The lesson then moves over to herbaceous plants, which include perennials (always there), biannuals (2-year lifecycle to produce seed), and annuals (1-year lifecycle to produce seed). We talk about types of herbaceous plants, dominant colours (pinks and yellows) and what to plant where and when. The conversation then moves to companion planting in veg beds with plants such as wallflowers, love-in-the-mist, garlic, nasturtiums, marigolds and cornflowers – some of my favourite flowers.

Somehow we also start a discussion about street trees and which ones are most suitable. Apparently all the London plane trees have a life span of about 100 years and were planted at around the same time, and thus will also die at the same time. What to replace them with? Apple trees are the answer, some experts believe, and we'd have some good urban crops at the same time. I love the way we are learning what the lesson plan sets out but also so much additional stuff – history, town planning, colour theory.

Finally on to seeds, propagation and garden design: how most seeds germinate in 14 days; how soaking seeds in water for 24 hours can help; how planting seeds and things like grafting can be fun experiments to try with kids. Someone asks about wildflowers and Stephen advises that we can get seed from London Wildlife Trust and Naturescape. We discuss all sorts of plants and their optimum conditions from woodland and wild garlic under trees, to tulips in pots and bulbs as the 'saviours of many gardens'.

Finally we plan Week 6 together, agreeing to go out and about so we can look at herbaceous plants in situ together. The Methodist Church front garden on Woodgrange Road is suggested as a possible location – a garden I've always loved for it's 'cottage garden' appeal and constant colour, and one that Forest Gate Community Garden volunteers helped to clear up last year.

Forest Gate Community Garden Organic Gardening Course
Tutor Stephen Mason (centre) on site September 2014

Now I've completed 5 weeks of the Forest Gate Community Garden Organic Gardening Course, it's time to put some advice into good action – both in my garden at home and as suggestions for the Forest Gate Community Garden. Here are just a few examples of what we could be doing now and in the future:

Home // Claremont Road, London E7 0PZ
  • Prepare a folder and notebook for all my handouts and notes
  • Start thinking about documenting my garden
  • Create a bit of time each week to put great tips into action
  • Properly anaylse my soil – what kind of soil do I have at the front of the house and the back?
  • Enrich any soil that doesn't look (or smell) healthy
  • Don't throw my 'rubbish' topsoil away when moving it to create space in one part of the garden – make a container where we can deposit the soil and make it our mission to enrich the soil so we can use it elsewhere
  • Create a compost heap in our garden using old crates (1-metre cubed) – try and include the following components: lid to keep out rain; access; airflow; a balance of carbon and nitrogen matter – twigs, branches, grass cuttings, veg waste, garden debris, flowers, paper and cardboard; a way to turn and water regularly
  • Choose plants that match my main soil type
  • Get over my fear of fertilisers and spend a bit of time reading up about which plants need which nutrients
  • Make our own liquid feed from alkanet or comfrey – rife in our neighbourhood
  • Get some seaweed from the seaside and turn into food for the lawn – organise trip to seaside!
  • Collect wood ash from our stove to enrich the soil
  • Install a rainwater butt – potentially a RainwaterHOG modular tank which is a great solution for small spaces and is narrow enough to go along a house wall (this can also provide thermal insulation to the house apparently)
  • Build a bog garden with the kids (when I'm brave enough to deal with the mess!)
  • Consider making some bucket ponds among our flower beds
  • Put some mirrors in the garden – something I have been thinking about for a while
  • Use greywater to water the plants where possible – change the pipe valves to allow relatively clean bathwater to go into a tank?
  • Save water more in everyday life – it's easy to take it for granted
  • Have a proper look around the garden and see what we have 
  • Make a folder of things in my garden including images of plants round the year – I actually did this last year for my Herbarium Project so could print all these out
  • Talk to the 'experts' (Stephen, Lisa Eller on the Steering Group, my mum-in-law, my mum, other more knowledgable people on my course, books) to help decide what plants work best in my garden
  • Try to turn our orphanage of donated plants into a workable garden
  • Plant plants properly – stop cutting corners and just shoving them in!
  • Think about getting seeds sorted for spring sowing
Forest Gate Community Garden // 136 Earlham Grove, London E7 9AS

Steering Group Member Dr Kate Spencer
collecting soil samples from the FGCG site

  • Think about how best to disseminate information from the course to Forest Gate Community Garden Steering Group and Members
  • Ask other course Members if they might contribute some feedback to a later article
  • Definitely suggest that we should have a summer course
  • Get the soil analysed to see if it is good to grow – we are lucky to have Dr Kate Spencer on our Steering Group to assist with this
  • Feed the soil or potentially bring in soil from elsewhere for the raised beds
  • Develop a relationship with nearby stables or city farm to deliver or save manure to enrich the soil
  • Create several compost heaps using old pallets, so that one will produce compost while the other is being turned
  • Teach people, including kids, about soil and compost and what a difference healthy soil makes
  • Suggest turning some of the garden 'debris' such as 'weeds' into liquid feed – can we turn buddleia into liquid feed?
  • Initiate collections of nutritional liquid feed matter such as nettles and alkanet
  • Discuss what we might grow and if it may need any extra help
  • Look around the garden and see if any plants might need a bit of help to restore them to their former glory – for example the beautiful lilac rose
  • We definitely have plans for a water harvesting system from the roof of our main hub – firm these up
  • We could put water catchers out to catch rainfall when we know there will be a deluge
  • Advise people when best to water the plants and with what
  • Consider what equipment we need to water plants – lots of watering cans?
  • Make a bucket pond system instead of a big pond to make it safe for kids?
  • Have a look around the garden to see what kind of shelter, soil and exposure we have and what plants might work best in different areas
  • Talk about plans for raised beds
  • Consider asking people in Forest Gate for plant donations that would work really well in our patch
  • Talk about the trees in the garden and what effect their root system might have
  • Think about what kinds of plants we can move quite easily when the lease is up
  • Talk about seed collection so we can create our own sustainable cycle of plants

The Forest Gate Community Garden Organic Gardening Course is run in partnership with Newham Adult Learning Service and tutored by renowned local organic gardener Stephen Mason of Greenspace Management, who has a distinguished community garden record. It runs for 10 weeks from Friday 16 January until Friday 27 March 2015 (with a break for half term). Sessions take place between 1-3pm each week and are held at the Forest Gate Learning Zone (1 Woodford Road, London, E7 0DH; 5 minutes walk from Forest Gate Station; opposite Wanstead Park Station).

The full cost of the course is £60 for those in employment but there are concessions for the retired and those on benefits, with evidence (see page 2 of the Newham Adult Learning Lifelong Learning 2014-2015 brochure). We hope to also run a course in the summer.

For more details visit our website ( and head to Get Involved and then Courses>

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