The importance of nature for our health has been well established. It's one motivation behind a recent trend for urban rewilding. Research by Andrea Mechelli (professor of early intervention in mental health at King's College London) and landscape architect, Joanna Gibbons, has emphasised the importance of 'accessible nature'. They call for reintroducing nature into our urban environment, even in cities such as Edinburgh, well known for its abundance of green spaces. In Edinburgh's case, this includes many green spaces in central parts of the city.
It is often remarked that Edinburgh's Old Town is labyrinthine with its network of closes. Jean Bareham, in Hidden Gardens of the Royal Mile
, demonstrates how many nooks and crannies of the Old Town have become gardening oases. The New Town too is honeycombed with examples of horticultural endeavour. There are over 30 gardens in the New Town alone.
In her study of The Edinburgh New Town Gardens
, Connie Byrom relates that the gardens have 'enriched the city' and 'added to the enjoyment of those who live, work or visit the capital of Scotland'.
The New Town also contains a number of interesting smaller private gardens created and tended by house owners. A curated selection of these were recently opened to the public, under the auspices of Scotland's Gardens Scheme, with the money raised going to charity (Médecins Sans Frontières and Shelter Scotland). Their 'Even More Gardens of the Lower New Town' trail takes participants through the fringes of the New Town, largely in the vicinity of Stockbridge.
One prominent feature of the gardens is that they are the product of enthusiastic amateurs who have gained expertise in horticulture. Across the eight featured spaces, we see how an initial interest in gardening has really developed into a passion which has resulted in some wonderful places. Speaking to the owners of the plots, it is clear how much joy they have gained from transforming these spaces. Also, how invaluable they were during lockdown when gardening came into its own.
Typical of the delightful sanctuaries that individuals have created is the Walled Courtyard Garden at 24 Fettes Row. This has been the work of Julie Warren and her husband Ian. Their transformation of a utilitarian family garden into a hive of vigorous growth wowed each visitor. Julie relates that she 'barely noticed the lockdown', so secluded is the garden, sunk down low and surrounded by high walls.
The transformation has been far from smooth. According to Julie, the land's ownership was 'lost in the mists of time'. This led to a lengthy legal wrangle: 'we had to fight a battle'. Concerned that others may lay claim to it, she considered purchasing a flock of geese to guard it! There was a great deal of friction with those developing the site next to the garden; what is now St Vincent Place. At one point, her husband was trapped in the garden when the door was nailed shut by some of the builders! Thankfully, these tensions have since diffused.
The new properties have rather reduced the sunlight in the garden but Julie and Ian have 'learned to live with it'. They have also taken advantage of the greater shelter it affords, offering protection to the more tender plants. More recently, the garden has been affected by flooding. This left part of the garden 'almost like a swimming pool'. For a time, Julie considered making a genuine water feature out of this. The flooding had more serious consequences, softening the ground under a number of properties in Fettes Row, as well as flooding the basement areas. Some of the buildings sank by several inches, the main symptom being some cracking in the plaster work.
At St Vincent's Place, we find a 'Contemporary Patio Garden', which makes impressive use of a small and 'slightly sterile space'. It is cultivated by a tour guide at the Botanics, who has used his horticultural knowledge to good effect in determining which plants would be suited to this rather shaded and windy spot. His crab apple tree, for instance, is doing well, but it's a constant battle to keep it warm enough to bear fruit.
An appeal of gardening is its challenge. One of the surprises of the trail is Ian and Helen Pope's gorgeous garden that they have carved out in Logie Green Road. Described as the 'Survival of the Fittest Garden', it's a treat for those who make it to the end of the trail. Set out on a base of pebbles, there are echoes of Derek Jarman's Prospect Cottage garden (in Dungeness, Kent). Jarman produced a widely admired garden in unpromising circumstances, in one of England's most isolated spots with a harsh climate.
In just four years, the Popes have done something similar, transforming a bare and utilitarian space into a riot of colour. It already looks well established. Helen admits that most of the basic work was done by Ian: 'I told him what I wanted and he built it'. When the lawn was dug up, it was covered with pebbles. In this way, plants can spread organically.
Indeed, a number of the things that have popped up have surprised Helen herself: 'Sometimes I'm not sure what it is... sometimes they may be things which have seeded themselves or blown here in the wind'. There was a sense of the garden constantly in motion as she pointed to some flowers which have 'just come out today'.
On a day such as this, with warm sunshine and short, sharp showers, you feel as if you can see the plants growing in front of you. Through the compost bins tucked away at the back of the garden, the soil has gradually improved from the rather limey material they began with.
Equally impressive is the 'Lush Basement Garden' in Stockbridge. On the corner of Clarence Street and Henderson Row, Pete Jew's basement passage garden is a true delight. Each day, thousands of people pass by it and admire it from above, but only once you enter can you fully appreciate it. It provides some stunning views, especially towards Stockbridge Parish Church.
The garden is primarily evergreen and this provides a great sense of enclosure, a feeling of being in a deeply wooded place. In the background, Pete's flat tinkles with classical music as he discusses his garden. It all adds to the sense of calmness in the place; an escape from the traffic above. One drawback of the basement setting is that Pete feels his plants are always slightly short of water. Even as the drizzle fell, he lamented that his plants remained thirsty.
He has recently extended the garden as he has taken over responsibility for tending the section belonging to the next door flat ('the guys don't have any interest in gardening so were happy for me to take it over'). His new project involves filling in that section and figuring out which plants will work best. A particular favourite of Pete Jew's is a plant gifted to him by the potter, Janet Adam, who was based opposite until her recent death, aged 81. Adam was also a keen gardener. Pete has named the plant in her honour: 'I'm just going out to water Janet,' has become a familiar cry. It's typical of the way many of the gardens on this trail have become local communal hubs in some sense, bringing neighbours together.
This trail emphasises the potential of even the smallest and least promising spaces. Also, the all-consuming nature of gardening and how it can become something of an obsession. The all-consuming nature can, however, help us escape the stresses of daily life and help us maintain good mental health. The sense of achievement is palpable among a number of the gardeners, who proudly display before and after photos. They demonstrate that, with determined effort, unpromising spaces can be transformed.
The recent heatwave has demonstrated the cooling effect plants and trees can have on properties and streets. Green though Edinburgh largely is for a capital city, it has the potential to become even greener. These enterprising residents demonstrate one way to do this.
Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher based in Edinburgh