18 months and still growing

Well we’ve been at this rooftop garden project for a little over 18 months now and it really does look like a proper garden now.  When I was up there the other day I could actually hear the sound of insects buzzing over the cacophony of the construction site next door.  Result!

View northwest from centre of DINA rooftop garden

As I was on the rooftop for about three hours it gave me time to reflect.  What do the people working on the building site think of the little urban oasis?  Have they even noticed?  There is something wonderfully contrary about time spent pottering about among the plants while the HSBC building, another massive symbol of capitalist consumer culture, is erected a stone’s throw to the south.

Birch and rowan underplanted with bergenias – HSBC building behind

Now that the HSBC building is revealing its true gargantuan size I see that it is going to be taller than anticipated.  The shadow cast is going to be longer and this may mean that some of the sun-loving plants might struggle.  We operate and suck and see approach, and plants are surprisingly adaptable, so fingers crossed that most of them will tolerate a bit of shade throughout the middle of the day.  If not we’ll be building more large planters to accommodate trees underplanted with woodland species.

Birch and rowan underplanted with sweet woodruff – HSBC building behind

As you can see the trees, mostly birch and rowan, are coming along quite nicely and combined with the solid underplanting that provides a bit of cover, this space is fast becoming an important stopover for urban wildlife.

Rosemary in flower, beloved by bees, with purple toadflax to follow

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First proper gardening session of 2018 – #DINARooftopGarden #Sheffield

Yesterday was our first session in the rooftop garden, other than moving stuff up there or just calling in. Fran re-potted some plants into bigger containers and I started making new planters with the IKEA bags. We used a half-an-half mixture of the soil donated by friends (which has a lot of clay in it) with some of the woody, peat-free compost from B&Q, and a smaller amount of the black gold from Heeley City Farm.

It’s only April but we spotted several species of invertebrates new to the garden. One bee, one tortoiseshell butterfly (too elusive to photograph), one small hoverfly, redworms (Eisenia foetida),some tiny gnats and a bunch of what we think are dung flies (?) that suddenly appeared after we uncovered a very stinky lump of rotting organic material.

Redworms live on decaying vegetable matter and are the worms that you want in your compost bin.

It’s still early in the year, but we have flowering plants already, thanks to Fran’s advice on species to maintain all-year flowers.

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The rooftop garden continues to grow #DINARooftopGarden

I love soil.

We had a significant donation yesterday. Some friends are doing major things at their house and have dug out a small mountain of soil and kindly offered it for free to any takers. Using the IKEA bags I bought last week, I took three car loads over to DINA and friend and artist Stuart Faulkner helped me move it up to the roof. I might be able to go back for more if there’s any left.

Stuart being Stuart.

It’s good to get soil, although it is a bit stony and it might need riddling to make it finer. Our current plan is to let it out a bit with the rather fibrous, peat-free compost from B&Q and enrich it with some of the “black gold” that we got from Heeley City Farm.

It’s only the beginning of April but we have a lot of new materials up on the roof including more pallets for making weight-distribution rafts. Consequently, once all the soil and compost has been mixed and distributed into the planter bags, pallets split, seeds sown and any new plants brought up to the roof, we might be near the physical and spatial limit for this location.

There is still a lot of labouring to do, but after a highly successful growing season last year (starting from scratch), we can be pretty confident of more life this year.

Watch this space…

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Blue Bags and Black Gold – DINA Rooftop Garden Year Two #RebootingEden

We said we would do it, and we did it. We said it would work, and it worked.

Despite neglecting our social media for the DINA Rooftop Garden, the one thing we did not neglect last year at the DINA Rooftop Garden was the garden bit of the DINA Rooftop Garden. By the end of our first growing season, in 2017, we had created a pesticide-free habitat for insect wildlife that included at least two species of bees, along with several species of flies, spiders, worms and other invertebrates that were not there before. And it only took one growing season.

We built it and they came.

Here are some photos from last week, and things are starting to flower, bud and spread already. I’ll post a selection of the highlights of last year’s growing season soon.

This is not the only project of its kind, but it’s just a drop in the ocean, and there needs to be a lot more of them. In this country, we have institutions of central government, local government and corporate business that seem intent on destroying every living thing that surrounds us and putting up parking lots. Here in Sheffield,  Sheffield City Council and South Yorkshire Police are more concerned with protecting the interests of private contractor Amey Plc than the human rights and interests of the residents. You are probably already aware of the ongoing controversy regarding, what many of us believe to be, the excessive felling of street trees.  I won’t go into detail here, you can find plenty of coverage online.

It cannot be overstated just how important our environment is to our health and continued survival, even for billionaires.

After a couple of false starts, due to surprise snowfalls, Fran and I had our first serious session working on our second growing season. We bought organic “black gold” compost from nearby Heeley City Farm and I took down 40 IKEA carrier bags that I bought a few days ago. I have mixed feelings about IKEA, as it is a rapacious corporation but not as rapacious as some. Rationlisation follows:

You can’t be pure in an impure world, but how do you maintain a degree of morality?


Last year, I did a garden labouring job for a friend where I had to make a temporary repair to a shed whose roof had partially collapsed. We tethered a large blue tarpaulin over the hole and, whilst I was securing the tethers, I notice bees swarming around the tarp. I found out later that the blue end of the spectrum of light is particularly attractive to bees. I had kind of assumed it would be nice bright yellows, but what the hell do I know?

I had the idea last year, but when Spring seemed to have finally arrived, I looked up the cost of IKEA carrier bags, with a view to using them as cheap, ready-made  planters. 50p for the large 71 litre ones and 40p for the smaller 36 litre bags. Both good sizes for growing plants. They might only last a couple of years, but I decided to shorten our route to Eden and buy, or rather leverage, some rather than follow the lower cost but higher effort of scrounging for pots and planters online (we still want more though, so please donate). They are fantastically cheap compared with even the cheapest pots, and much larger than the low-cost plastic buckets that are available at B&Q and Wilko.

I realise they are made in the far east (probably by children) and that they are made of plastic, and that they are probably of a subsidised cost in order to encourage you to buy more in the IKEA stores, but so what? You can’t be pure in an impure world and I saw this as shortcut to expanding the garden for minimal cost and effort.

And they’re blue!

They might not last long, but we can replace them bit-by-bit with other planters and pots (and recycle them obvs). In the meantime, we are using the tools of corporate consumption for the purpose of environmental activism.


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Thriving plants and happy insects

DINAs mini-woodland with birch, rowan, foxgloves and sweet woodruff

This ‘miniature woodland’ is growing well in one of the larger planters and is currently my favourite part of the DINA rooftop garden.  It illustrates the idea of multi-layered growing, albeit in a simplified manner.  If this was a well-functioning ‘natural’ woodland then three layers might be expected: the tree canopy, the shrub understory and ground flora.  In this container there are just two but it is still an effective use of space, with roughly twice as much vegetation per square metre than if it were just trees or just herbaceous perennials.  This means more variety, more complexity and more potential incentives for different invertebrates to visit our garden.

The bees cannot get enough of the foxgloves, they are fighting over the flowers.  Bumble bees are the main pollinator for this plant simply because they have the right equipment for getting to the nectar: their super-long tongues.  Not to be put off, short-tongued bees have found a handy way around this and in the base of one of the trumpets I noticed a tiny hole where a burglar has been in to steal the sweet stuff.

A mini-woodland oasis with a building site as a backdrop

It would ideal to have more planters with this capacity but we are restricted by access to the necessary materials.  Although the plants and wooden palettes were free, our main difficulty is getting holding of reasonably priced compost.  This planter easily takes 400 litres and soil costs money, so my my ambition to make more of the same size is looking like a bit of a pipe dream.

Keeping pots together creates better refuges for wildlife

One way we have tried to get around the problem of growing in pots, which are often only big enough for a single plant, is to group them together.  The idea is to create a better refuge for visiting insects and birds, with more links between plants and a greater number of hiding places.  It seems to be working – aside from bees, wasps and hoverfiles we have dozens of ladybirds, both larvae and adults, and there are a few different beetle species present.   The ‘seeping’ sound from nearby buildings indicates that there are still young birds who have yet to fully fledge; I like to think that the birds are fully exploiting the various food sources available on the roof.  However, it is hard to observe their feeding behaviour as our presence makes them understandably cautious.



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SPRING HAS SPRUNG! Time to get busy. @DINAVenue #RooftopGarden #Sheffield #BeesB4Banks

After a series of setbacks and delays over the past two months, the last few days have been very productive. Despite no updates since January, we have been plugging away at gathering resources, building planters and replanting.

What’s more, nature has been busy getting on with its own business without us and putting leaves and buds on many of the plants.

A while ago, we found a huge plastic pot at the back of DINA, mostly filled with soil, as well as a few turds. Fran said “I wonder how a dog could get up there”. I said “I don’t think it’s dog”. Anyway, every public toilet has a silver lining and, after digging out all the human faeces, we found dozens of mystery but healthy bulbs buried in the soil, and it looks like some of them are daffodils, hence our first taste of Spring.

Additionally, the Blackthorn bushes that Fran bought are getting very lively and we replanted them into a planter we constructed from discarded pallets (more wanted).

A mystery donation left us with these unidentifiable bare whips:

And here they are springing into life and showing some telltale foliage, replanted into another one of our rustic pallet planters.

Spring is bringing the garden to life and we have had our first bees, butterflies and moths spotted, but we still have a lot to achieve.

Here is a before photo:

And a recent photo:

Whilst this is an unfunded project, it is not without its costs, some of which have come out of our own pockets and some via donations of money and equipment from others. However, we still need more. If you can donate pots, planters or compost, please get in touch.

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January update: looking back and moving forward

Some of the larger pots, including a donated rhododendron

Although there has not been that much to report, work has been continuing at a slow pace on the roof top. As there has only been the lightest of frosts to deal with, planting has been ongoing throughout winter as and when we have had large enough pots and the compost to fill them.  These last two items have been in somewhat short supply, and now that we are looking forward optimistically to spring the hunt for free stuff will be taken up a notch.

We have a plan to start making some planters from wooden pallets lined with geo-textile a.k.a weed-control fabric. These large-capacity planters will have a greater surface area in relation to soil volume than a conventional large plastic pot, meaning that more varied plant selections can be grown alongside each other in a planter than can be achieved in a plant pot. This is an important consideration when trying to create the undergrowth needed for sheltering invertebrates.


This mild winter has produced some anomalies; many deciduous plants are doing a good impression of being evergreens and plants than normally don’t bud until February already have leaves on them. Some folks will already be aware of the trend for plants emerging ahead of schedule after a mild winter and while leaf buds have good frost tolerance, emerging leaves and shoots are more vulnerable. However, many plants grown in this country are hardy enough to deal with late frosts; even if the first flush of foliage is damaged, once the temperature increases plants will put on new growth and ultimately recover well. The fate of frosted flower buds is slightly less certain and there is a risk that the blooms of early flowering shrubs and trees, such as magnolias and cherries, will succumb and turn brown before rotting. This will not kill the plant although it probably means that no more flowers will appear that year.

Bearing in mind that milder winters and wetter summers may well be the new normal, at least for the temperate UK climate, it is best to work with nature rather than against it by choosing the hardiest plants to start with. It is worth noting that plants in containers may fare less well than those grown in the ground – ones on exposed roof tops may struggle most of all!

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What’s in the box?


Exciting times: the plants arrive

From the outset of the project it has been my plan to get hold of some shrubs; to give the rooftop garden a good start, ecologically speaking.  On a rooftop shrubs are a good stand in for trees, as they will grow in less soil and save weight, but share some of the positive attributes.  Shrubs provide year round shelter for birds, many produce berries, and they can also be used to create a small canopy when underplanted with shade tolerant perennials.     


Through a tangle of blackthorn

It soon became apparent that there would be few donations of spare shrubs; they are not the kind of thing you just have lying around. It was either do without or spend some money. After much shopping around a decent selection of large sized shrubs, hedging and climbers has been acquired for a reasonable sum.


A good selection of 5 and 7 litre shrubs, some bareroot blackthorn and a small dog rose

After a week’s delay the parcel arrived earlier today and unravelling the contents was fun.  There’s still just enough time to get the plants into pots over the next week or so, providing there is no sudden cold snap.

Berberis darwinii, barberry – a spiky evergreen that flowers in April and May that produces nectar not only highly attractive to bees but also to butterflies and moths, whose caterpillars find shelter in the shrub’s dense foliage. 

Cotoneaster lacteus, late cotoneaster – a drought tolerant evergreen that flowers prolifically in June, providing an excellent source or nectar, before producing red berries that are good late season food source for birds. 

Prunus spinosa, blackthorn – one of the most gorgeous and edible native hedgerow shrubs, it produces masses of tiny white flowers on bare twigs from late March onwards.  Dark purple sloe fruits, similar to those of the cultivated plum, appear in late summer and are food for blackbirds, robins, crows, magpies and starlings.

Rosa canina, dog rose – the quintessential wild and rambling rose found in traditional hedgerows, which produces delicate pink flowers from June through to August.  It is attractive to bees, beetles and files, and produces rosehips in early autumn that are eaten by blackbirds, robins, blue tits, greenfinches and wood pigeons.

Rosmarinus officianalis, rosemary – the popular Mediterranean evergreen is known for its drought tolerance but it is also hardy enough to stand up winter wet and cold.  It flowers prolifically in May through to June and is much visited by bees, butterflies and hoverflies.

Viburnum tinus, laurustinus a useful large evergreen shrub that remains in flower from December through to April.  The small white flowers, which are attractive to bees, are followed by bluish-black fruits eaten by birds.


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Build it and they will come? Better get on and build it (infrastructure update). #Sheffield #RooftopGarden #DINARooftopGarden


New supports for our Jasminum beesianum and Tayberry.

Today was a very productive day, and the first full day of work on the DINA Rooftop Garden. We have continued to build planters from old furniture & discarded pallets, and also made supports for our climbing / spreading plants.

We joked about up-cycling, artisanal re-purposing and the aesthetics of “shabby chic”, and I pointed out that as far as shabby chic is concerned, I have been halfway there for most of my life.


Climbing support.


Another furniture-based planter.


The nascent shrub garden (shrubs arriving real soon now).


A few extra plants from elsewhere in the building.

We gathered a few more containers and pallets that have been accumulated in the building (thank you Malcolm), re-potted a few plants and started to plan how the garden might look when it starts to bloom next year.


Thanks to Andy “Bucket-Boy” Cropper for his help today.

All in all, a very good day and good weather to be gardening.

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Seed update

Out of the big batch of donated seeds, 15 species were sown in mid September and most have proved to be more successful than I initially imagined. Much effort went into selecting the part of my greenhouse that receives the most sunlight throughout the day and the results suggest that this extra attention to detail has been worth it. The unusually sunny and warm end to September has also proved helpful. Care has been taken to keep the soil moist, but not soaking, at all times.


Top row: purple toadflax romping away; middle row: some more escaped toadflax?; bottom row: musk mallow.

Below are the germination stats, from which it can be seen that so far there is a 80% emergence rate by species. However, this is offset by the hugely variable numbers of individual seedlings. This is to be expected; plants such as Achillea filipendulina and Linaria purpurea are highly vigorous, whereas it is no surprise that the Eremurus, which is slow to emerge and needs a temperature of 15°C, has thus far failed to appear. This count up has taken place after just over 5 weeks growth and it is still possible that more seedlings may emerge, although, as the days get shorter and cooler, it is unlikely they will be rushing to germinate.


Achillea filipendulina growing vigorously and some Aquilegia vulgaris just beginning to show.

Where no germination was taken place, the plan is to put the pots inside plastic bags to create a warmer microclimate and give them a better chance. Otherwise it is possible that some of the no-shows may appear next spring, as some seeds require a prolonged period of cold weather before they will germinate. Regardless, half the seed has been saved and another attempt will be made in early spring.


Germinating seeds in supermarket mushroom boxes; the free alternative to plastic germination trays.

Achillea filipendulina ‘Cloth of Gold’ – 34

Aquilegia vulgaris, columbine – 9

Centaurea scabiosa, greater knapweed – 1

Echinacea purpurea, purple coneflower – 5

Echium vulgare, viper’s bugloss – 1

Eremurus spp., foxtail lily – 0

Hypericum perforatum, St. John’s wort – 29

Knautia arvensis, field scabious – 3

Linaria purpurea, purple toadflax – 71

Malva moschata, musk mallow – 7

Prunella vulgaris, self-heal – 9

Sanguisorba officinalis, greater burnet – 0

Salvia sclarea, clary sage – 0

Scabiosa columbaria subsp. ochroleuca, pale yellow scabious – 1

Silene maritima, sea campion – 4

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