Where have all the flowers gone?

The Barbican used to have brilliant window box displays, its cascading container gardens softening and enhancing the concrete landscape, but nowadays many of the flats have long runs of unfilled and unloved boxes. This summer the Barbican Association is challenging residents to restore the same colour and excitement to our balconies and our lives… Article by Jenny Addison.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Even on the dullest of days, the flowers in my window boxes make me smile.

As a child my garden was three window boxes filled with red geraniums on a balcony in Maida Vale. In more recent years I have downsized from a garden in Chislehurst, to a patio in Notting Hill, to six window boxes strung along the Barbican’s Frobisher Crescent.

My boxes are filled with deep crimson pelargoniums (geraniums’ posh name) from Columbia Road flower market. It’s the best tenner I’ve ever spent as they have kept flowering through two winters and resolutely refuse to die. Their cheerful splash of red is the first thing I see when I wake in the morning and rarely can so much pleasure be gained for so little outlay and effort.

I deadhead, water and feed them with tomato fertiliser every week and am rewarded with magnificent blooms upon which I look with the same pride as any suburban gardener casting a derisory glance over her neighbour’s fence.

Sitting in my flat, watching the fluttering butterflies and busy bees, not to mention the nosey wrens and tits that are always hopping in and out of the boxes, gives added pleasure and the knowledge that we’re not as removed from nature as we may think.

Window box gardening is therapy for the soul as much as any half acre. Of course my display is commonplace, but many of the Barbican’s window box gardeners are more ambitious.

A lady in Mountjoy House has created a Japanese garden out of 14 boxes filled with acers, flowering cherry, azaleas, pieris and bamboo that instantly brings the Mikado to mind. While the hanging boxes of Gilbert House with their swags, sways and cascades of gazanias, solanum, hydrangea, jasminum and lampranthus billowing in the wind add drama to the view from the lakeside terrace.

Each house has honourable mentions – peachy pink climbing roses and trailing fuchsias in Mountjoy; purple hydrangeas, bamboo and a perfectly cut privet hedge in Seddon; palm trees, hostas and climbing honeysuckle in Willoughby.

But sadly too many of the flats have long runs of unfilled and unloved boxes. How can so many residents live without looking onto their own little patch of greenery?

Together our two thousand plus homes have, so I’m told, seven and a half miles of balcony space in which to flaunt our own creativity and to prove it isn’t only within the Arts Centre that the artistic spirit can flourish.

Just imagine helping celebrate the 50th anniversary of Britain in Bloom by ensuring our balconies come alive with pollinator-friendly flowers swaying in the summer breeze. It would be a joy to behold!

The challenge then this summer is to step on to the balcony and get your hands dirty. Just as long as you’re out there, rubber gloves are perfectly acceptable.

Now there are decisions, decisions to be made. What kind of compost? Should the plants stand out or blend in? Mixed flowers or a consistent look?  To trail or not to trail?  Decorative or edible? Remember, there’s no wrong answer – just the one that makes you the most happy.

Resolve to pop down to Geranium in Lauderdale Place for packets of compost.  Hop onto a bus to Columbia Road flower market next Sunday when everything from bedding plants to 10 foot banana trees are up for grabs. Here, with the barrow boys chanting ‘Everythin’ a fiver,’ cheap and cheerful can be your mantra in the street which every week, come rain, wind or sun is transformed into a haven of foliage and flora.

To those of us who are not at all green fingered, it’s good to know that so many plants cope splendidly with a container-bound life. So what it’s to be?

Reliable basics for striking effects are: geraniums, Cape daises, petunias, begonias, fuchsia, lobelia and silver leafed cineraria. Scented plants vary from aromatic herbs like thyme, lavender and rosemary to pelargoniums whose scent leaves can include orange, lemon, pine, eucalyptus, rose and chocolate-peppermint.

Bee friendly plants include marigolds, sunflowers and nasturtiums while rocket, chives, marjoram, mint, parsley, sage and tarragon all have a place on a balcony for those of us who like our food flavoured with fresh herbs.

Yes, the Barbican is a peaceful haven in one of the world’s greenest cities. But let’s raise our standards even higher. A sweep of well-tended window boxes gives a pleasing touch of domesticity amid the brutalism. It sends out the message that we’re neighbours who are proud to live in the heart of the City of London – and the easiest way to say it is with flowers…

Dos and Don’ts

Top tips to ensure you get the best from your window boxes.

  • Use a good compost. Loam-based compost mixed with grit or crushed bark are far better than multi purpose compost.
  • Consider how strong the wind is as tall plants will struggle. Try dwarf varieties.
  • Don’t overfill your container. At first it may look skimpy, but plants soon spread out.
  • Help the drainage and reduce amount of compost needed by filling the bottom of the box with broken terracotta pots or crushed polystyrene.
  • Add water retaining crystals to compost. During hot days, watering at least once a day is essential.
  • Blooms should be fed once a week with a liquid fertiliser during the flowering period.
  • Remove fading flowers and leaves.
  • Use an insecticide to get rid of whitefly and greenfly.
  • Ask a neighbour to water while you’re away – start of many a good friendship.
  • To join the Barbican Horticultural Society, contact the Barbican Estate Office.

Barbican in Bloom

Go for gold and enter your window box or nominate your Barbican favourite in this summer’s City in Bloom competition. Download entry forms from www.cityoflondon.gov.uk.