The end of the Preston Circus Planter(s) project

Yes, the end of an era … We are no longer involved with the planter at Preston Circus. Some of us first started planting up planters there back in 2011 and 2012.

In 2013, we were awarded funding for planting up four abandoned planters at the Circus. We also organised a workshop guided by Bridget and Deborah at The Garden House. We planted up the four planters in different schemes, and for a while they thrived. We also obtained funding for a water butt installed at the Calvary Church.

There was then a Council initiative to ‘declutter’ at Preston Circus and remove the black planters and the railings. The planters were moved up Viaduct Rd where they have functioned as traffic calming devices. Meanwhile, the area outside the Duke of York’s cinema was resurfaced to create a more pleasant pedestrian space, the Duke of York’s put out cafe chairs and tables and the Council commissioned a custom-designed planter and planting plan, which we agreed to help maintain. That was in 2016-17.

The original planting for the new planter aimed to be drought-tolerant: lavenders, rosemary and achillea were among the plants selected. Sadly, the very strong winds and summer droughts meant that the original plants did not thrive. Over the years, we re-planted the planter with a variety of plants: some thrived, e.g. the old sedum we inherited from replanting at The Level, and some beautiful dianthus; quite a few didn’t and some – increasingly – were simply removed by passers by. Why anyone would want to uproot a straggly rosemary that we were nurturing is beyond me, but depressingly, it happened.

With the pandemic, our efforts came to a standstill but we replanted in the spring of 2021 with a range of foliage plants propagated in our gardens, and in fact, they survived well through last summer.

Sadly, Brighton and Hove City Council saw fit to place four large dumpster bins in front of, and then right next to, our poor old planter. This has meant that people started dumping rubbish in the planter and it was clear that maintaining it was going to be tricky without the heavy dumpsters being moved. This last winter, the wood on the side of the planter next to the dumpsters has rotted.

We were ready in May this year to start replanting and renovating the planter; we were particularly excited as we applied for and received a voucher from the Council for purchasing pollinator flowering plants. We asked for the dumpsters to be moved away from the planter.

However, for whatever reasons, this has not happened, and more rubbish has been dumped on the planter. Sadly, the Duke of York’s ‘square’ seems destined to be a rubbish collection point, rather than the pleasant ‘square’ we imagined back in 2015-16, so we felt it was pointless to invest any further energy in bringing the planter back into bloom. We’ve removed the plants that were growing there, and notified the Council we will no longer maintain the planter.

It was always a difficult site, and has perhaps become more difficult over the years. Increasingly, we ‘lost’ showy flowering plants shortly after they were planted. It was sometimes an effort trekking down to Preston Circus and carrying full watering cans from the Calvary Church to the Duke of York’s.

But wouldn’t it be wonderful if Brighton and Hove City Council could ‘declutter’ their own dumpster bins and find an alternative way of collecting refuse? Continental cities manage to construct local refuse collection points underground with a limited surface presence. Sadly, we’ve not got there yet … and so we continue to live with huge unsightly black dumpsters, and ‘our’ planter is no more.

One of the original black planters before we replanted it in 2011
Planting up in May 2021
Installing and planting the new planter in March 2017
The sad ‘new’ planter and the dumpsters in May 2022
The old black planter at the Duke of York’s looking colourful August 2014
Old black planter at Duke of York’s looking colourful in 2012
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Isn’t it lovely?

It’s amazing what new woodchip can do! We applied for a bit of support to the railway company GTR and they’ve enabled us to purchase a new lot of woodchip for the edible plot and the compost area. It’s renewed the area … people passing have remarked on how tidy it looks! The photos below show the before and after. It’s great to get ready for the new gardening year with a refreshed surface. It also helps when things get wet – less chance of slipping.

We’re looking forward to starting work on growing edibles in March. First, though, we have to endure Storm Eunice … and the strongest winds we’ve had for a while.

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(A bit more) winter pruning

Our mini-orchard is coming up for ten years old! It’s hard to believe that we planted our cordonned fruit trees – four apples and two pears – back in March 2012. They’ve done well and given us lots of fruit, particularly the pears.

The last couple of years we’ve faced a few challenges. Because of lockdowns and restrictions, we’ve not always been able to get in to prune and/or tend to them in January-February and July-August, which are key moments. We’ve also had serious attacks of rosy aphids, woolly aphids leading to leaf curl; a couple of the trees have been affected by canker but we’ve managed to cut out affected wood. And this year, we had reports of somebody reaching over to harvest several bags worth of our precious pears. We hope they were enjoyed – some have tried picking them before they are ripe – but would obviously prefer for this not to happen!

But the trees have really grown, now requiring a tall ladder to prune the tops. The top left photo shows them before pruning this January. I finally got around last week to doing winter pruning (normally reserved for renovating the shape of the trees). The other photos show the cordons looking a little like shorn sheep after pruning.

Forget about the usual advice to cut back all laterals to three or four buds – our cordons are trying really hard to be proper grown-up apple trees. I’ve managed to cut back the leader stems to the top of our wires and to then try to cut the laterals so that we don’t have any growing forward and weak growth is pruned. It’s always a bit hit and miss … our trees just don’t look like the pruning advice pictures!

I don’t find it easy cutting back our beloved trees but previous years’ experience does suggest it’s for the best. I’ve covered the major cuts with a wound sealant and at least this year, we should be able to monitor the trees for any infestations as they come into bud. Fingers crossed!


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Looking back, looking forward

2021 wasn’t such a bad year, or was it? Well, we were locked down until April so we didn’t start any kind of activity until well into May, which meant we missed those crucial months of preparing and planting. True, we sowed seeds and in May/June we managed to plant a range of vegetables: potatoes, beans, courgettes, lettuces. However, 2021 was a year which wrong-footed many a gardener: it was too dry too early (April), too wet and cold (May), too stormy and unpredictable (June), too hot and then too grey (July/August). Getting seeds and seedlings to grow seemed to take for ever.

But we did have a reasonable crop of potatoes, we had some beans, we had some pears and some apples – nothing like in 2019 or 2020, though – and our courgettes were miserable. We did manage a harvest supper very late on at the beginning of November – something of a token affair in terms of produce (i.e. using fruit and veg we had grown even if it wasn’t actually from the garden) though nothing token about the sentiment or enjoyment behind it.

In our anniversary year, we planted a celebratory crab-apple in a rubbish bin. Our 9-year-old plum tree, which had burst out of its rubbish bin, was re-housed thanks to clever carpentry and has hopefully been rejuvenated by an August pruning from our friends at Brighton & Hove Permaculture Trust. The salad leaf seeds we sowed on the off chance in September have germinated and are growing well, now fleeced up from the frost. We planted onions in the autumn, which are coming up now.

Looking forward to 2022, it’s great to get into the gardens to see what needs doing. The mini-orchard of cordoned fruit trees will be 10 years old in March and they require a solid prune, both now and in late summer. Simon has replaced a collapsed herb planter, so we need to replant that. We need some colourful planting in the platform planters and the tree pits at the front of the station, though we’ve discovered that osteospermums seem to survive our winters quite well and should flower again soon. And the shady garden probably needs a bit more attention, though mulching with lots of our compost really seems to have helped prevent the soil drying out.

Just before Christmas, someone decided to try to uproot the lime-green conifer planted in a ceramic pot in the shady garden – they must have thought they have it as a Christmas tree. The conifer resisted but is badly damaged – so there’s some replanting to be done there too. Sadly we’ve seen a lot more damage to our planting over the last few years – finding a recently planted rosemary bush uprooted and thrown on top of the disused phone booth was the most incongruous. But there’s hope – newly installed benches and shelters at London Rd Station might just mean that people don’t sit on the plants in our platform planters. Here’s to 2022 – Happy New Year!

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Community Garden Trail – August 14th

We’re delighted to be part of the Central and East Brighton Community Garden Trail organised by Albion Community Garden. We will be around to talk to visitors on SATURDAY AUGUST 14th from 10am to 3.30am at London Rd Station, BN1 4QS. Drop by and see us!

There are seven other gardens participating, quite a few in the Kemptown area. The Albion Community Garden in Albion Street (BN2 9PP) is a fantastic example of what can be done to create a beautiful space in an unexpected area. It’s only three years old but it’s a real haven of creativity and commitment.

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What’s been happening?

Things are gradually getting going again in the London Rd Station Partnership garden. We’ve planted a variety of crops in the edible garden: potatoes (Sarpo Mira), runner beans, climbing beans, courgettes (Defender), chard and cavalo nero. We had some good lettuces – and then they bolted. Our rhubarb is doing well, the feral raspberries are starting to fruit and after initial invasions of aphids, our fruit trees seem to have recovered. Unfortunately our apples and crab apple have still got woolly aphid infestations. It’s a case of rubbing off the strange woolly ‘fluff’ that the aphids produce. There are some good looking apples appearing and lots of pears on our ‘Beurre Hardy’ tree.

We’ve tried to renew the herbs in the herb planters but they are getting pretty solid use – particularly the rosemary, which we’ve had to renew twice this year.

We’ve planted annuals in the tree pits. The far tree pit is looking good with a nasturtium growing up the tree trunk and orange busy lizzies tuning in with pink cosmos. There are what I suspect are nicotiana silvestris – huge white perfumed tobacco plants – coming on at the back.

It’s been a horrible year for growing seeds: warm weather, wet weather, windy weather, cold weather all came at the wrong time. It’s taken until now for quite a few flower seeds to develop, such was the impact of cold rainy weather back in May. We’ve planted the flowers that have survived the onslaught of slugs and snails in the right hand tree pit: there’s a mixture of carnations, lemon cosmos, some tobacco plants and some verbascum. We’ll see what develops.

And we’ve tried to coax all kinds of colourful plants to flourish in the platform planters: lobelia and fuchsia appear to be doing well, all our petunia were devoured by slugs, osteospermum are growing but not flowering so much and quite a few plants were squashed by people sitting on them. Oh dear … we’ll keep trying to fill gaps but it is sad to see plants damaged.

In the shady plot, we’ve tried to renew some of the planting with more purple heuchera (easy to propagate), bergenias (also very easy to propagate) and some apricot foxglove seedlings which – fingers crossed – will bloom next year. There are some purple and pink begonias at the top of the triangle. The shady area has benefitted from all the rain this year but that has brought with it huge invasions of slugs and snails. Ho hum … I keep repeating the mantra: “if your plants aren’t eaten by something, they are not contributing to the ecosystem”. The strong plants – the fatsia japonica and aucuba japonica – are not bothered by snails: they just keep growing …

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Happy Birthday, LRSP!

We’ve just finished our 10th birthday celebrations. Gardening with six for real in the morning, a socially distanced lunch and then a Zoom celebration with a wider group. It’s been a great day! We had current members and former members come together, along with staff from Southern and the Sussex Community Rail Partnership. To celebrate, we planted a crab apple, which will attract pollinators for our mini-orchard, and a daphne odora, which should waft lovely perfume when it’s grown on a bit, just at a moment of the year when little is growing.

It’s been such a wonderful group, bringing neighbours together, and ten years seems nothing. We’ve had so many lovely people get involved – thank you to all of you!

We made a video to celebrate 10 years of a very special community partnership at a railway station. You can find it here.

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We’re almost 10 years old

The London Rd Station Partnership was created on 15th April 2011 – that’s ten years of community gardening at London Rd Station, Brighton. The group of neighbours who set up the partnership has become a group of friends. We’ve created two gardens, launched a community composting scheme, set up five planters and planted up the tree pits at the front of the station. We’ve organised all kinds of events for our community at the station; we’ve done a lot of digging, sawing, planting and chatting and we’ve drunk lots of cups of tea! The photo below was taken in May 2011 when the edible plot was nothing but compacted rubble.

Below is what that area has become … a beautiful lush growing area with a mini-orchard of seven fruit trees, several of them local varieties. The photo was taken in the summer of 2019. Because of the pandemic, we couldn’t work on the station gardens for most of 2020. The 2021 growing season is just starting up now. Thankfully, we’ve been able to meet outdoors in groups of maximum six people since 30th March. We’re hoping we can get back to creating beautiful and productive spaces at London Rd Station.

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Keeping together in lockdown

We certainly didn’t expect to be in lockdown again in 2021. It was only in July 2020 that we were able to get back in to work on the London Rd Station plots after the first lockdown from March 2020 and by that time, the growing year was turning to what should have been harvesting, not planting. For the first time, in Autumn 2020, we weren’t able to get the group together for a Harvest Supper. It would have been our tenth.

The very warm weather we had in spring and summer and the fact that we couldn’t get in to water consistently did have a negative effect on our fruit trees, and sadly, we had nothing like the crops of apples and pears we’ve had in previous years. But even fruit trees are fairly resilient – I’m hoping we can manage to get some pruning done before they spring into leaf again in April-May. The very cold weather this January should kill off some of the bugs that are prone to attack them.

We managed some distanced meet-ups around the platform planters at the front of the station up until November, and tried to keep these stocked with flowers. We’ve planted them for the winter with polyanthus and pansies, and hopefully the bulbs from previous years will soon surface.

And now we’re back to keeping in touch through Zoom because it’s the social contact amid the gardening that is probably the most important aspect of the London Rd Station partnership. We’ve discussed seeds for next year, giggled at enforced focus on household tasks, and swapped stories about overlength hair. It’s not quite the same as being outside, and nattering while weeding and dead-heading, but it brings us together.

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Winter pruning

Last Sunday (January 19th) we did some winter pruning on our cordoned apple and pear trees. We’re gradually getting the hang of this, and they’ve certainly fruited well these last two years, but they have had spurts of very strong growth and I was worried they would be blown off the wall in high winds.

The principles of winter pruning are fairly straightforward (see below); reality requires a bit of interpretation and approximation as you can see from the video of our efforts.

The wisdom is to prune the leader (the main upwards growing shoot) in the winter when it reaches the top wire. Our problem has been that getting to the top wire requires a ladder and tricky positioning, so I’ve avoided it.

However, with leader stems now coming away from the wire, it was definitely time … Mark and I worked together: never go on a high ladder alone! Balancing loppers, secateurs, pruning sealant as well as yourself is very risky! Our aim was to try to re-shape the six cordons, cutting back the leaders but also unbalanced side growth and forward side growth. So here are the key principles

1. Always prune to a bud – and in the case of our cordons, prune to slightly backward or sidewise facing buds, NOT forward facing ones.

2. Make a clean diagonal cut away from the bud so that moisture doesn’t collect around the bud.

3. Prune out any dead, diseased or damaged (DDD) branches.

4. In winter, prune the leader down to the top wire and tidy any front facing shoots.

5. In summer, prune to reduce growth and ensure air gets to the fruit.

6. Paint over larger pruning cuts with sealant – it’s like a thick glue which covers the ‘wound’ and protects it from nasties – bacteria, insects, fungal infections.

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