A garden created and tended by soldiers on a London rooftop is now blooming, just in time for National Gardening Week.
Close to Buckingham Palace, and famous as the base of Household Division Bands and the Foot Guards Regiments on official public duties, Wellington Barracks is also home to Army families, who accompany the soldiers posted there.
The garden was set up by Corporal Aaron Larkin to provide an outdoor space for the families – including children - living in the Barracks, to have access to nature on their doorstep.
Overgrown and neglected shrubs were removed, so the soil could be cultivated and improved, and borders created. The garden aimed to be low-maintenance and a haven for wildlife - in the form of a pollinator-friendly garden - and to offer the chance to learn hands-on about plants and insects, all on a budget of just £2,000.
In the heart of central London, the garden has the unlikely advantage of being surrounded by buildings, many of them high-rise. This offers a unique microclimate, which mean favourable conditions for plants that would otherwise disappear over winter or would cease flowering.
In the warmer months, plants that wouldn’t usually start flowering until May or June are starting to bloom in April. The garden attracts a wide variety of pollinating insects-many different species of bee, including rarer solitary and leafcutter bees as well as the more usual bumble bees and European honeybees. Dragonflies have also been spotted, owing to the lake in St James’s Park.
Lance Sergeant Ian Shepherd, from the Grenadier Guards Band, and the Sergeant’s Mess gardener, said: “Central London might seem an unlikely location for insects to thrive, but the countryside is largely a patchwork of arable land comprising acres of monoculture crops offering little nutrition or habitat to these creatures, not to mention the use of pesticides. The city has more to offer them!
“I was locked down in the Barracks for a long time during the last year or so, and the garden really helped to keep me busy and occupy my mind. I’ve added many plants and shrubs and am maintaining the area on my own now Corporal Larkin is posted away. I’m effectively head gardener!”
Lance Sergeant Shepherd is a member of the Royal Horticultural Society as well as being an experienced amateur gardener.
The Wellington Barracks Garden shares similarities and benefits with the ‘secret garden’ at Chicksands Priory in Bedfordshire, which was discovered and restored by Captain Vicki Gosling earlier this year. Capt Gosling won several awards at the annual Defence Sanctuary Awards, which recognise outstanding conservation and sustainability effort across the MOD estate. The site is now home to Defence Intelligence.
Lieutenant General (Retired) Richard Nugee, the MOD’s Non-Executive Director for Climate Change and Sustainability said: “Chicksands and the Wellington Barracks garden are great examples of Defence encouraging biodiversity on all its sites and they demonstrate the power of the individual to undertake initiatives such as these.
The MOD’s new interim Climate Change and Sustainability Strategic Approach promotes the benefits of initiatives such as these on Defence establishments big and small and the innovative use of space to create a garden on the roof of Wellington Barracks show that creating a biodiverse habitat is possible even in an urban setting. Not only do projects like these help the environment, they also have proven mental health benefits for those who make and enjoy the gardens.”
“Through behaviour change and encouraging our people to think about climate change and sustainability, Defence can play its part in working together for our planet.”
The Ministry of Defence Climate Change and Sustainability Strategic Approach details the MOD’s approach to gardens and wildlife:
Defence is looking to better understand its natural capital so that it can optimise the opportunity for wildlife, conservation and agriculture. The military functions of Defence land are dependent on effective vegetation control and healthy environments. Planning needs to be carried out in a coherent way, cognisant of environmental change and opportunity.
National Gardening Week 2021 runs from Monday 26 April until Sunday 2 May. It is an annual event which has been run by the Royal Horticultural Society since 2012.