At age four, I found a garden, living underneath the kitchen floor. It was hiding behind leftover patches of linoleum on the worn-out floor my mother was having removed.
The workman was busy when the garden caught my attention. My eyes became glued to the patterns of embroidered roses blooming across my childhood landscape. I saw them and felt a sense of joy and adventure. This excitement felt like a feeling to go forward into something I knew nothing about. My passion and connection to gardening started at that exact moment.
When spring arrived, I ran so fast through the house, speeding ahead of my mother's voice. I pulled on my red corduroy jumper and my grey plaid wool hat before my mother could get her jacket on. I catapulted out of the front screen door and threw myself on a fresh carpet of grass.
Excited, I bounced to my feet and flipped three more cartwheels before landing by her side. Mother dear was in the garden busy breaking up the soil, and I sat beside her, playing with mud pies in the flower bed. When her work was done, she rewarded me with an ice-cold glass of bittersweet lemonade and then lined my shoes with sprigs of mint to cool off my feet.
My mother cooked with the colours and textures of her garden. She baked yams and squash and heirloom tomatoes and carrots. She fed love to a generation of people with purple hull peas and greens. It seems that during my childhood, the blooms from my mother's gardens have healed all the way from her halo to the roots on the soles of our feet.
In our last conversation before her death, she encouraged me to go anywhere in the world that would make me happy. Since then, I have planted her gardens through art installations throughout the world, in countries of the people that I meet.
Now they're lining parks and courtyards, painted on walls and even in blighted lots off the street. If you were in Berlin, Germany, you would have seen my garden at Stilwerk Design Center, where rosemary and lavender, hydrangea and lemon balm trailed up the glass elevators to all six floors.
In 2009, I planted "Philosophers Garden," a garden mural, blooming at the historic Frederick Douglass High School in Memphis, Tennessee. This school’s garden fed an entire community and was honoured by Eleanor Roosevelt during the Great Depression. Again, in 2011, I planted at Court Square Park -- six entry gardens with 80 varieties of deliciously fragrant floribunda and hybrid tea roses.
Gardening has taught me that planting and growing a garden is the same process as creating our lives. This process of creation begins in the spring, when you break up the soil and start anew. Then it's time to clear out the dead leaves, debris and roots of the winter. The gardener must then make sure that a good disposition and the proper nutrients are correctly mixed in the soil. Then it's important to aerate the topsoil and leave it loosely packed on the surface. You won't get those beautiful blooms in life until you first do the work just right.
When our gardens are balanced with care, we can harvest the beauty of living a life of grace. In the forests, when trees realize through their roots that another tree is sick, they will send a portion of their nutrients to that tree to help them to heal. They never think about what will happen to them or feel vulnerable when they do.
When a tree is dying, it releases all of its nutrients to other trees that need it the most. Below the surface, we are all connected by our roots and sharing nutrients with each other. It's only when we come together that we can honestly grow.
It's the same for humans in the garden of hardship. In this garden, when the caterpillar transforms into a chrysalis, this involves some struggle. But it's a challenge with a purpose. Without this painful fight to break free from the confines of the cocoon, the newly formed butterfly can't strengthen its wings. Without the battle, the butterfly dies without ever taking flight.
My life's work is to illustrate how to integrate human connectivity into the garden. Gardens are full of magical wisdom for this transformation. Mother Nature is creative energy waiting to be born. Gardens are a mirror that cast their own reflection into our waking lives. So nurture your talents and strengths while you appreciate all you've been given. Remain humble to healing. And maintain compassion for others. Cultivate your garden for giving and plant those seeds for the future.
The garden is the world living deep inside of you.
I’m back at Interface's design showroom again this year during Clerkenwell Design Week. I’ve been holding workshops with them for the past 5 years and it's always a pleasure to brainstorm ideas that tie in with their abiding commitment to sustainability, biophilic design and their target to have zero impact on the environment by 2020.
This year we will be making kokedama with plants that are pretty nifty at absorbing nasty toxins from the interior spaces we inhabit, together with the carbon dioxide they need to survive. Through photosynthesis, they purify and transform common pollutants from the air we breathe into beautiful, clean oxygen.
Here are my four favourite air-purifying plants. HEDERA HELIX (ENGLISH IVY) NASA scientists ranked English Ivy as the best air filtering houseplant there is. It’s a champ at absorbing formaldehyde from the air. The English Ivy plant is an easy plant to grow. It’s incredibly adaptive and thrives in moderate temperatures along with medium sunlight. English Ivy
SANSEVERIA (SNAKE PLANT) Also known as ‘the mother-in-law’s tongue’, this plant is excellent at filtering out formaldehyde, which is common in cleaning products, hygiene, and personal care products. This incredibly low maintenance indoor plant is about as resilient as they come. Although they prefer dry and warm air, they can tolerate colder temperatures too.
SPATHIPHYLLUM (PEACE LILY) The Peace Lily boasts strong dark green leaves and a delightful, white bloom. It is easy to care for and helps to filter out harmful benzene, trichloroethylene, and formaldehyde toxins. The moisture given off by these striking flowers can boost a room’s humidity by up to 5%. Avoid if you have pets as this plant is poisonous to cats and dogs. Peace Lily
CHLOROPHYTUM (SPIDER PLANT) The well-known Spider Plant is also a champion cleanser of air. The NASA tests showed it to remove around 90% of the potentially cancer-causing chemical formaldehyde from the air. Since formaldehyde is found in common household products like adhesives, grout and fillers, it’s a good idea to keep one of these plants around your kitchen and bathrooms especially.
If your balcony is not being used to lounge, plant or dine in, it’s time to rethink your potential miniature Garden of Eden.
IT’S ALL IN THE PLANNING Consider aspect, shelter, shade and privacy and draw up a sketch plan. I use drawing programmes such as SketchUp and Vectorworks, but a sharp pencil, sheet of paper, scale ruler and measuring tape will do just fine.
REIGN IT IN If it’s The Good Life you are seeking and a balcony is your only means to achieve it, forget the hens and patches of earth nestling huge pumpkins. Consider growing up in a garden wall or tower. Think herbs and leaves, perhaps even some potted citrus trees. Start small with a few strong ideas that make the most of your balcony’s potential.
Planting a bottle tower garden on the balcony at my studio
PLANTS Balconies are often more exposed to the elements however with the right plants, you can transform your balcony into an inviting space that thrives all year round. Understanding which plants will tolerate these conditions will ensure the success of your balcony garden. (I’ll be listing and covering some of these plants in more detail next week). Try to keep a base of evergreens for all year round greenery and hold back on including a rainbow of different coloured plants. Pick a theme of one or two colours other than green and stick to it.
Potting up some lemon thyme
FURNITURE If you are downsizing from a garden to a balcony you may need to start again. Cluttering a balcony will always make it feel smaller. I am about to move and when I dream up the narrow outside space, I’ve imagined squeezing in a dining table with seating for 6, a water feature, a corten steel firepit and oh how lovely it would be to lie back in a hammock from time to time. Of course, when I come to my senses and really consider the 1.59m x 5.62m space, I’d be lucky to comfortably seat 2. Invest in the best quality outdoor furniture that your budget will allow or consider built-in furniture such as bench seating with storage, as this is a great way to maximise space. Look for lightweight pieces, UV-resistant outdoor fabrics and furnishings that suit the scale of the space you have. POTS Really consider weight when choosing pots. Avoid heavy terracotta and concrete and opt instead for lighter plastic or resin containers. Unfortunately, quality comes at a premium, but I’d encourage you to invest in a few fabulous pots, rather than filling your balcony with cheap plastic varieties. Aim to fill them with a lightweight compost formula. If you have large pots, put them on wheels so you can move them around to suit seasonal conditions. For the more adventurous, liberate plants from their pots and hang lots of kokedama on your balcony. They provide privacy and are an interesting take on a green wall.
Plants wilt when they are over-watered and they wilt when they are under-watered, so it can be hard to tell what’s wrong. Overwatering is the surest way to kill a plant, causing root rot and a nasty pong, so try to use pots with drainage holes; no one wants to lie in a cold bath for weeks and roots need time to breathe and dry off in-between waterings.
City water is not good for plants and can slow down growth. If you have space, install a rain barrel and use the captured rainwater to water your plants. Another option is to let tap water sit in buckets for a couple of days before watering, leaving the water purer, as the chlorine evaporates, and a better temperature.
Watering at room temperature is a good rule of thumb as cold water can shock the system. If these options don’t appeal, you could consider investing in a water purification system for your home, such as a reverse osmosis water filter.
To decide whether your pot plants need a drink, touch the soil. If it feels sticky and looks dark, skip on the watering. If the soil feels dry, water plants with confidence ensuring the soil is soaked through.
Use saucers under pots whenever possible and allow excess water to drain out of pots before placing them back on their saucers On average, I water plants once a week in the summer and once a fortnight in the winter. Of course, each plant has different needs, so this is just a rough guide for plants in pots, not in terrariums. It’s tempting to stick to a schedule, but I’d advise observing your plants and feeling the soil instead.
Falling head over heels in love with a plant is easily done. It is tempting to purchase a plant based purely on its handsomeness, then proudly walk it home and position it in a spot that needs cheering. However, I recommend picking a plant based on your light levels.
Contemplate the position you have in mind for a plant; is it sunny or shady? Direct sunlight can cause sunburn and singed leaves; most plants need bright but indirect light, so should be positioned a few feet away from a south-facing window.
If your plant is looking a little limp, pale and shedding leaves it may need more light. Plants getting too much sun will have soil that is baked dry and their leaves may be crisp.
Do your homework, search online for, ‘plants that like a north facing, bathroom window’ for example. Figure out which direction your windows face using a compass and learn what will thrive there, then make a shortlist of suitable plants. From this list, you can make a decision based on what you find most aesthetically pleasing. Rotate plants monthly to stop them becoming lopsided as they will grow towards the light. I’ve included examples below of easy-to-grow shade lovers. ZZ Plant (Zamioculcas Zamiifolia) Rhino Grass (Sansevieria Deserti) Snake Plant Or Mother-In-Law's Tongue (Sansevieria Trifasciata) Ruffles (Anthurium Plowmanii)
And now for the sun worshippers Crown Of Thorns (Euphorbia Milii) Haworthia (Haworthia Sp.)