An Old Town Gardener

By Janet Dick

I grew up with farming boys, they had money and drove cars. I learned something of the class system from them and I never learned how to drive a car. A life time of rage against inequality has done me nothing but good and one less car driver has saved the world from another nutter behind the wheel.

On the plus side, my love of the countryside has remained with me and endured 40 years of living in the middle of central Edinburgh. My home is in the Grassmarket and I moved here to escape rural Perthshire. I never chose this place, it came with the man I’d set my heart on. Four children have grown up here and since flown the nest, we have 3 grandchildren now climbing the spiral stairs and filling the place with noise and clutter, just how we like it.

We have north and south facing windows and on every one there is a window box filled all year round with colour; the south facing ones have large climbing jasmine with sweet scented blooms early and late in the year, pyracantha stretches out and upwards offering branches to eager perching birds. Bird feeders supply year round seed to goldfinches, green finches, chaffinches, bullfinches, blue tits, coal tits, great tits, dunnocks, robins, wrens and blackbirds. But you can’t invite nature to your home and be selective about your guests; starlings are chased away as are feral pigeons and grey squirrels – they don’t need my expensive seeds and they keep the smaller birds away. Chasing the greedy unwanted visitors can be a full time activity, cursing and waving dishtowels works, however nothing will deter a sparrow hawk from picking off fledglings as they enjoy their free meal… mostly male sparrow hawks have been sighted but a female has also taken young birds from the feeders. We’ve also had a visit from a juvenile peregrine who sat among the pigeons, he was tolerated for a time then chased from his perch by one of the larger stock.

Gardening in a tenement flat in the middle of a city is a life affirming activity for me. Not only does it bring me joy and happiness but it does a bit of both for my neighbours and passers-by who look up and notice. Until recently I also had 2 planters outside the front door. Large prickly pyracantha, grew for 4 years until some drunken eejits smashed them and rubbished the flowering primula. In the summer sweet peas grew up and around the prickly branches and whenever I watered them passers-by would tell me how beautiful they were and how much they liked seeing them. I have new metal planters scheduled to replace the broken ones. I’m not for giving up.

But a tenement flat can only give you so much joy and happiness if you were raised in the countryside and the land is where you want to be. Five years ago the council relented, after a bit of pressure from residents, to allowing us the use of a neglected greenspace at the foot of West Port. Since then I have been an active outdoor gardener and it has been like a second home to me.

West Port Garden is owned by the City of Edinburgh Council. An original Patrick Geddes garden of 1910, designed by the women of the Open Spaces Committee, it was landscaped for the tenement children of the area to give them outdoor space to play and enjoy nature. The Grassmarket has very few families with young children now; life here is not for the fainthearted, the Night Time Economy wreaking havoc on people’s lives.

The garden is not tucked away and yet countless people remark on how often they have passed it before noticing that a garden is there. It’s not what you expect to find in the middle of the drinking mecca. Fenced in and with a locked gate the garden is secure from intruders and protected from a scale of damage that would befall it from a constant stream of visitors. The garden opens its gates every Sunday and more regularly throughout the week during summer months. I am one of about 12 gardeners who weed, dig, plant and nurture this precious space. My own commitment to the garden is singularly selfish; I love it and without it I’d have to pack up and go.

Being able to spend time outdoors, often completely alone, and enjoying the sight and sounds of nature, has given me an essential coping method for living in the city. But in conflict with my own selfish needs I also Love My Neighbour. Without any religious dogma to complicate this love, I care about the people around me and those far beyond. Gardening fits beautifully into my angry crusade to make the world a better place for everyone. If you have a conscience it’s impossible to garden without thinking of the wider world. The choices you make when you weed, dig, plant and nurture will carry evidence of it for a long time. You learn not to harm living things… slugs, bugs, weeds and cat shit all have a place and there are plenty creative solutions for how to get rid of the blighters without killing them all!

My principal intention at the start of my outdoor gardening was to create a place of beauty for everybody to enjoy. Growing vegetables was categorically NOT on my list; my rural Perthshire parents have a large garden where more courgettes than you could eat in one lifetime are produced, along with potatoes, cabbages, beetroots, onions, garlic, leeks, peas, beans and eggs! I’ve discovered that it’s impossible though to have the use of land and not consider growing your own food. Indeed I’d go as far as to say that it’s immoral not to grow your own food if you have the opportunity to do it! Land use and misuse has become a major conversation topic for the gardeners at the foot of West Port. We’ve become politically aware of the issues surrounding how our food is produced, what’s in it, what it’s doing to us and more significantly what it’s doing to the planet?

The garden is enjoyed by hundreds of people who pass by its gate and by just as many who come in on open days. Repeatedly we hear and share the same stories with people from all over the world; land is precious and we need to take better care of it. This little garden has a huge part to play in efforts to look after the planet. The garden is an essential corridor in the city for a fragile population of living things, connecting them all to larger greenspaces which are under threat. Trees, hedges and grassland are all at risk from a variety of sources, the farming community are only one of many seeking to claim land for increased production at a cost to wildlife and the environment.

And here, in our own place, we have a poor reputation for paying blind indifference to some of the best wildlife legislation in the world. Contractors and developers prune and fell tress in the nesting season, they remove healthy, green growth in public spaces to “keep out rough sleepers”, they strim whole areas of garden stock to make it look “tidy”, they hire out gardens and greenspaces for events that cause long term damage to the soil, they hang artificial lighting in trees to the detriment of birds and insects. Add to that the damage done by the planning and licensing department who appear to have no regard for biodiversity or a healthy environment.

About 9 years ago a bucket load of European money was spent on ‘environmental improvements’ for Grassmarket (it even won awards). They removed large poplar trees and replaced them with container grown Oaks and Lime. Nothing wrong with those except that none of these trees will ever grow to the size of the original trees and that affects the bird population, few if any will ever nest in these trees. The large poplars also gave room for rooks to roost, we’ve pretty much lost them and within months of the new trees being planted there was a sizeable increase in pigeon and gull numbers. Scavengers, who also plague our sleep with their night time plundering of bins and cast away food containers from cafes, takeaways and vomit.

Small changes make a big difference. I campaigned for planters to be brought into the area which brightened up the look of the place and watched yet again the impact that a little bit of nature has on everything around it. With the arrival of the planters I watched wrens peck around the ivy then take off to land on my own planters in search of a grub or two. Blackbirds did the same. But food alone is not enough to sustain living things, they need water too. At my own window box I’m happy to live with filthy windows from the splashings of blackbirds bathing and sipping at a dish of water. One of the gardeners at West Port filled a large metal dish with stones and water and within minutes of setting it up the first blackbird arrived. Regularly I stand, delighted by the obvious joy displayed by bathing blackbirds.

Part of my life is like a scene from Little House on The Prairie. Wildlife visits me and my home, I have surrounded myself with the beauty of nature. I am happy. Cut from that to a recurring scene from Fellini’s Satyricon. Not happy. My life has been shaped by decision makers who have no vision and who are replaced every 4 years by others of the same: I have wasted so much time listening to these people. For the nearly 40 years of living here I have used every tool available to me through the democratic process. To date it’s done little or nothing for me or for the place I live. Outside my front door we have 2 glass phials measuring levels of nitrogen dioxide. They show that throughout the year I am breathing intolerably high levels of toxicity. Buses, coaches, vans, lorries, delivery vehicles to all the pubs, cafes, restaurants and hotels along with cars clog up the roads and my bronchial tubes. The planners approved this and there are regulations which set limits and better standards than our decision makers have employed. Whose interests they are serving is a question you’d have to ask them because I’m done listening to useless talk.

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