Guerilla gardener Bunty on transforming Highgate roundabout into urban paradise

Bunty Schrager Guerrilla gardening at the Highgate roundabout

Bunty Schrager Guerrilla gardening at the Highgate roundabout - Credit: Nigel Sutton

In the last column I wrote about the Royal Horticultural Society’s (RHS) campaign, Greening Grey Britain and how we should follow its slogan to Lift One Paving Stone - this time we meet someone who has been doing so, long before the campaign started.

The pocket of land Bunty Schrager chose to improve was not actually paved, but otherwise her roundabout gardening does just what the RHS wants; the enlivening of a dull urban spot.

The spot in question is very public, although not very accessible, as near ceaseless traffic swings round the roundabout by The Gatehouse in Highgate.

Formerly, its gravelly soil just supported some weedy grass. How, I asked, had she come to the idea of making it into a garden?

The answer was that Sue Whittington had suggested they go to a lecture about guerilla gardening.

They came out inspired, and the forlorn looking roundabout (the entrance, as Bunty puts it, to Highgate) presented itself.

To echo Capability Brown, the roundabout seemed to have “great capability of improvement”, although getting over to it takes patience. When you consider that everything, including water, had to be carried there, in order to turn this rubbish-rich patch into a garden, you begin to appreciate the challenge.

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Not to mention the constant need to be careful when marooned on this traffic-encircled dot.

Bunty loves to tell the story of when the driver of a large lorry stopped, jumped down, said she wasn’t safe and handed her a Hi-Vis jacket, before getting back into his cab and driving off.

She is wearing the very jacket in our picture. On another occasion two women onlookers were heard to agree that it must have been some dreadful offence committed, if it called for such severe Community Service as working on that roundabout.

In 2011, when the Ham&High published a picture of Bunty and Sue Whittington at the beginning of the project, they were still clearing the weeds and rubbish and taking over fresh compost.

Now the variety of plants flourishing there is impressive; poppies, sedum, hebe, pittosporum, narcissus, crocus, rosemary, hollyhock, ice plant, pinks, geraniums, lavender, perovskia, caryopteris, cornflower … toughness is a characteristic they have in common. Bunty says she is careful not to plant anything too eye-catching or tall.

Because drivers circling round need to look where they are going, the variety of plants may be lost on them, but those queuing up or on foot may have the leisure to take it in.

Bees, ladybirds, caterpillars, spiders, ants have all done so, finding this miniature island to their liking, as have worms imported with the soil.

This illustrates one of the potential benefits of the campaign to Lift One Paving Stone – any addition to the diversity of plants in an urban setting soon invites more creatures (some of them, at least, welcome … not so sure about the ants, but they were probably already there, thriving amongst the gravel, weeds and rubbish).

Another, perhaps more obvious, benefit is pleasure to those who notice, and pleasure to Bunty, who spends about an hour a week there, and says, simply … “I love it”. Well, if the plans for another mini-roundabout along North Hill go ahead, perhaps a new guerilla gardening opportunity will open up … any takers?

Dwarf Irises

What a treat the mid-February RHS Early Spring Plant Fair was, not least because the London branch of Plant Heritage won a Gold medal. Their display of flowering shrubs included the gardens of 2, Millfield Place, Highgate and Myddelton House, Enfield.

Among the star exhibits of this year’s show were new dwarf irises on Jacques Amand’s stand. Alan McMurtrie was over from Canada to promote the exciting hybrids he has been raising for 30 years, some of which are now available. The already sought-after “Eyecatcher”, creamy white with yellow and purple markings, lives up to its name. Another subtler beauty, ochre yellow edged and speckled with soft brown, is not yet on sale. Anne and Jack Barnard of Rose Cottage Plants, regular contributors to the Plant Heritage sales in Highgate, were there in deep conversation with Alan McMurtrie. They may be able to offer some of these special bulbs for next season, as Jacques Amand Bulbs already do.