Alex (@theEnglishgardener) is an urban gardener in Surrey, England who has created a fantastic natural sanctuary at his home, using just a small amount of outdoor space. After some considerable time spent admiring his garden and learning about his remarkable efforts via Instagram, we reached out to him to ask him to share his story.
I’ve always been interested in nature and the environment. When I was a child, I helped my dad plant vegetables, and as we worked in the soil together, he would tell me all about birds and trees. Much later in my life, as an adult, I developed an interest in flowers.
A few years ago, I became interested in beekeeping, and after much reading on the topic, I took a beekeeping course with the intention of keeping my own honeybees some day. In 2020, after several lockdowns, my partner and I decided to move away from the bustle of Fulham in southwest London to settle in Surrey, in search of peace and green space.
I reconnected with nature by tending a small garden in our new home, and as I nurtured that reconnection, I realized I had a strong instinct to plant a pollinator garden, to attract as many bees as possible. Although my backyard is essentially a paved block corridor between two fences, I envisioned transforming it into a lush green space where one could sit and feel completely immersed in nature, watching the show of pollinators going about their day at a close range.
As I read more comprehensively about bees, I identified the flowers that are most attractive to pollinators, as well as the right conditions for them to grow. During this process, my interests evolved into garden design and gardening. After more research, I created a planting plan, to combine heights and colours that would be both aesthetically pleasing and attract pollinators. Once my plan was complete, I started the actual build of the raised beds, atop stone pavers. I filled the beds with successive layers of cardboard, drainage material, leaf mold, compost, and top soil before planting my perennials – I stopped counting after 50 bags of compost!
A compost bin and a patio greenhouse were my first two investments in the garden – these gave me the option to grow anything from seed, and to fully reuse dead plant material in the garden the following year.
The garden turned one-year-old in October 2021, and much has changed since the beginning of my journey.
Using foraged wood materials, I created a series of wigwams to maximize vertical space, with an arch to frame the view from the patio. I’ve also learned how to use space and time to make the most of this small space. The garden changes considerably with the seasons, it expands and shrinks over time — just like any living form. It has become a sanctuary for me as well as the local birds, bees and other creatures. For me, it’s a space to relax and take a break from work. I feel like spending ten minutes deadheading, watching a bird or a bee or nurturing a seedling are the best time investment one could ever make, and after those ten minutes, I come back feeling accomplished and regenerated every time.
I believe that urban gardening is a fantastic way to bring a measure of peace to busy lives and bustling environments. I know I feel like a better person as a gardener — more focused, acutely aware of my environment and observant of every detail, and I have learned much more in a year of practice than I would have from reading a book, or watching other gardeners on any media.
I feel I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible, however. Social media has helped me connect with thousands of gardeners around the world, some who are at different stages in their journey but identify with urban gardening, as well as some who are simply looking for some inspiration.
I would never have imagined my garden to become so popular, and I try to keep a balance between the time spent recording and telling my story to inspire others, and the time spent actually gardening – which is where I find inner peace. Some people have reached out to send me pictures of their side extensions, similar to my backyard, to tell me that my urban garden inspired them — this feedback is the most rewarding. As green spaces disappear globally, our gardens act as pollinator pathways and will become ever more critical to the survival of many species and pollinators in future. Every concrete-paved garden transformed by its owner into a lush, green space is a victory and a step towards re-greening our cities.
I see gardening as the sum of many topics, from garden photography, to garden design, vegetable growing and flower farming. In my journey, I discovered an interest in flower arranging, a skill I will try to develop further. My plan is also to move to a larger garden space at some point, when — hopefully — I will finally get to rekindle my old dream of becoming a beekeeper. Creating a homestead in a London garden: how amazing would that be? In the meantime, you will find me moving plants and compost bags in the narrow corridor between my raised beds, my eyes to the sky, looking for solitary bees to come and bless this green sanctuary with their visit.