The Union Street Urban Orchard

The Union Street Urban Orchard

The Union Street Urban Orchard header image 3

The Design

On designing a new model for community gardens: by inviting local residents to donate plants, we created a garden truly grown by the community.

It’s unusual to find land like this in Central London – a vast derelict site, filled with sunlight, a habitat for birds and a home for bees, protected by three walls, with an evocative railway arch and trains running overhead. For four months, we were given the opportunity to transform this space into something magical.

In our initial visits, it was difficult to get a sense of the terrain, as it was filled with parked cars and other large vehicles, most which would need to be later towed away. Several abandoned sheds, part of the temporary Lido project two years past for the London Festival of Architecture, were weathered and broken, home to foxes and the occasional squatter. Masses of large buddleia had grown and overtaken the site, and the ground was a mess of large rocks, beach stones, rubbish and glass from broken car windows. The railway arch was covered up with hoarding, which we climbed to peer over into the darkness.

During this time, I journeyed with a friend out to Kent to visit Brogdale, home of the National Fruit Collection, with more than 3,500 named cultivars. The species were represented in pairs, like a Noah’s Ark of Trees, marching across the fields in long rows stretching to the horizon. Here we found a peculiar set of trees that were younger, smaller and more idiosyncratic than the rest. Hundreds of curious people had sent cuttings to Brogdale to have the fruit trees in their back gardens identified, and these cuttings had been grafted and eventually planted in the orchards, alongside plaques inscribed with the name of the owner and the location of their garden. This expressed an essential quality that I sought to design into the Union Street site – the making of a public garden from plants grown in the private homes of the local communities, a garden built with the collective participation, curiosity and creativity of those who would enjoy it.

This expressed an essential quality that I sought to design into the Union Street site – the making of a public garden from plants grown in the private homes of the local communities, a garden built with the collective participation, curiosity and creativity of those who would enjoy it.

The working title for the Union Street Urban Orchard was the “Garden of Unwanted Plants.” The London Festival of Architecture had commissioned me to design this space as a landscape architect and as the founder of The Wayward Plant Registry, to create a temporary garden in which every plant has a unique story; botanical narratives linked to communities of people who have come build something together. The Union Street Urban Orchard would be a halfway home for wayward plants, turning the process of exchange into a social occasion. Throughout the summer, geraniums arrived by wheelbarrow; tomato plants were carried in the arms of local residents from their private gardens and allotments. Apple, pear, cherry, quince and apricot trees, blackberry bushes and strawberry plants were tagged for adoption by local communal green spaces, to be disseminated when the garden was dismantled.

This ongoing exchange presented a unique design challenge: to create a site infrastructure for an ever-evolving garden. Because the trees needed to stay in their pots (in preparation to be replanted in local estates and community gardens), it was important that the site didn’t feel like a nursery or storage space for plants. The trees alone could not hold the massive site. At 2-3 years old, they were skinny adolescents, just maturing to produce their first season of fruits. As the 85 trees were unloaded, they huddled together in a small cluster, dwarfed by the vast landscape, until they were tipped by the wind, knocking one another over in a domino effect. It required an imaginative architecture to occupy the site and make it something more than orchard — a social space, an event space, a festival site and a community garden.

In the early days of design, there were many unknowns. Would we raise money to fund the project? Would we be able to mobilize skilled people to build our designs? Would we be able to source materials? The decision to use entirely recycled materials was motivated in part by ethos, and partly just as a resourceful strategy for getting materials for free. Searching through possible sources of reclaimed wood, I began to consider pallets – flat structures used for the transport of goods. Pallets were abundant and easy to source, used throughout the markets of London, and they also were an interesting starting point for a larger discussion about the food industry. As of 2006, UK imported 37% of its food (with numbers growing) and 95% of the food we ate were produced with a dependency on oil. Now these same pallets, which carried and distributed food in London, were carrying a productive landscape, a platform through which to explore ideas of urban agriculture and the grow-your-own movement.

The landscape of pallets was designed to give each tree a dedicated space and an elevated presence. The pallets were modified into planters – cut in half, and stacked on top of one another, with holes cut out to fit the pots of the trees. The pallet planters functioned to protect the trees from the wind, to give the trees – which measured at 2-3m tall in their pots – a lift in height, to provide more soil and better irrigation than their pots would otherwise allow, to align the trees into orchard rows, and to provide informal seating for the whole of the orchard. Embedded within the pallets were hessian sacks of trailing plants and flowers, giving color and life to the garden at every turn. Although they were stacked above ground, the pallets situated trees in the landscape, celebrating the idiosyncrasies of salvaged materials and wayward plants.

Throughout the summer, geraniums arrived by wheelbarrow; tomato plants were carried in the arms of local residents from their private gardens and allotments.

The tires provided an alternate planter system, and when stacked and arranged as a curved wall of trees across the site, provided a screen to divide the large site into different areas of energy and interest. The material was picked up again through the floor of the orchard,¬ a vivid blue-grey field of shredded tires, soft and playful to walk on. As people first entered the site, curious but tentative, they paused and bounced a couple times on the recycled floor, and then proceeded through the garden with a feeling of childlike whimsy.

The orchard was designed to be an exploratory space, with hidden discoveries around every turn. The central platform contained the Wayward Plant Exchange (where people brought plants from their gardens, and tagged others to take home) and the Mapping Station (where people mapped the fruit trees occupying public spaces throughout London). Dotted through the garden were a series of modified sheds, including the Seed Library, the Tea Shed, the Lounge Shed, the Scrumping and Cider-Making Shed, newspaper boxes, the Greenhouse, and the Fish Pond (Shed). Imagination overflowed throughout the site and new ideas were formed — the turf we laid down acted as a croquet pitch, the sand provided space for a boules court, baskets made from scraps of wood became basketball hoops. The railway arch was opened up and designed to be a cinema, a stage for performances and a gathering space when it rained.

In addition, we invited many other wonderful projects to become part of the garden. Oliver Bishop Young’s inventive ping-pong table skip was positioned in view of the street, drawing many people into the garden to play. Tom Kendall’s student project – “The Indentikit Urban Playground” – a pavilion for children to paint – was colorful, playful and engaging, and the Nest structure, designed by a class of Finnish students, was an elegant garden pergola and seating platform. The Living ARK was situated in the corner of the site, a domesticated space surrounded by an allotment, greenhouse and a vertical strawberry wall (which grew above the water tap). This was a garden that was lived in and cared for, a little house at the end of the fairytale garden.

Embedded in the design was a process that facilitated collaboration and experimentation. The plan was an open framework, and the design accommodated new ideas and inspirations, new supplies of found and recycled materials and the unexpected and wonderful skills of more than 100 volunteers. As I walked through the garden, I could see the hands of everyone who had built it, both through the tremendous effort of six weeks of construction, and through its three months of life and use. The orchard grew and evolved throughout the summer, and even as it was dismantled, it was still being designed.

By Heather Ring (as published in The Union Street Urban Orchard: A Case Study of Creative Interim Use). Copyright © Wayward Plants 2011. All Rights Reserved. Photo © Mike Massaro 2011.