Gardening with Ken Livingstone
It’s official: Red Ken has gone green! Former Mayor Livingstone conducts Time Out on a tour of his beloved London wildlife garden, while the London Wildlife Trust rates its green credentials
Within seconds of entering Ken Livingstone’s ordinary north-west London terrace, the former Mayor is explaining the virtues of the silver birch (‘it’s the first thing you’ll find when you come off the northern ice sheet’), the difference between the common British frog and the French variety (‘you only get British common frogs in northern Europe… if it’s that little bit too warm, the oxygen can’t diffuse through the jelly into the egg’) and why it’s a big no-no to water your garden (‘if something can’t survive on its own in the garden then it’s not worth the effort’). Could the former Mayor be something of a garden nerd?
‘Here’s this year’s crop of grapes,’ he explains to Elaine Hughes, expert gardener from the London Wildlife Trust, who has recently been encouraging citizens to make their gardens more wildlife-friendly and is here to give her verdict on Ken’s. ‘Here’s the olive tree, you can see we never quite get the crop. I got so pissed off seeing that blackberries were £12 a kilo I just planted lots. And this is a King James I mulberry. The only problem with mulberry is they are quite tasty but you can’t pick them like you do other things. As you pull them off, the little green stem stays there. And they just stain. I’m forever pruning it.’
Ken’s garden hasn’t always been the foliage-filled haven it is today. He moved here in 1989 when ‘a foot of builder’s rubble lay over the whole garden’ and spent almost every weekend in the first 18 months sifting it by hand until he exposed the original Edwardian garden. Its been a labour of love ever since. A few years ago he turned his attentions to his less-able-bodied next-door neighbour’s garden, turning it into a low-maintenance orchard and enhancing the greenness of the whole vicinity.
Now sharing the garden with his partner, Emma Beal, and their two young children, Ken has had to make his own garden more child-friendly; the lawn hosts a sand pit and a paddling pool in summer and the vast pond now has a sturdy child-proof fence around it.
The garden seems to act as a refuge for Ken. Here, laid back in his own green space and clad in a scruffy T-shirt and Levi’s, he couldn’t be less like the Boris-bashing Red Ken of City Hall. Naturally, it’s irresistible to ask him what he actually thinks Boris’s garden might look like (the incumbent Mayor declined the opportunity to show us around his Islington garden). ‘Given his attention to detail and his approach to hard work, I suspect – unless they’ve got a gardener – a bit of a tip,’ says Ken. ‘I mean, Boris is so minimalist in his approach to things… His idea of environmental stuff is less dog shit on the street and more trees. So I suspect his garden might be sterile.’
No such sterility here. By one wall Ken stops to show us the Arbutus unedo tree bearing fruits which look a little like pallid strawberries. Naturally, Ken can’t resist some more garden trivia. ‘The druids worshiped the tree as it cropped late November so it would be a good source of fruit if the crops had been wiped out.’ Then there’s an odd green fern-like plant called a Wollemi pine. He proudly explains: ‘If you are a botanist this is like discovering a T Rex. We thought it had been extinct since the dinosaur era.’
Now you can buy them in Kew. As we contemplate how much wildlife Ken’s garden attracts, a frog, right on cue, leaps across the pond. Ken explains he also gets lots of foxes and birds, although those pesky pigeons ‘crapping up the wall’ are still clearly a bugbear. Hedgehogs aren’t as frequent as they used to be. Does he mind the foxes? ‘A fox once bit the head off my pet tortoise but that’s just life,’ he says somewhat philosophically. ‘Everything in nature eats something else.’
Walking to the back of the garden via a bird table and three huge composters, lies the children’s Wendy house and a little table with chairs. It’s here you get the full view of the garden and it feels like a rural retreat. This is the place where he likes to ‘come and have a drink when the kids have gone to bed’.
The soggy cigar in the ashtray reveals all. ‘I relax in the garden, it’s the only time I’m completely on my own and I can think. Emma comes out and says, ‘You are arguing with yourself,’ but I’m debating on the congestion charge or the transport investment programme or whatever and running over arguments in my head,’ he says. ‘It’s a robust garden, plants respond to that!’ laughs Hughes.
Elaine Hughes’s verdict on Ken’s patch: ‘I liked Ken’s garden and thought that it had loads of good features for wildlife and climate change. Lots of dense undergrowth and garden debris (like leaves) for wildlife to shelter and move between gardens, good use of old wood for insects, berry-producing shrubs for birds, living walls, a lovely big pond and plenty of trees. He conserves water, makes his own compost and lays out homemade compost mulch every year. He could think about clearing his pond of some of its vegetation, planting more drought-tolerant plants and having more flower-producing plants for bees and butterflies – and I may have knobbled him into doing a living roof for his children’s play house!’
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