What urban growers can learn from London’s first all-edible street garden

Alice Vincent
Swallow the yellow brick road: bananas and pineapples grow on Pavilion Road in Chelsea

Behind most imposing rows of grand houses in London’s smarter postcodes, you’ll find something far more endearing: a mews. Cobbled and dinky, these former stables and servants’ lodgings now (usually) house millionaires of their own, but that doesn’t stop me taking an idle wander down them most weeks. As a container gardener, I never fail to find inspiration from the pavement-bound landscaping that crops up outside the front doors. 

Window boxes and dolly tubs, sprawling climbers and shrubs gone wild, London’s mews offer plenty of ideas for those who want to grow but don’t have access to grounded flower beds. They prove that you don’t need a garden to be a gardener. 

It was exactly this notion that motivated Cadogan Estates gardener Peter Oates when greening up Pavilion Road, a fancy string of mews buildings that sit behind Sloane Square. Only, rather than rely on urban container favourites such as pelargoniums and Fatsia japonica, Oates had greater ambitions: to  make all the plants edible . 

Like a lot of mews, Pavilion Road was originally home to horses. But it's recently had a facelift and now vegan restaurants and artisanal butchers occupy the buildings. Look carefully, though, and you’ll see gooseberries and chard. Shade is offered by the leaves of a banana palm. Strawberries and sweet peppers hide under leaves.

Most cheering / baffling of all, though, is that Oates actively wants passers-by to eat these things. “We had three pineapples here but they’ve gone!” he trills, showing me around the containers. “It’s great! That’s what they’re there for.” Oates has been gardening for 30 years and filling Pavilion Road with fruit n veg has been, he says, his most enjoyable project to date. “I’ve liked it the most because it’s interactive,” he says, “if you’re not a horticulturalist you wouldn’t know it was edible”. 

Peter Oates, who designed the Edible Trail

Dubbed “The Edible Trail”, Pavilion Road’s planting comes with the seemingly obligatory QR code on labels, for visitors to scan and find out what is growing and what to make with the produce. Blackberries ripen around the base of an apple tree; the recipe given is crumble. Others are a little more challenging, such as the rose hips for jelly outside the butchers.

I went down to Pavilion Mews fairly sceptical – on paper, it seemed like the kind of tokenistic greening that accompanies a lot of new commercial ventures in the city. But Oates’ commitment to the cause is genuinely impressive: for one, the scheme is long-term. Edibles that have gone over are constantly being replaced with more appropriate seasonal alternatives as the year cools - ornamental cabbages are coming in next, sprouts will arrive in time for Christmas.

Blackberry and apple plants hang out with an instructional QR code

But secondly he’s doing it organically and sustainably. Everything is growing in Dalefoot compost – made from wool and bracken, not a teaspoon of peat in sight – and chemical feeds have been swapped out for mulch. Water comes from the conservation system that Cadogan Estates’ gardens rely upon: massive underwater tanks of rainwater, so none from the tap.

Pavilion Road does have certain advantages over your average urban growing space. Aside from a team of professionals tending to them, the street is paved in granite and the infrastructure (namely, the hulking Peter Jones nearby) keeps things sheltered. “It’s like a little radiator”, Oates says - hence the ability to raise pineapples and pomegranates.

But there’s plenty to get people thinking about what they can grow to eat in their urban space, here. Plus, when was the last time you saw a courgette growing against a manhole cover?

Alice's next book, Rootbound, Rewilding a Life, is out on Jan 30. For more urban gardening follow her on Instagram.com/noughticulture