Monday, 28 January 2013

Greening Singapore

This is the first in a series of blogs based on my recent visits to Singapore and Australia.

Singapore is a large metropolitan city, with 5 million people on it's small island (only 272 sq miles). The thing that strongly hit me as soon as I arrived at the airport, was how green Singapore is. Green as in plants everywhere.

I was too busy admiring the airport, and tired from the 13 hour flight from UK to actually think of taking photos upon arrival, so here is one I got from Wikipedia of a passenger area in Terminal 2.

File:Changi Airport, Terminal 2, Restricted Area 9.JPG

I've never seen an airport so lush with planting. Actually, you don't get much planting in airports generally. I can tell you there are 5 gardens throughout the 3 terminals at Singapore Changi airport. This includes a cactus garden, orchid garden and koi pond and a butterfly garden. This is at the airport! I sadly didn't get to visit these as I planned on my way back to the UK, due to illness, but I found this great link with lots of photos to give you an idea.

The greenery continues throughout the island of Singapore.

Not surprisingly, at the Singapore Botanic Gardens (which I'll blog about separately), it's a plant paradise. But it wasn't just the usual botanic garden, even the roofs were green. I means, seriously, what an incredible green roof:

There must be a lot of soil to give it this roof such height with the planting, so the building must be structurally incredibly strong. This green roof was on a walkway, keeping the area underneath cool and a space for visitors to get out of the hot sun. For all that weight, walking under it, it felt very light and airy.

Green roofs can be found in buildings all over Singapore. Here is one down at the marina. Once again it is a walk way where they have put planting at the top an around it.

The most amazing green roof I saw was this one. This is on top of Marina Bay Sands hotel. On the top is a restaurant, complete with palm trees and a swimming pool. Of course the hotel is only for the very rich (not the likes of me!), but that doesn't take away the impressiveness of planting a garden on the top of a very tall building. 

The building to the bottom left, which I thought looked like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, is meant to be reminiscent of the shape of a lotus flower and contains the ArtScience Museum. I remain to be convinced of that it resembles a lotus flower, but I like that even the architecture is meant to resemble plants.

For the more every day planting, and I think this is the part I liked about Singapore's greenery the most, was the fact that even the roads and freeway systems are completed planted around. In this snapshot below, you can see that there is even planting growing up the arches holding the freeway up. And there are trees planted on the top of the freeway.

The amount of detail that goes into all the planting is wonderful. In some areas (which I forgot to photograph as I was just ooohh-ing and ahhh-ing instead), the planting has grown to the point that you can barely tell that it's a freeway all all.

The following photos is the view from my friend, Su-Ann's, place. This is a fairly normal view for everyone all over Singapore. There might be 5 million people on a small island, but you wouldn't know it with this much planting. Yes, there are high rises, but within each high rise there are green spaces, that are well-used by everyone.

Finally, back at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. This is the women's toilets. Yes, even toilets are architecturally attractive and involve plants. As you wash your hands you have a live 'picture frame' of planting to enjoy.

I wish I had more photos to show you, but I was ill on my 2nd stay in Singapore on the way back to the UK, so I didn't get to visit the Gardens by the Bay and other lush places. But hopefully this gives you some idea of just how green Singapore is. For me, it showed that big modern cities, from their airports to their freeways and toilets, can be beautiful green spaces too.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Moving garden, OR I'm going to be a Yorkshire Woman!

It's been a bit quiet on the gardening front here at Gwenfar's Lottie in the last couple of months. Apart from several weeks in Australia and Singapore (which I'll start blogging about soon), I've mainly been focussing my energies elsewhere. That's because - we are moving - to Sheffield! I'm going to be a Yorkshire Woman!

This of course means moving gardens and lotties. If you are particularly interested in why we chose to move to Sheffield, you can read my separate blog on how we reached this choice. From a growing perspective, what does this mean?

Well, for starters, it's why I'm not (sob...) going to the annual Garden Organic Potato Day at Ryton next Saturday. This is usually one of my favourite days of the year, what my friend Manishta calls 'Gwenfar's Xmas'. Sadly it has to be cancelled this year as we shall be moving in mid-March, and with there being so much upheavel, I'm not sure where potato planting will quite fit in.

It's also why I haven't done any seed ordering, even from my beloved Heritage Seed Library catalogue. This is because until recently, we weren't sure where in Sheffield we were moving, so didn't think it made sense to order a bunch of seeds of the basis of having no idea what my new garden will be like. We have now had an offer accepted on a property. As you all know how up and down buying and selling can be, I'm not saying where it is yet, other than 'Heeley area of Sheffield', because we don't want to jinx the purchase! Hopefully all will go well and I will be moving into a smaller garden that will be East-West facing. This will be new territory for me, both direction (my last two gardens have been predominantly North-facing), and because the size will be reduced.

I've also decided, for now, not to get another allotment. Regular readers will know that I've been struggling to keep on top on my lottie this year, and back in August was joined by Manishta, then later Will and Ilana on the plot. This was for a mix of reasons, including back problems and time. So I've decided when moving, that for now I'll focus on developing my new garden. Gwenfar's Lottie will become Gwenfar's Garden.

I'm so glad that I recently had Manishta, Will and Ilana on the plot, as at least I can leave knowing that it will be taken on by people keen to grow and not just left to become brambles. I'm planning on still working on the lottie before I move, helping everyone prepare for the 2013 growing season. I also won't entirely disappear, as I'll be back for the garlic harvest in July! After spending the last few years growing on some unusual varieties I want to be able to continue doing so. So those of you taking part in the garlic growing experiement, don't worry, that continues as is and I'll still be compiling our results and publishing them later in the year.

I am now starting the get ready to say goodbye to my home garden too. Moving garden is a big deal, as any gardener will tell you. All those plants and work you have put years into, and much of it to be left behind. I am taking some key plants, ones I either have a special attachment too (the Acer Grisium and Rosa Seagull) or which are harder to find and I don't want to leave them behind.

The person buying our house particularly liked the garden, so I cannot dig up everything! In a way, just taking a limited number of plants with me is a good thing. New garden, new conditions, and a chance to try new things.

Over the next few weeks I'll do some final blogs about my Oxford garden and lottie. And I'll still order some seeds from HSL. It goes against my deep gardening instinct not to order seeds at this time of year...

Why Sheffield?

Why Sheffield? The first question everyone asks us when we tell friends and colleagues that we are moving from Oxford to Sheffield. It's a good question as anyone who knows us will know we don't have any particular connection to Sheffield, so it seems an obvious question, what made you decided to move to Sheffield?

The decision to move in itself, came about due to some changes with our jobs, in particular, the fact we may not have any in a few months time! Faced with an uncertain future, Kevin and I had a long discussion over a period of time about what to do. It occurred to us, this could be the opportunity we needed to prompt us to make a life-style change.

Anyone who knows Oxford will know that it is a very expensive place to live. Pretty much London prices and cost of living, but in Oxfordshire. Like many, we have a hefty mortgage, so the threat of job loss was quite stark. Given the current economy, if we struggled to get work, we could risk loosing our house. To be clear, we aren't yet at risk (so no worries!), rather, we know we might be at risk and this made us think about alternatives.

We thought about what we would really like to do job wise. For Kevin, he would love to work on his own software ideas (he is a software developer) that he has been mulling over for some time, but no chance to work on. I've often thought I'd like to try working in a plant nursery, or with plants in general. But gardening/growing doesn't pay well, and I couldn't afford to live on minimum wage in Oxford to fulfill this wish. It occurred to us that if we moved North (where property is much cheaper), selling our Oxford house and paying out the mortgage, we would have enough left to buy a house outright (mortgage free - the dream!) and have money left over to support us for a couple of years whilst we explore our dreams. So, moving was a way forward, but where too?

I have listed the actual process we used that led us to choose Sheffield below, for those of you who want that kind of detail. In general, we chose Sheffield because of the following reasons that mattered to us:
1. We could financially afford to buy a house and live mortgage free there, plus have enough to live on (carefully!) for two years without paid work, if need be.
2. It's a good sized city, lots going on, from political activism (WDM, UKUncut, Sheffield and Rotherham Green Party) to community growing/food related and green/eco activities (Heeley City Farm, Grow Sheffield, Transition Sheffield).
3. Is a great transport hub. Local trams and buses and national railway links to all over the UK. So easy to get around without a car (we just have bicycles) and access to visiting friends and places elsewhere.
4. It's Yorkshire! And Yorkshire is beautiful and friendly. And near the wonderful Peak District.
5. It's not too far from our friends in Oxfordshire and London, so can maintain contacts with our lovely friends.
6. It is a large city; not too far from other large places (Leeds, York, Manchester) so widens our options for work opportunities. There are a lot of specialist plant nurseries near Sheffield, as well as community growing activities for me.
7. It's a regeneration city, so lots of new things going on. It has a lot of Arts/theatre going on, a botanic garden, has the most trees per person for a city in the UK!

So that's, 'Why Sheffield?'.

We are very excited about our move. Though leaving Oxfordshire and our friends behind isn't easy, we feel like this is a great opportunity to make a life style change and explore other interests. Living mortgage free gives us some financial stability whilst we explore new activities.

It will of course be hard, meeting new people and making new friends when you are in your mid-late 40's. One of the reasons why reason 2 above was important - knowing there will be like-minded people with some similar interests in the world should help. I suspect that it will be lonely at times to start with, but friends aren't far away, including on Twitter(!), and you sometimes have to take risks in order to get where you want to go. And we will be having a guest room that will be available of which friends can  take advantage.

Sheffield is a great city, it is right next to the Peak District, not far from the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors, and will have us. See you there!

Process for deciding where to live

Several friends have asked us about the process we used for making our decision on where we might want to move (moving to Sheffield if you haven't seen the other posts!) to in order to try out new work and ideas. It has been suggested to us that it would be useful for others to read. Even if you have different political affiliations to us(!), the process itself should be useful, whatever your persuasion.

1. Get out map of UK. Start listing all the possible places you think you might like to live. At this point, don't have any preconceived ideas about a place or budget etc, just go for it. We listed places including:
Carfiff, Bristol, Swansea, Caernarvon, Durham, Derby, Langley Mill, Newcastle, Glasgow, Lincoln, Darlington, Chesterfield, Alfreton, Garforth, Falkirk, Dumbarton, Todmorden and Leeds. Our list is of places is predominantly in the Midlands or North England, plus parts of Scotland and Wales that also interested us.

2. Now you need to do the serious budget bit. Work out what your mortgage (or rent) is, your monthly/yearly expenses are, etc. Include everything from mortgage and council tax, utility bills, food and transport costs (car, bicycle or public transport), to things TV licence, clothing and garden budgets, plus funds for holidays if they are important too. Don't leave anything out that matters to you. If you love gardening, you'll need a bit of a gardening budget, so make sure you include it. If you like buying video games (apparently some people do...), include a budget for those. The point is to try and made a lifestyle change, but continue to do the things that matter to you most and that keep you happy.

3. Once you have worked out all your costs, you need to work out what you will have left once you sell off your current house and pay off the mortgage. If you rent, you will need to work out what costs there are to end your lease.

4. With what you have left, draw up a budget that lists all the things in 2 above so you have your monthly/yearly costs. Because you are aiming to move somewhere that is hopefully cheaper to live, whether mortgage free or cheaper rent, you need to know what your basic monthly/yearly expenses are in order to work out what is left to see where in the country you can actually afford to live.

5. Draw up a list of criteria for where you want to live. Clearly you need to list living costs first, but then list all the things that matter to you. Ie. are you going to try and live without a car, making good access to regular public transport essential? We wanted to be close to trains as much as local buses. Does politics matter to you? If so, if you are a greeny-lefty type like me, you would hardly want to live in Tory heartland, and vice-versa. If you're not a political person, this might not be on your list of criteria. Other things that we included were: flood risk (having previously lived in a high flood risk area, we were keen to make sure we didn't go through that experience again), easy access to national transport links so we can get to and have visit us, friends from Oxon, London and Cambridge. Community green spaces and activities, specialist plant nurseries (me), active Green Party (Kevin).

6. List the key things about the area that you would like to live in. For us this was:
a) Green/eco/leftie community;
b) Good local public transport access;
c) Not too hard to get to national public transport.

7. List the key things the house/flat should have. These are the essential things that are largely non-negotiable. You can add things that are 'nice to haves' as a reminder, but it is being clear about what really matters that is most important here. The list of our essentials included:
a) at least 2 bedrooms, with room for study (working from home) and to encourage friends to visit;
b) house in good condition. Don't mind doing painting, general maintenance, but not interested in major renovation work;
c) Suitable for our cat, Merlyn;
d) Decent kitchen - because cooking is important so don't want tiny galley kitchen;
e) Under cover place for our bicycles;
f) a garden where both vegetables and flowers/trees can be grown. Doesn't have to be large, but enough to mean this activity can easily take place.

It is at this point that you now want to bring your list of possible places (1 above), together with your criteria (2-7 above). You know need to research each place to see how it matches with your criteria.

8. We always started with: can we even afford to live there? This will knock some places off pretty quickly. We didn't just look inner city, but suburbs too. Because we wanted to live close-ish to town (within a couple of miles), we looked at those areas for each city/town on our list to see if we could afford them.We would have loved to live in Bristol, but there was no way we could afford to buy a house outright on the budget we had (£90,000). The same with Durham, Lincoln, Derby, Todmorden, Leeds and others. Note: for us, any place had to have a choice of houses to choose from. Not just 1 or 2, which means you could be looking for months and months for something that you both can afford, and actually like, but a regular supply of houses in our price range.

9. Once we had a list of places we could afford, when then looked at flood risk. The Environment Agency's flood risk website was essential for this. Any town still on the list was checked with that. Anything that had a high flood risk (Langley Mill) was immediately crossed off for this.

10. Next was  access to public transport. Using National Rail enquiries we looked up train times to/from the urban area/suburb that we could afford. We checked how often the trains ran at peak hour, and on weekends. If they only ran once per hour at peak hour, they were crossed off the list. Because if one train was cancelled, you could have a 2 hour wait for the next one. This quickly got rid of a lot more places.

11. By now we were down to a few towns: Chesterfield, Sheffield, Glasgow. We seriously considered Glasgow, as we love Scotland and the politics in Scotland. In the end, the two things against it for us, was a) it was just too far from anyone else we knew. You couldn't just catch up with a friend in a day, it would be a weekend trip at least; and b) because I get SAD, it would just be too far North and even with my lightbox, my health could struggle.

12. So Chesterfield & Sheffield. Ironically close to each other. Not too far from Oxford and London, can be travelled too/from in a day. In the North, but not so far north that they would have a massive impact on my SAD. It was now we decided to go and visit them both and get an idea of how we felt about them as places to live.

13. We had never been to Chesterfield so didn't know much about it apart from what our research had brought up. In paper it looked good: green/eco stuff going on, good transport, affordable houses etc. We did like Chesterfield, but in the end, decided it was just a little too small for us. We could end up travelling to Sheffield regularly for work, so it made sense to actually look at Sheffield.

14. Sheffield. We had visited only once before, for a great WDM conference a couple of years ago. We read up quite a bit about it, and could see that lots was going on, it met all of our criteria, from house prices and transport to politics and garden nurseries. But what was it like? As soon as we arrived in Sheffield, we felt at home. Maybe having trams helps (we come from Melbourne), or maybe the tree-lined streets. Seeing a mosque from a hill we sighed - diversity, that's good. Driving and walking around, we just enjoyed ourselves, felt comfortable and could easily see us living there. We visited Heeley City Farm, which reminded me a bit of the lovely Barracks Lane Community Garden in Oxford. Norfolk Heritage Park, Manor Lodge, all great green spaces. In town is the beautiful Winter Garden, the Botanic Gardens, the excellent Museum Sheffield, wide city streets, lots of public transport and what seemed like a cheerful population. We felt excited about the idea of living in Sheffield and it met all of our criteria and more. Sheffield it was. We returned to Oxford and put our house on the market.

This is the process we used and how it worked for us. It may or may not work for others and obviously would need adapting to individual circumstances, but hopefully the key ideas of how you might go about deciding where you could move to, is of use.

For us, the Oxford house has been sold, we've had an offer accepted on a place in Sheffield, and are getting ready to move mid-March. A little scary at times, but mainly an exciting new adventure and a chance to try living and working a different way to meet our own needs and dreams.