John Little on green roofs, reusing waste materials and helping the environment
The grass roof and brownfield gardening expert has always gardened with wild abandon and believes a more liberal approach will help build back the nature we so desperately need. Portrait Charlie Hopkinson
John Little likes the stuff other people disregard: building waste, rubble, old ceramic toilets. He likes rubbish bins, bike stores and railings. He’s partial to an old car carcass and a bit of “bad pruning”. One thing he’s not so keen on is topsoil. This is all coming from a man who makes some of the most inspiring landscapes around, those that are rich in biodiversity, economical to make and maintain, low impact in terms of embodied carbon and pleasing, enriching even, to people. John has made a business out of growing wild things on waste. He sows wildflower meadows into crushed toilets and sinks that flourish because of the low-nutrient content of such substrates. He creates insect habitats from the sort of rubbish that any building site has – plumbing piping and the ends of roofing felt, mastic tubs and light sockets. There isn’t, it seems, any waste that he can’t magic into something beautiful and poetic, particularly if you give him a gabion to fill. “I’m slightly obsessive about borders and edges being neat, as it allows you to get away with using all this stuff. Otherwise it’s just a pile of rubbish,” he explains.
I’m slightly obsessive about borders and edges being neat, as it allows you to get away with using all this stuff. Otherwise it’s just a pile of rubbish
John has loved wild things since he was a child growing up in south Essex. Both his dad and his grandad gardened, but these were more traditional gardens, vegetables and tidy lawns. His grandparents adored him and let him do whatever he wanted in their garden, so he ordered seed and “started chucking it about”.
He adds: “I loved gardening from the very beginning, but I never had the patience for seed trays and pricking out, I loved direct sowing.” That love has never left him. “I’ve always been into plants, but I fell into retail, selling shoes like my dad.” A small empire of shops later and John had had enough. He sold the shoe business and returned to his first love, plants.
A few of his friends were teachers and this led him to creating some school gardens, outdoor classrooms and eventually green roofs. “The school work has a sort of freedom to it, as you could do stuff there you couldn’t do in domestic gardens at the time,” he says. “I started to suggest they used crush material as substrates, rubble on the roof, that sort of thing. Recycling was getting big and one thing led to another.” He started a business building and supplying green roofs.
I loved gardening from the very beginning, but I never had the patience for seed trays and pricking out
“One of the biggest things for me was working on a three-car garage for someone. They had a crushed limestone aggregate driveway and when we went back three years later, all the stuff on the roof had seeded into the driveway,” says John. “It was bloody amazing, so diverse, no maintenance, only the cars driving back and forth to check the growth. It was one of those light-bulb moments. In green roofs you are always dictating the soil type, but this allowed me to see you could do this anywhere.”
John might really like wildflowers, but he also loves people. He decided to look after a housing estate in Clapton, east London. He’d done a design and build for the place and the residents association asked if he’d consider the maintenance contract. “We pitched a thing around food and wildflowers and they took a punt on us.”
This took John “right back to pure gardening” and to people. “Being the gardener who turns up regularly means you can have a connection with people that you can’t have as a designer,” he says. This job gave him a regular income, which meant he could “dip in and out of projects”. To date, he’s built more than 70 green roofs, tailored spaces for public parks and schools, and created numerous cycle stores, bird hides, and bin shelters. He believes that this stuff “brings horticulture to the eye level. It brings the wildlife and habitats to everyday places.”
insects need structure, habitats to nest and over winter in, and some of the best ways to achieve this is with waste materials.
And what he’s learned is that you don’t have to give plants topsoil. “If you don’t have it, it frees you up because there’s absolutely nothing that plants won’t grow in. If they’re stressed out, they will grow slower, which is better for ecology and also means less maintenance. You start with the right substrate and plants, then the insects come and after that everything else comes along.”
That’s John’s message from here on. “I’m nearing 60 and I want to share all that I’ve learned. That not only do insects need a food source, but they need structure, habitats to nest and over winter in, and that some of the best ways to achieve this is with waste materials.”
There is a huge interest in John’s work today. “It has coincided with a time when I am able to share all of this,” he says. He wants to open his garden, where he’s experimented with waste substrates and recycled building materials, into a “sort of hub, a place where people can come and go and contribute ideas”.
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For John the future of our environment has never been more uncertain. “It is a worrying time, but I do believe that with this kind of gardening, we can build the wild back in, using stuff we are chucking out.”
Alys Fowler is a horticulturist, garden writer and Guardian columnist.
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