The first of this year’s public open days at the amazing rooftop garden above the Reading International Solidarity Centre (RISC) was on Saturday 7 April. There may be people in the RISC café on London Street totally unaware of the 200 square metres of Eden above their heads, and that many of the herbs and flowers from the garden are used in the café. They are missing out on something quite remarkable.

This award-winning, sustainable garden contains at least 185 species of plant and is reached via a metal staircase behind RISC. The low maintenance, edible forest was designed in 2001 and was made with sustainable, renewable and recycled materials.

A winding path makes the garden easy to negotiate, allowing a good close-up view of the plants. Some of the heritage fruit trees have grown up to 6 metres high in only 30 cm of soil, and other fruit trees have been trained along the south-facing hurdle fence as cordons.

A garden volunteer said that there is often a gasp of surprise and delight from a newcomer when they see the garden for the first time. Visitors say they are amazed that a garden could flourish in such a strange, confined urban environment and in such shallow soil.

Many of the plants, shrubs and trees have medicinal properties and the volunteers are keen to let you smell or even taste them. There are plants that may ease pain or stomach problems, ward-off depression, offer a sugar substitute or even just smell of chocolate!

Constant gardener and chief volunteer Mary Tindall said that the garden is sustainable to the point where they only need occasional water from RISC. Mary said that the garden was so low-maintenance that she only needed to attend to it three to six hours per week in summer to keep it in good order and functioning well.

The rich compost is bolstered by left-overs from the RISC café, as well as other trade rubbish, including rotten wood. The compost is a big draw for the spectacular iridescent bug known as the rose chafer which is known for its rather bumbling flight. Cheerful town wrens and blue and great tits keep some of the pests down in spring.

As we relaxed on the seated decking made from local wind-blown oak, surrounded by raised flower beds and lovely exotic blooms and leaves, I was reminded of the words of the poet John Clare:

Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below – above the vaulted sky.

from ‘I Am!’

The garden is open on 2 June, 4 August and 15 September in 2018. Put these dates in your diary as this garden must be seen – it is truly one of the wonders of Reading.

Matthew Farrall, the author of this article, died on 20 April 2018.
We are grateful to his family for allowing us to continue to display his work online.

  1. RISC roof garden
  2. Royal Horticultural Society
  3. The Wildlife Trusts
  4. RSPB
  5. John Clare Society