Red Ken's green fingers

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Mr Livingstone I presume! The former Mayor pictured in his North London garden.             Photograph: Hattie Miles

Feature originally published in Amateur Gardening magazine (5th October 2013)

Words:  Jeremy Miles.    Pictures: Hattie Miles

After losing last year’s London mayoral election Ken Livingstone announced that he was planning to pack in politics and spend time catching up on some gardening. He wasn’t kidding.

For the past 16 months this one-time fervent left-wing leader of the Greater London Council, controversial Labour MP and two times London Mayor has been working day in, day out in his North London garden.

“I love it,” he says. “Every day since last May, if it hasn’t actually been pouring with rain or snowing, I’ve been working in the garden.”  This decidedly ‘green’ version of the one-time Red Ken also tends the gardens of two disabled neighbours. He has even constructed a tiny walkway built from sticks, bricks and old paving stones so that he can move between the three adjacent properties without disturbing anyone.

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His aim has been to create a natural haven that he hopes will one day be seen as the legacy of his long-held environmentalist beliefs. “I’d like to think I’ll leave something that will still  be here in a thousand years,” he told me. 

When we arrive at his Victorian terraced home, Ken was busy clearing Irises from his pond - home to his beloved newts and frogs.  During his years in front-line politics he was regularly ridiculed by the media for being a “newt-lover”. As a criticism, this baffled him: “It’s just bullying. You get used to it,” he shrugs.

 Wildlife is enormously important to Ken who once dreamed of becoming a zookeeper working with reptiles and amphibians.  In addition to the pond,  Ken says he has tried to make the garden as family-friendly as possible for himself, his wife Emma and their children Tom (10) and Mia (9).  

“There was nothing here at all when we moved in. Just grass and a huge shed. I assumed I could just start planting things. But then we found there was an original garden dating  back to  about 1902 underneath the lawn. I spent a year getting skip loads of builders rubble out to expose the original paths.”

Ken says he initially designed the  garden “for two adults to sit in and have a drink after an exhausting and stressful day”. All that had to change with the arrival of two children and Coco the pet Labrador. “Now I’ve got a wonderfully robust garden full of things that can stand balls being kicked at them and dogs pounding through them.” 

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Ironically much of the legwork was achieved thanks to his difficult relationship with former Labour leader Neil Kinnock. “When I became an MP Kinnock refused to give me a job. I wasn’t allowed on any of the House of Commons Committees or anything. That was when I did most of the early work on the garden.”

The plot contains an intriguing collection of trees and a variety of fruit including tay berries, loganberries, grapes, apricots, figs, wild strawberries and, his particular delight, the first kiwi plant he’s managed to get to fruit in 15 years. “I tried male and female plants with no success but eventually I found an hermaphrodite variety that fertilizes itself and I’m really pleased with the results”. It somehow seems like a quintessential Ken Livingstone comment.

Entered through huge folding glass doors from the kitchen-breakfast room, it is a very natural garden and a constantly used extension to the living space. It is lush and south-facing and nourished by Ken’s lovingly nurtured compost.  He stresses that he never uses chemicals or insecticides apart from occasionally painting the bindweed. He’s certainly not interested in a manicured look. Rough and ready is just fine. He kicks over the dead leaves on his lawn. “Some people would sweep all this up but it’s home to so many insects I like to leave it,” he tells me. The lawn itself is basic. 

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“When we first moved in I bought really expensive lawn seed and it was like a billiard table It looked totally unreal so after a few years I dug it up, put in a crop of potatoes for a year and then put down this crappy old grass. It looks so much more natural.” Ken is clearly happy with his garden just the way it is. “We get butterflies and lots of birds. We don’t have an endless display of flowers but there is a constant contrast of different leaf and colour which is lovely even in the winter.”

His collection of trees is perhaps a little eccentric for the London suburbs and includes a giant redwood and a far slower-growing sequoia.  Both were planted 10 years ago  and the redwood is already soaring into the sky above Cricklewood. The sequoia meanwhile is still only three feet tall. “There’s plenty of time yet,” chuckles Ken. “They live for 3,000 years.” There are also two silver birch and an old oak beneath which he buried his mother’s ashes in 1997. “It was strange. It stopped growing for a year. It was as though it was in shock.” It was Ken’s mother, Ethel, who originally inspired his interest in gardening. He remembers as a child watching her working in the garden often until 10 O’clock at night.

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These days Ken delights in collecting plants that offer an interesting story. There’s a King James 1st Mulberry: “I like the fact that it was originally established in the 17th century as part of an ill-fated bid to break the Chinese monopoly on the silk trade,” he tells me.

Nearby are three Wollemi pine. “They thrived for hundreds of millions of years and then as far as everyone was concerned were wiped out with the dinosaurs,” enthuses Ken.  Hearing of their rediscovery at the bottom of a remote Australian gorge 20 years ago, he decided he had to have some. “It’s amazing! Dinosaur food! You can get them from Kew these days”.

Walking around the garden, Ken is full of fascinating  facts. He tells me he chose the silver birch for its hardiness. It is the first tree you find when leaving the Tundra, while the Arbutus unedo tree and its crop of strawberry like fruit was once worshipped by druids as a source of winter food.

Gardening, he says, has been good for his health. He looks lean, tanned and fit. “I’ve done more gardening in the past year than in a lifetime. My doctor says she’s never seen me so healthy. Mind you none of my trousers fit anymore. I need braces to hold them up.”

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Ken's tips:

You can compost virtually everything... except cheese

“They say you shouldn’t put cooked food on a compost heap but that’s nonsense. I put everything in my compost including the remains of yesterday’s dinner. The worms, woodlice, bacteria and fungi will break everything down. Everything that is except cheese.

I used to love cheese. I ate a lot of it. Then one day I chucked a big chunk of cheddar that had gone off while we’d been on holiday onto the compost and a year later it was still there. So I don’t eat cheese anymore. If four billion years of evolved life forms can break down everything perfectly well but can’t handle cheese then I don’t really want it in my body.”

Never throw anything away

“I never throw anything away if I can possibly help it. If one my gardening gloves starts to fall apart I keep the good one because eventually I’ll be able to pair it up. I’ve got several pairs of odd gloves. 

“I was born in 1945 and my parents had lived through the depression and the war. Nothing was ever wasted. Emma, who is 21 years younger than me, grew up in a world where it’s just ‘get it and throw it away’. It’s an area of conflict in our house. I go round turning off the lights and the telly if there’s no one in the room. I feel strongly that conservation and recycling is important in both the house and the garden.” 

Use less water

As Mayor, Ken Livingstone launched a campaign to get Londoners to cut the amount of drinking water they used on their gardens. He urged them to adapt to dryer conditions by collecting rainwater, changing the types of plants they grew and using water-saving features.

 “People tend to water every time something looks a bit dry or wilted but all that happens then is that the plant never sends roots down deep. They stay near the surface. If you’ve got a plant that constantly needs watering, its environmentally damaging and its only going get worse. Sooner or later you’ll go on holiday or be ill and the thing will die anyway. It’s simply not worth it.”

ly© Jeremy Miles 2017