London’s blooming Underground: gardens flourish on the Tube – photo essay

The first official garden popped up at a London Underground station more than a century ago. Now, there is an annual Underground In Bloom competition, run by Transport for London (TfL), for the many stations going green.

With plants grown in everything from used mayonnaise pots to old food delivery crates, makeshift station gardens are sprouting up around the capital, all managed by volunteer staff. Competition categories include the best indoor garden, best fruit and vegetables, best hanging baskets and best window baskets.

A hand fork and other garden tools
a flower in a red pot
A woman tends to some flowers
flowers poking through a fence
a herbaceous border by a path to a tube station

  • South Tottenham station, with Sasha Diamond, whose garden backs on to the station’s green plot, tending to the flowers. A pelargonium and petunia peep through the fence

The District Railway company started the competition back in 1910. Staff were given money to buy seeds and encouraged to grow plants. The planting was more formal (early winners included St James’s Park, Ealing Common and Ealing Broadway), but by 1925, there were 30 small gardens scattered along the railway, according to Train Omnibus Tram magazine.

South Tottenham station

The article reads: “Railway stations, with their hustle and bustle, are not ideal spots in which to cultivate flowers. In many cases, the trains are rushing to and fro within a few feet of the carefully planned beds. It is gratifying, therefore, to reflect that apart from the pride of accomplishment which only gardeners can know, there are thousands of passengers who, in their daily travels to and fro, must see the ‘glory of these gardens’ and admire them.”

Only 45% of the London Underground is actually underground. At Morden tube station, staff are growing a variety of fruit and vegetables, including cherries, potatoes, hot peppers and plums on a disused platform. Staff can go there to relax and have some quiet time while on duty.

Blackhorse Road Station
Blackhorse Road tube Station.
Arnos Grove station.
Arnos Grove station.
West Kensington station,
West Kensington station.
Abbey Wood station.
Abbey Wood station.
Norwood junction station.
Norwood junction station.
Arsenal Station.
Arsenal Station.

At Acton Town, a disused platform has been turned into a jungle of pot plants, which passengers can admire from across the tracks while waiting for a train. Outside Arsenal station and the entrance to the Elizabeth line station at Seven Kings, Ilford, an eclectic collection of pots frame the entrances.

Acton Town station.

James Elliot, who works for TfL at Goodge Street station, started planting up a disused space hidden from the main platform in 2019. He brought in compost using a suitcase, found planters and boxes being given away on Freecycle, and worked on the garden before and after his shift.

Today the garden has dozens of plants, including geraniums, marigolds, wisteria, holly, nasturtiums and a wildflower box with cornflowers and poppies. Vegetables grown at the station are shared among staff, and this year’s harvest included tomatoes, cucumbers, beetroot, lettuces, Swiss chard – and even apples.

Goodge Street station
James Elliott and Addil Bakkali at Goodge Street station
Goodge Street station.
James Elliott and Addil Bakkali at the Goodge Street station garden

  • Goodge Street station, where James Elliott (left) and Addil Bakkali harvested an array of vegetables, including beetroot, cucumbers, basil and lettuce, all grown in a once-disused space

Elliot waited until the gardens had been judged in early August before harvesting the vegetables. “Harvesting is my favourite thing; when you start growing vegetables, you realise how hard it is. You appreciate the time and expertise that has gone into delivering the food we eat,” he says.

The competition recognises London Underground staff who have helped plant and maintain the gardens, making travelling more enjoyable for others. “When I’m out in stations, customers tell me how much these brighten their day. On occasions they’ve even volunteered to help while waiting for their train,” says Richard Baker, TfL’s customer and community ambassador for the Elizabeth line.

Walthamstow Central bus station.

This year’s competition winners were:
Best seasoned entry – South Tottenham;
Best fruit & vegetables – Morden;
Best environment entry – Acton Town;
Best hanging baskets, tubs & window boxes – Neasden Depot;
Best community entry – Ruislip;
Best cultivated garden (station) – Kentish Town;
Best cultivated garden (depot) – Barking train crew accommodation;
Best theme (Jubilation) – Seven Kings;
Best newcomer – Walthamstow bus station;
Best indoor garden – Hammersmith (District & Piccadilly);
Art in Bloom – Susan Buck for her depiction of Acton Town station;
Best in show – Kentish Town.

The Guardian