Soho's Secret Gardeners: Elizabeth & Sheila

This week we caught up with Elizabeth and Sheila from @sohoroofgarden, a garden situated on the roof of the Island Block of St James Residences, one of the largest schemes run by the Soho Housing Association (SHA) in Central London.

Elizabeth has been a resident of Soho for over 40 years. She is a market trader, dealing in vintage and antique furniture and decorative items. Sheila is an actress, who started out with the National Youth Theatre and has worked ever since. She is also a florist, having received training from Jane Packer, and has worked with several leading florists over time.


Tell us a bit about your garden

Elizabeth: There are various communal outside areas on the roof of the Island Block, such as the courtyard and the round garden, and some flats have balconies or an outside space. For years the roof was a large space with a few washing lines, a bench, but most crucially, a tap!

Sheila: I moved to St James Residences in early 2013, bringing with me armfuls of pots of Hostas and blooming Tête-à-tête daffodils to the roof garden, which had already been started by Elizabeth and Pete. I also brought a large parasol for the table, anticipating the summer.

 Above: Soho Roof Garden

How did Soho Roof Garden come about?

Elizabeth: I have always loved plants, and wherever I have lived I have had window boxes and indoor plants. I am also concerned about the environment and nature, and here was a space which could make a difference. I initially contacted a charity who specialised in this kind of project, but they were going to charge a lot of money just for a consultation. I then spoke to Matthew Bennett, a local with an interest in sustainability, the Council regarding health and safety, and SHA. SHA have a 'Community Fund' to which residents can apply for funding for projects. In 2010, I applied for funding for large, ready-to-assemble timber raised beds, soil, plants, compost, and an irrigation system. Residents did all the labouring. 

A couple of years later, Sheila came to St James Residences from Royalty Mansions, bringing her know-how, artistic flair and pots of Hostas! Since then, the garden has grown from strength to strength – the original plan now seems rather timid compared to what it is now. We have height, with trees and climbers, as well as many pots filling the lower levels, which can be moved up to fill in gaps as the garden grows.

Above: Soho Roof Garden, with Sheila's rose collection

Which is your favourite plant in your garden?

Elizabeth: It is difficult to choose a favourite plant. I love our Hostas, but the most amazing plant for long lasting colour, vigour, longevity, and form is Geranium Rozanne.

Sheila: Can't bear to offend the plants I don't choose! I have two seasonal choices: those early daffodils which bring such brightness and hope for the year ahead, and then later it is the roses. Without Elizabeth's confidence I would not have embarked on a rose collection, but I couldn't be without them now.

Above: Elizabeth's favourite – Geranium Rozanne

What gardening tool do you use the most?

Elizabeth: Secateurs is the most used tool – there's always a lot of cutting back to do!

Sheila: I use steel Florist's scissors with orange handles that I eventually find when lost amongst the green. Marvellous, but watch your fingers – they are lethal!  

What does gardening mean to you?

Elizabeth: The garden provides a restful and beautiful space for the residents of the Island Block, and it is also appreciated by those in the block opposite who can see it. The abundance of nature is incredible – if you build it, they will come! 

Sheila: The garden gives such wonderful joy to us who work in it, and our neighbours who share it with us. The bird and insect life that comes to us is as astonishing as it is varied. It is endlessly diverting, challenging, fun, and ever-changing.

Above: Soho Roof Garden, featuring the Hostas

What's next for your garden space?

Elizabeth: What next? When Winter comes there will be much cutting back and clearing. We have recycled tulip bulbs which are now waning in vigour. It’s probably time to get new ones! We would also like to renew the irrigation system, and this time extend it to the pots (which we currently have to manually water). It’s so much more efficient in terms of water use, and labour saving too!

Sheila: What's next? Damson jam! We have a new raised bed this year and will have a good harvest from a tree so happy to be out of a pot. After that, nematodes to control the dreaded Vine weevil, followed by a good tidy up... again!

If you would like to tell your gardening story, we would love to hear from you. Get in touch at

With thanks to Elizabeth and Sheila for their words and time. 
You can follow their garden progress on Instagram @sohoroofgarden