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Andy Parsons

Meet the Londoners who are transforming the city through gardening

All eyes might be on the Chelsea Flower Show this week, but we meet the Londoners whose love of gardens is helping to make the whole city more green

By Dominique Sisley

London isn’t short on lovely green spaces, but the citys parks arent the only green havens in town. We meet five Londoners who are making the city a greener place through community gardens and guerrilla gardening.

Katy Renwick, business director of gardening social enterprise Urban Growth

‘Our aim is to create (and maintain) beautiful spaces in London, increasing biodiversity. We’ve worked on loads of different projects, from working with the community to grow food across Lambeth housing estates to developing a green space inside Mare Street Market.

‘I grew up in the Kent countryside, so I’m a country girl at heart. Nature helps me regain my sanity in the concrete jungle. Thankfully, younger generations are now getting taught about the outside world, and how valuable it is. Urban Growth is about educating people about this, too: we want people to recognise that being around plants hugely beneficial for our personal wellbeing. It’s about enhancing London and improving the life of everyone in the city.

‘Nature helps me regain my sanity’

‘I’ve learned a lot since I started working in the environmental world: this year is the first that I’m growing my own veg at home. I’ve got kale coming, tomatoes, peas, beetroot and lettuce (it’s the most incredible feeling picking lettuce from your garden and putting it on your dinner plate). I’ve managed to do it all in one raised planter, which is just a metre by half a metre. It’s so easy to do in a small space, it’s just about starting.’

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Verena Wimmer, guerrilla gardener

‘I started guerRilla gardening last year, when I was working in London Fields. I was walking past this derelict corner of soil every day and it made me sad because I could see that it used to be a garden. It had become overgrown and filled with trash. So one day, I just decided that I was going to do something about it. I started tidying it up, which was really awkward at first – people gave me weird looks. It was also sometimes a bit grim as I had to pull out loads of rubbish, like half-empty cans of cider and chunks of half-eaten fried chicken.

‘It was the first time I grew something from a seed’

‘Eventually, other people came to join me. We called it the “care home for plants” and asked people to donate their unloved or struggling plants. Sometimes I would come at lunchtime and there would be a flower waiting to be potted.

‘My favourites were the sunflowers that I planted. It was the first time I grew something from a seed – they became really tall and looked so positive and radiant. At the time I didn’t have a garden at home, and my job meant I spent most of my time working at my desk. I missed doing something where you can see physical results.’

Michael Smythe, artist and founder of the Phytology Medicinal Garden

‘I started to develop the Phytology Medicinal Garden in 2014 because I was interested in the medicinal benefits of plants commonly found on the streets of London, like dandelions and nettles. On the surface, the garden looks like a wild, undeveloped site filled with plants that are often dismissed as “weeds”. But once you dig a little deeper, you can understand how these plants benefit your own personal health.

‘We’re taking the garden to the streets’

‘One of our new projects in 2019 is called the Mobile Apothecary, where people from the local area can come together to learn about plants, and harvest and produce a range of fresh medicinal products – such as cough medicines, skin balms and mouthwashes. All basic home remedies that are fresh and local. Once a month our team, including medical herbalists, offers free information and home remedies outside Bethnal Green tube, alongside the Refugee Community Kitchen. It’s a way of taking the garden to the streets and offering fresh remedies to people who may not have equal access to health services.’

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Damien Doughty, creative director at the Nomadic Community Gardens

‘I first came across the Nomadic Community Gardens – an urban garden just off Brick Lane full of open allotments and street art – about two months after it opened in 2016. I would come and hang out with my guitar and sit around the fire. I started helping out by building things on a volunteer basis. Then after I’d been involved for six or seven months, I was invited to arrange events and celebrations in it.

‘Since I’ve been working here I’ve got really attached to all the plants. They’re like your kids in a way; your life almost revolves around them. We planted loads of fruit and nut trees after we opened and just watching them blossom has been really beautiful. You see plants that you think have been destroyed by something, and then suddenly they will come back to life.

‘I’ve got really attached to all the plants. They’re like your kids’

‘The garden is a means of creating community. We’re open: we want anyone to feel free to contribute if they want to. There’s a huge number of artists in the local community who want to put their stamp on it, by building installations and painting the walls. That’s good because it leaves a lasting impression. It inspires people and gives a sense of belonging. People can leave their mark.’

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Paul McGann, co-founder of social enterprise Grow Tottenham

‘We set up Grow London – a not-for-profit social enterprise that turns derelict spaces into community gardens – back in 2011. We’ve had four temporary homes since then: the first three were in Elephant & Castle, and we’re now in Tottenham until 2020. We have to keep moving because land is so valuable in London that spaces get turned into flats.

‘Our 5am licence means that we double up as a night club’

‘We like to make our gardens as varied as possible. As well as having wildflower meadows and allotment plots, we also have a café and event space. Our 5am licence on weekends means that we can double up as a night club, subsidising our community projects.

‘I’m from Dublin. There, most people have gardens. You’re also just a short drive from the countryside – here, getting out to nature is much more difficult. With Grow London, I get to have the space to garden. I also get to meet lots of people, from parents with  young kids to people who have retired. Gardening is something that cuts across all sorts of cultural boundaries and age groups.’

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Photos: Andy Parsons, Rob Greig, ‘Of Lost & Found’ by Ellie Doney


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