Recently, a friend and I were sitting in a restaurant in Kensington – street side and up against the window – waxing lyrical about our shared love of London. We were telling stories of how, despite having travelled and experienced many major cities across the globe, we both felt that nothing and nowhere ever really compared to ‘our’ London. London is unique in so many ways. It is, of course, a major global capital city yet somehow it still manages to retain an almost village-like feel, seamlessly weaving together often quite distinct parts into one huge community.
The analogy of London being like one growing, changing, ever-evolving body has long been used to describe the city. For sure, it has a heart and a soul; its arteries being the very pavements we walk upon, with its parks and gardens being the lungs, helping us to breathe, contemplate and relax.
To my constant surprise, what also amazes me about London is the infinite amount of discoveries that can be made by simply turning off from a main thoroughfare and seeing what lies right behind the shops and high streets. Of course, it is here where you’ll find London’s communities, heads down and occupied, busily working away in schools, hospitals, small businesses, or in this instance, community garden projects.
Recently, I visited one such project sitting behind Bishop King’s Road, just up from Kensington High Street: the Marcus Garvey Park Community Garden in W14. Named after the black civil rights champion and statesman, Marcus Garvey, (1887 – 1940) the garden was built in 1987 to mark the centenary of his birth and was opened by the Mayor of Hammersmith Janet Adegoke.
Tightly-squeezed between busy streets, schools and residential housing this space, as little as two years ago, was suffering from neglect, vandalism and anti-social behaviour. Of course, as is often the case in such circumstances – not too unlike the broken window theory of run-down communities – when left to their own devices, areas such as these can soon become the haunts of the unwelcome and the unsavoury. In turn, the garden itself was suffering: much of the grassed area was in a pretty awful condition with bare patches, lawn weeds and irregular mowing etc. Working with what can often be an awkward London aspect (shade from tall buildings and trees), together with high-volume footfall, the soil was both compact and low in nutrients. Sometimes you only need look at a soil to see it’s not the dark, nutrient-rich and crumbly loam we gardeners desire.
Step forward one keen and passionate gardener with the duel desire to both improve the area and drive it forward as a community project; within just a little over two years the Marcus Garvey Garden has changed immensely. Sean Adamson, a local resident originally from Australia, has been a major force behind the garden’s development, successfully merging his own love of gardening and community into something that has been of benefit to the entire community.
Prior to his involvement with the garden, Sean had been restricted to balcony gardening and window boxes. He would change his displays throughout the year and hated throwing these plants away, wondering where instead he might find a more permanent home for them. I can certainly empathise with that! Gardeners and plant lovers often start out with the simple act of growing plants in pots. Of course, it’s never long before the deep yearning to expand out into open ground becomes all consuming. Research has shown that a plant (any plant!) is at least 100 times happier (and healthier) when taken out of a pot and planted in open soil. So, together with the help of Hammersmith’s Community Gardens Department, Sean set about the development of the garden, showing by example how the area could be improved.
With the help of a very active Facebook page, liaison with both schools and local residents, the community come together throughout the year for regular gardening days. These are days that are open to all and offer the entire community an opportunity to learn a little about gardening, come together to work in the garden and to simply share in the experience and the spirit of the place. Community Gardening Days for 2015 are shown below:
The continual improvement of the garden has been the result of many elements coming together over time. The community there have worked hard improving the soil and planting trees, shrubs and perennials. Although the sheer physical effort has come from voluntary goodwill, many in the community have become adept in pursuing plant donations and securing funding from a variety of sources, the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association being one example. So far, the Marcus Garvey Garden has benefited from the MPGA’s Bulbs for London 2014 campaign, as well as a grant from them which funded the purchase of a wide range of plants. So much so, that during my visit there (bearing in mind I was seeing the garden still wrapped up in its winter coat) I felt that, in many respects, the garden was almost planted to capacity. Sean was in agreement. I will return in the summer and no doubt see the borders looking much fuller and leaves on all the trees. The perennials will all be up and doing and many recent plant purchases offering up their many colours, in contrast to the cold February canvas I witnessed on my visit.
Another reason to wander off the high street and investigate the Marcus Garvey Garden is to see the rare Robinia tree (Black Locust, False Acacia) which sits central to the park, surrounded by a circular bench. Of course, the Locust tree we are all used to seeing in many a domestic garden setting is the Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’ with its golden yellow pinnate foliage looking glorious in its habit and ultimate height of around 15 metres. Introduced into Europe in 1601 by French nursery owners, the Marcus Garvey specimen is thought to be found in only a few other gardens around the UK. The Marcus Garvey tree has been identified identified as Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Unifoliola’ (‘Monophylla’) and has a much larger terminal leaflet, sometimes measuring up to 10cm in length and 3cm wide. This rare cultivar is thought to be listed in W.J.Bean’s Book of Trees & Shrubs. Well worth a look for all you horticultural twitchers out there!
So, what of the future of the garden? Well, the strength of this community project appears to be growing each year. Community involvement, in terms of both interest and actual trowel-holders is increasing. I am sure that this year the garden will look fantastic. You see, that’s the great thing about gardens and gardening. The effort one puts into a garden is always rewarded by the result. Okay, you may not see the return immediately (which in itself is a great lesson in patience!) but see it you most certainly will. And then of course, once you, or in this case the entire community, begins to see, quite literally, the fruits of its labour and just how lovely the area now looks… well, you simply would never wish to return to how it was before. A sense of both personal and civic pride blossoms in the community, knowing collectively that ‘we did this!’
Again, I feel privileged to have been introduced to this community garden project. Communities can often become quite closed and tightly-knit environments, especially neglected ones which often result in feeling a little scary and unwelcome. As we know, that’s the great thing about horticulture – both gardens and gardeners always end up producing, through their care and nurture of plants, areas that challenge social negativity and disintegration, creating open spaces of real beauty for us all to share.