Adventures in Community Gardening

Rob Elliot shares his experiences of being involved in community gardening on an estate in East London.

087Previously the site of the ‘Forever Young Garden’ had been a small rough patch of grass, burned up bench and litter trap which was home to sparrows, dogs and the occasional person topping up with intoxicants. It is situated on an estate where I had begun in London as a Pastoral Assistant for an Anglican church.

This garden, the change – in people and place had a big impact on me. It ticked so many boxes; environmental – having local, national and international positive side effects), people – it changed people’s minds and bodies, theologically – it cared for creation, ‘kingdom’ and redemption wise – we were making part of the earth more heaven like.

This garden was located on the neighbouring estate, Clapton Park, where I lived and shared in church with others. Nervously and anxiously, I felt stirred to go for a walk around the estates where I lived.

A large pair of metal gates I hadn’t really seen before stood out and seeing they were slightly ajar I walked in. The bare rectangle plot of grass hidden between the block of flats and the Community Centre was to become a Community Garden.

My mind alerted to this task as God spoke to me ….‘Boom’!

While volunteering with the Forever Young at the nearby Kingsmead estate, I had met a wonderful man called John. Over the last 7 or so years prior to us meeting he had been working away gradually, bit by bit, employed to care for the green spaces on the 3 estates which make up the Clapton Park estate (the other two being called Nye Bevan and Mill Fields) already having rescued some spots and making them lovely.

He asked me if I may be interested in trying to chase a bit of funding for green spaces (mainly bits of nondescript grass – of which there were many) on the estates where he worked and I lived.

So I filled out what was to be the 1st of a number of funding applications. The first application was for a grant for £500 from the Co-op. John brought professional skills and knowledge and I had a willingness to learn new things and to engage with my neighbours.

IMG_0785The plan was simple. Knock on the doors of a row of houses and ask to see if they would like to do design plant and grow a garden together. It turns out that 8 of the 10 households were up for participating in the community garden idea. Being warmly invited, we sat down together in a neighbour’s kitchen to drink some tea and make a plan. In the coming days, we took some gardening tools and began to plant some trees as well as some flowers and herbs to the garden that was beginning to take shape in front of their homes.

Over the next 2 and a half years this was followed by a number of other projects, events, workshops and schemes. We were able to start 7 brand new community garden spaces in various places on the 3 estates, improve 4 gardens that had been previously created, plant 50 sizeable fruit, nut or native trees and  added a pergola with climbers in a local park.

One of the highlights was annually taking part in the Chelsea Fringe festival in which we created a local map on which ‘green highlights’ are highlighted, led a walking tour of the 3 estates as well as host people from a number of estates and councils.  Additionally, we were able to design and distribute Clapton Park’s very own packaging for wild flower seed mix designed by a local child, as well as running growing and environmentally focussed fun activities and educational workshops for people of all ages.

We persuaded the local church to let us use their rather unusual indoor balcony as a ‘green house’ on which we grew seedlings which were shared out with anyone who wanted some. Because of this the church was included on the green map and featured as a stop on the walking tours which meant loads more people got to know where it was.

When we first started, we were knocking on doors but eventually people were coming out of their way to find us. One of the many things that came out of the community garden was a community meal which quickly became a monthly occurrence and often featured fruit, veg and herbs which had been grown locally in our gardens. The community meals spawned a lot of local baking sessions including random picnics which groups of residents put on as a way of welcoming visitors to their estates whenever there was a tour of the community gardens.

DSC_0036 (1)A conservative estimate of people who were directly  involved in one way or another  would be about 1,000. This number doesn’t take into account the 4,000 people who live on the estates or the number of people who came from other places to have a look. The ages of people involved ranged from toddlers to senior citizens whose nationalities included Turkish, Polish, Portugese, Turkish Cypriot, English, Somali, African Carribean, New Zealand, Scottish, Bosnian, Iranian, Bengali, Czech, and American. Many of these people are still involved in the community garden project as they consider the place is their home.

Each time when we started a community garden project, the reaction from neighbours were mainly positive. We would often adjust our ideas and actions depending on what the project it and how it might have an effect on people. Every time, we sought to give priority and leadership to the people who lived closest to the space or grass involved.

Sure, we were simply growing veg or planting trees together, right? Wrong!

We were helping people to understand and realise and accept that they had every right to have a say about what happens to the land on which they live and the streets where their kids play. We were helping to grow local democracy, as people shared opinions with growing confidence about a patch of grass they grew in confidence about bigger issues on which they could share their opinions as well.

Loads and loads of people have been enabled to realise a stronger sense of feeling at home after having received any number of smiling welcomes in an area which had been known for its crime stats and poverty. Clapton Park Estate has increasingly become known for the riches which it generously shares with others.

I think we were helping to grow the communion table as well as the community meal, all of it on common land.