Gardening / 6 June, 2009

Growing up on the estates

Meet local residents growing their own flowers, fruit and veg

Barley Biswas and her son, Oisin on the Smalley Estate, Stoke Newington

Barley Biswas and her son, Oisin on the Smalley Estate, Stoke Newington

As I wander in no-one stops me. The garden is a corner plot behind the Geffrye Museum. The entrance is stacked with plants for sale, behind is a small area of woodland, a stand of birch all glossy green in May.

I follow a path past a pond and an old bathtub planted with bulbs. An open area leads on to a large greenhouse near raised vegetable beds and an orchard.

To the side, through a pergola draped with clematis are beds filled with tulips lolling in the sun. The garden is alive with insects and birds that flit from bed to bush. There is a lovely openness about the place.

I sit at a table and talk to Ita, one of the volunteers. “Thursday is my best day of the week,” she says, “the day I come gardening”.

Over at the garden office Claudia Sartori tells me that the garden stands on the site of bombed terraces, demolished after the war and replaced with prefabs.

People moved out as the neighbouring Fellowes Court was completed, but there’s still a lamppost from the prefab days. It was a council depot, a play area; then local residents raised funds for a communal garden, owned by an organisation that ran horticultural therapy courses.

In all that Claudia tells me – the after-school club with the local school, the gardening courses for estate residents, for older people in sheltered accommodation – it is this that at first I dully don’t understand.

Working with people who have mental health problems, people with strokes, with dementia – a nice day out for them I wonder, nothing more. What do they do in the winter? “We bag up seeds”.

She retrieves a box from a corner of the room in which are laid small pay packets, each carefully labelled and stuck. As she cups the seed in her palm, folds the packet, tidies the envelopes, I suddenly get it.

For anyone relearning motor skills this is tricky, intricate, just-hard-enough work. “We have people that can barely see that do pruning.” Isn’t that a little risky?

“It’s most complicated if the person has learning difficulties, you break the task down into small sections, or you make it more obvious. If they’re weeding, you tie the non-weeds with a piece of tape and ask them to clear everything else.”

While we’re talking a woman comes in and asks for vegetables. Claudia fishes out a bag. So she can pick her own? “Oh yes, locals can come in and pay to get their veg.” It is a mixed sort of gardening here, there are lettuces in the annuals bed.

They run courses for garden design for people in flats. “There are people who say ‘I have only a balcony’, so we teach them about gardening in different aspects, colours, screening from the wind”.

I think how different this garden is to the private plots of traditional gardeners, who obsess over texture, form and their perennial border. Here the garden is a centre for people, a green space put to a myriad of different uses, and the links replicate.

Until 13 June, the garden is a drop-off point for broken tools, which are then refurbished in prisons and passed on to schools with gardening projects.

I ask Claudia what she needs more of. Like the garden, she is soft, measured, but very focused. They have enough volunteers to do the gardening, though more are welcome. They’d like help with admin, fundraising, publicity, from anyone with woodworking skills, wood to repair the raised beds, waterbutts, even a digital camera and photocopier. Oh, and a display board for the entrance if anyone has one.

Camilla Baker, now a regular volunteer went on the St Mary’s course for estate residents. She took what she learned back to the Wilton Estate and has now planted bluebells, a cotoneaster, daffodils, but fears that when the maintenance come round, what she has planted, like the lavender which undergoes a twice-yearly haircut, will all be cut down to the same size.

So if you live on an estate, how do you negotiate your space with the Council?

Over on the Rhodes Estate, south of Dalston Lane, resident Michael Calderbank has been gardening with others on the public land for just over a year.

The tenants’ and residents’ association (TRA) had carried out a survey to find out what people wanted and raised their plan to start community gardening with the Council. Michael researched the history of the land with Hackney Archives to check the plot was not contaminated.

The Council also visited the plot to ensure no underground services were present and have now accepted the gardeners’ alternative use of the land. Estate maintenance just leave the patch alone.

Groundwork East London provided a grant for start-up costs and fruits trees, which are now complemented by herbs, a grape vine, and veg such as kai choi, cavalo nero and swiss chard.

The gardeners also keep many of the ‘weeds’ that grow in order to support wildlife. They are in the process of learning which of them – such as dandelion and mallow – are edible. Michael also tells me about the green space on Napier Grove in south Hackney funded by Shoreditch Trust, and managed by Grass Shoots.

When I cycle down there the local kids hang off the fencing around the plot pointing out the beds of glossy lettuces. Michael says much of the support on his estate comes from kids who have helped from the start, and from a pensioner who loads up an old pushchair with water containers for the garden.

On the Smalley Estate in Stoke Newington, Barley Biswas has seen her team of child gardeners grow up. First they helped with the gardening, then they took up football.

Now they are fully grown and Barley, along with her tenants’ and residents’ association, got a Small Projects Grant from the Council to plant the space with fruit trees (cherry, plum, pear and apple), plant a circular bed and plants for the playground.

Hedging along the busy Brooke Road was planted by the tenants’ and residents’ association and Groundwork – with help, Barley thinks, from the Tree Musketeers.

Barley replanted an ailing rosebed with lavender, rosemary, poppies and iris. There are now young hollyhock plants at the edges and a willow arch in the centre. The grant also paid for planters; raised off the ground these won’t get fouled by the estate’s dogs. Concerned about food security and energy used in transporting food, Barley is now keen to turn some of the land over to growing veg.

She leads me off to a wooden door, behind it is the small garden of a house the residents use for their meetings. Here she has wooden drawers from an old chest laid out on the ground. They are lined with plastic and filled with soil, growing inside are the veg seedlings that she plans to hand out to the other residents.

The communal space on the estate is underused by adults, she says, but is a local focus for kids, who also come from the neighbouring terraces where there is no open space.

In front of Barley’s block the surround of the play area has been planted up by St Mary’s. There is wisteria and jasmine to cover the fencing at the back, clematis along the road, a new mimosa tree and nodding lilac.

An older Turkish resident from a neighbouring block has propagated a number of walnut trees, which are growing around the play area. Finally Barley takes me to the neighbouring lawn across which TRA treasurer Mary Laughlin has started another small orchard.

We pass around the lawn to the corner of the estate where a plaque commemorates the life of Etem Celebi. The boxes around have been replanted and a circular bench surrounds a newly planted tree.

A week later I cycle slowly back past the estate and am struck how its hedges and trees form a green link between the open common to the east and the woodland of Abney Park in the west.

For further information including events, visit St Mary’s Secret Garden.

If you are gardening on your estate, or anywhere else in Hackney, and would like to have your garden featured, please email

/ 6 June, 2009


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