The Growing Kitchen

I walk down a street in Hackney with blocks of flats either side. I don't see a sign of the garden until I almost reach the end of the street. What you'd expect to see between the flats is a patch of lawn with a rose bush or two - bare and unnaturally tidy. Instead I am welcomed by a well established garden teaming with plants. This is The Growing Kitchen which is shared between the local residents.


Two images -one of the garden and one of typical garden


Esther is there to meet me to show me around. She helps co-ordinate the garden, and as we walk around I can tell that a lot of care goes into it, not only because what I see is a lively garden but how much Esther has to say about it too, and all that she’s learnt volunteering there. She tells me that each plot can be rented by a local resident for the year to grow their plants, how they pooled their resources and skills to re-make some of the plant beds, the butterflies that visit the garden, the times when you have to tread carefully around the pond to avoid all the toads, and the bees nest that sits in the bottom of the compost bin.


Looking through magnified lenses has helped us to see the multi-layers of life. In the soil there are, microbes, bacteria, insects, worms. By living they are all performing tasks which help. Recent research has shown that our soil is not as healthy as it should be, worms aren’t so populous and micro plastics make them lose weight. Encouragingly, The Growing Kitchen appears to be a place where living organisms, even the microscopic can thrive. There appears to be an understanding of the intricate networks of giving and taking that allows the synergy of the garden to flourish. These webs of entangled networks that can often appear invisible to us but hold us together. We try not to interfere with nature too much, Esther tells me. They allow wild flowers to grow and don’t use pesticides. A couple of years ago they made a pond in the garden, since then it has invited new wild life, and now while the toads roam the garden, slugs eating the plants is not such a problem. 


There are patches of herbs, vegetables, vines tangle up the fence, and rhubarb stems. We walk around tasting the fruit on offer, raspberries, strawberries, cherries, pink gooseberries and black currants.


Living in an urban landscape as well as the structure of modern life creates barriers that prevent us from developing an intimate relationship with nature. We buy our food from shops, often without thinking about the miles it has travelled, whether it is seasonal and how it has been grown….But it is convenience that has brought us here to this point, while the structure of modern life. Though what is grown in the garden can only serve as a supplement, the fruit, veg and herbs are grown by local residents for their own consumption. The Growing Kitchen is self-organised, and a sanctuary beyond the control of capitalism. Its an opportunity to go outside and re-learn. Inclusion and sustainability…..


Visiting from a nearby flat, a childminder arrives with children she looks after. The children spy on the toads in the compost bin while the childminder tells us how much they enjoy playing in the garden. Others are there taking their pickings and Esther tells them how best to cook the rhubarb. Another passer by asks Esther about the plum tree and they discuss whether it has blight or whether it's the aphids that have turned some of the leaves crinkly. 


Common land was more widespread than it is today. Over the course of centuries, land was privatised in Britain, meaning a decreasing amount of people had access to land to sustain themselves. And this is not a uniquely British feature. Silvia Federici’s research focuses on the enclosing of land, its effect around the world and the few commons that remain. Silvia believes the commons to be a tool to challenge the capitalist organisation of our lives, to gain more autonomy, re-build communities and find new meanings.


When we get to the orchard, we try some wild rocket growing by the gate, it has a more potent pepperiness to it than the rocket you buy from the supermarket. Esther comments on the wild flowers that grow here and how they just sprung up. She clarifies that of course they don’t just spring up but the birds and insects have made this happen. Allowing the wild flowers to grow is a move away from the conservative ideas about the aesthetic needs of a garden. Feverfew is one of the wild plants. As well as looking like long multi-stalked daisies, it has medicinal properties, which have often been used to treat headaches, arthritis and fever. I recently found out why as kids we were told we would wee the bed if we touched dandelion - they are a diuretic. Everything is now made and packaged for us. With industry and technology there has been an unravelling of opportunity. But now it is time to re-think and tidy up after the loose excitement of the last 100 years.