I walk down a street in Hackney with blocks of flats either side. There’s no sign for the garden
until I’ve almost reached the end of the street. What you'd expect to see between the flats is a
patch of lawn with a tree or maybe a rose bush or two. Instead I am welcomed by a
well-established garden teeming with plants. This is The Growing Kitchen which is shared between
the local residents.
Esther is there to meet me, 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 by how much
Esther has to say about it, and all the wildlife she has discovered whilst volunteering there.
She tells me every year local residents can rent a plot to grow their own plants; how they
pooled their resources and skills to re-make some of the plant beds; about the butterflies that
visit as well as the times when they’ve had to tread carefully around the pond to avoid all the
Before my visit I tried learning about the ecology of gardens. Reading sources online I realised how little I knew about the layers of activity that take place. Plants are often distracting so we don’t always pay attention to the detailed mechanics of gardens. In the soil alone there are countless archaea, bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa, mites, earthworms and insects, interacting with the soil and some with each other, to exchange nutrients in cycles. They may often appear invisible to us but these interactions entangle to form webs that hold us together. Here at The Growing Kitchen there appears to be an understanding of these intricate networks of giving and taking that allows the synergy of the garden to flourish. “We try not to interfere with nature too much”, Esther tells me. Instead, they allow wild flowers to grow and refuse to use pesticides. A couple of years ago they made a small pond in the garden, since then it has invited new wildlife, and now, with the many toads roaming the garden, they don’t have to worry about slugs eating the plants so much.
There are patches of herbs and vegetables, vines tangle up the fence, and rhubarb stems stand strong from the ground. We walk around tasting all the fruit hanging ripe; raspberries, strawberries, cherries, pink gooseberries and blackcurrants. Honest and nutritive, the garden has a lot to offer. It’s an opportunity for local residents to go outside and learn, to taste directly the fruit of their own efforts. It is a shared sanctuary where intimacy can grow, in a time when we are detached from food production and increasingly from one another.
Visiting from a nearby flat, a childminder arrives with the 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.
When we get to the orchard, we try some wild rocket growing by the gate, it has a more potent pepperiness to it compared with the usual 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 out of nowhere, it’s the birds and insects that have made this happen. Allowing the wild flowers to grow is a move away from the conservative ideas of the aesthetic needs that have subjugated gardens in recent times. Feverfew is one of the many wild plants to make this garden its home. As well as looking like long, multi-stalked daisies, it has medicinal properties, and had often been used to treat headaches, arthritis and fever.
I did spot wildflowers in some unlikely places this past year but the city remains mostly unaccommodating to wildlife. Urban infrastructure dominates this space we share. But initiatives like The Growing Kitchen give us the opportunity to re-think our relationship with the environment, as well as re-learn the basic threads that hold us together.
Catch Esther and Gideon on BBC Gardeners' Question Time (from 16mins)
For more updates on the garden follow @wildhackney on Instagram.