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The transformative power of gardening
Words by Clare Finney; Illustration by Matthew Hancock
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I have to admit that it took me a while to get gardening. In fact I’m still not sure I quite have the hang of it, but I do understand the quiet thrill of growing something of your own, something miraculous that we have to collectively pretend is completely ordinary. Perhaps it was because my father is a gardener by trade ─ all those trips I made to other people’s gardens in Hampstead and Highgate was a lesson in how much money people pour into their gardens, and how some people simply had too much of both. Perhaps it was in these quiet pockets of north London that ideas about land distribution were forged.
In the city, gardening and growing has become a rich person’s game, but obviously that is not the whole story. In her interview with Alicia Kennedy, the executive director of FoodLab Detroit, Devita Davison, talks about the long history of urban agriculture in Detroit, of “the people who actually put their hands in the dirt, and where other people saw despair, they saw opportunity”. And equally who is included in this conversation: “How do we make sure that the people who are most impacted by what's ever happening in this community in this neighborhood, get to co-imagine this particular part of land with us?” Davison asks. “How do we prevent those people from being excluded from the conversation because of someone else’s power dynamic of an imagining?”
It is impossible to talk about urban agriculture without first talking about land, and who owns it. It is something Land in our Names, the Black-led organisation addressing the inequality of land distribution in the UK, knows. It is also something the residents of the estates on Southampton Way know ─ hidden between the concrete you will find a communal garden where food can still be pulled from the soil and the preciousness of the allotment narrative is challenged. Or the Calthorpe Project, a community garden so carefully hidden behind Granary Square in King’s Cross that you wouldn’t know it’s there unless you were looking for it. And all these small patches across London: not enough to feed us, of course, but not insubstantial to our lives either.
Today’s newsletter by Clare Finney looks at the power of growing produce, partially as a way of addressing urban inequalities, but also the personal effect it has on us, the way it modulates our grief and our mental health no matter what class or background we come from. I’ve been a big admirer of Clare’s writing ever since I first read her at Foodism, so I am delighted to be able to publish this piece. Perhaps between this, Davison’s TED talk, and Rebecca May Johnson’s allotment musings, writing will achieve something my dad has so far been unable to do, and make a gardener of me yet.
Tomatoes as therapy: the transformative power of gardening, by Clare Finney
On the morning of my grandfather’s wake, my grandmother sat at their kitchen table, watching YouTube tutorials about tomatoes. As her family bustled around her with that nervous, directionless energy one often gets before a funeral, she stared determinedly at her iPad, transfixed by the horticultural tips being presented on screen.
At the time, we thought little of it. Grandad’s death, though not unexpected, was sudden and disorientating – particularly for Grandma, who had been with him since they were teenagers. Though uncharacteristic, her behaviour was hardly extraordinary in the light of such heart-rending grief.
A month later, lockdown started, throwing her and thousands of recently bereaved others into the deep end of widowhood. It would be the last time she would see her family at close quarters for twenty weeks.
Though we’d spoken frequently on the phone during lockdown, Grandma had become increasingly hard to get hold of, often disappearing for hours on end as the afternoons grew lighter and warmer. We were baffled as to what an 89 year old could be doing in isolation that would keep her from answering our calls. When we were finally able to visit her and were taken on a grand tour of her garden, we discovered why. My grandparents’ greenhouse is at the bottom of their garden; rain-streaked and wind-battered, each spring it became a portal to another world – and it was one Grandad reigned over. Though Grandma herself is a keen gardener, the greenhouse was Grandad’s preserve and he would spend hours at a stretch within its warm and quiet confines, tending the tendrils and leaves of the tomatoes. Grandma could never understand quite what it was he was doing in there; how these small fruits could swallow up so much of his time and dedication. Yet her impatience evaporated once they reached the kitchen, where the mere sight of a knife would rupture their tender skins into puddles of pips and crimson juice.
Finally, after poring over the peonies and admiring the azaleas, we reached the greenhouse, where a sharp tug and the harsh scraping of the so-called sliding doors revealed a fug of flowering tomato plants. The sight, and the verdant, vegetal scent, were so vividly evocative of my Grandad, it took my breath away. “They take a lot of work. I understand why he spent hours down here now," Grandma smiled, as she deftly pinched out a few greedy side roots. “But I feel closer to him in here. And I think he’d be proud of me.” In growing tomatoes and keeping his greenhouse in operation, she felt herself deeply connected to Grandad, in a way that went beyond the spiritual. Having never lived on her own, we feared those two long months of isolation would compound her grief almost to breaking point. Yet being in the garden she and her husband had grown together, tending the plants that had once been ‘his’ job, she had felt comforted yet confident and capable at the same time.
This idea of gardening as therapy has gained a lot of currency in recent years, and in recent months particularly. In April the psychiatrist and gardener Sue Stuart Smith published a book detailing the extraordinary restorative benefits of working with nature, informed by research in neuroscience as well as case studies and individual stories. In The Well Gardened Mind, Stuart Smith writes beautifully and in detail of the “deep existential processes which can be involved in creating and caring for a garden”, whether it is grafting a fruit tree or planting window boxes. These are processes which many people will have become more conscious of: sales of seeds and gardening gear soared in lockdown as people turned to gardens and allotments for entertainment, nutrition (sales of fruit and vegetable seeds in particular saw a marked uplift) and exercise.
“People talk about their gardens and allotments as ‘keeping them sane’,” says Harriet Gross, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Lincoln and author of the Psychology of Gardening. “We talk about gardens of remembrance, and gardens as retreats for contemplation. The garden may be private or it may be social – either one bringing different benefits”. Though unique to her, my grandma’s experience of gardening and grief is also representative. “Being able to grow familiar fruit or vegetables keeps family and personal links alive,” Gross explains. Though that person has gone there is, in the cutting, seedling or tree, “a continuation of something important to them… and the conversations they will have had over planting or harvesting.”
As with every other lockdown ‘benefit’, the ability of the UK population to engage with gardening’s pleasures varies enormously according to income and geography. One thing the Royal Horticultural Society and other proponents of horticulture have been particularly keen to emphasise is that its myriad rewards are not contingent on owning a large plot of land, or even a small one; that the simple, empowering act of planting and nurturing a living thing should not be the preserve of the middle classes, but something everyone can and should be able to participate in. On an individual level this can take the form of houseplants and herb boxes: those fresh, fragrant stands against the overpriced plastic packs of parsley that are symptomatic of our commodified food culture. Transplant this into a community context – into community garden schemes, city farms, growing food projects and so on – and gardening’s transformative potential goes beyond the personal, to the truly political.
One of the lockdown’s casualties was the community gardens which, unlike privately-owned allotments, were forced to close and only reopened recently. Situated in urban areas across the country, community gardens provide a unique space in which volunteers can create and care for a garden alongside their neighbours. In recent years they have received growing numbers of indirect and direct referrals from mental health professionals who recognise the psychological benefits to be derived from the soil. In an open letter to the government in April, charity Social Farms & Gardens made a direct plea for community gardens to be supported as an integral part of the nation’s psychological recovery. “When the immediate crisis abates, city farms and community gardens will be places for people to recover from issues caused by this crisis, including trauma, anxiety, depression, isolation, fear of going out, and loss of work,” they wrote, asking that these gardens receive “urgent financial support.”
Community gardens can come in many guises. Their defining features are that volunteering is free, and enthusiasm the only qualification. Forty Hall Vineyard in north London is a social enterprise growing produce for their local farmers market and grapes for their well-respected winery and offers what they call ‘ecotherapy’ sessions for volunteers every week. All are welcome, but those with mild to moderate mental health support needs are particularly encouraged to reap the physical and mental benefits of working outside with plants and other people. It’s an inspiring realisation of twentieth century philosopher Carl Jung’s edict that “every human should have a plot of land so that their instincts can come to life again.” Speaking about the importance of land to communities and individuals, Jung insists that “we all need nourishment for our psyche. It is impossible to find such nourishment in an urban tenement without a patch of green or blossoming tree...we need to project ourselves into the things around us. My self is not confined to my body. It extends to all the things I have made – to all the things around me.”
Jung makes explicit the link between gardening and identity – and, conversely, how not having a stake in the ground can contribute towards a more insidious sense of uprootedness. Earlier this year, the Black-led grassroots collective Land In Our Names (LION) was established to address the racial inequality of farmers and land distribution in the UK. Reflecting on the damning lack of diversity within the country’s agricultural and environmental sectors (the least diverse employment sectors in the country) LION’s founders point out that this issue is inextricably bound up with that of land ownership and access to green areas. A study carried out by Natural England found that Black and minority ethnic communities are 60% less likely to be able to access green space than their white counterparts – a disparity which reinforces the sense of disconnect that diaspora, dispossession, colonialism and forced migration have bestowed.
This is something community gardens are well placed to address, as at Wolves Lane Horticultural Centre in Haringey– home to sweet potatoes, exotic squashes, tomatillos – and Black Rootz, the UK’s first multigenerational Black-led growing project. There, the bringing together of young people with an older, more experienced generation within the garden allows youth engagement with nature whilst ensuring that techniques for growing produce new to British shores, but central to many African and West Indian cuisines, are passed on. Here, again, growing food means more than sustenance – though in areas of high food poverty like Haringey, the sustenance itself is significant. The veg plots of Wolves Lane have formed a core part of the community’s extraordinary efforts to feed its most vulnerable in the last few months, amidst the heightened food insecurity wrought by Covid. The council supported these efforts until July, when it called time on its partnership with parent charity Edible London, citing budget limitations and a decline in demand.
Projects like Black Rootz are living, edible proof that gardens represent “an opportunity to express personal culture and history”, says Gross. This is evident in the garden of Kate Sebag, which is full of plants propagated from cuttings from her late mother’s garden. “Only this morning I was pruning the clematis – and she loved clematis, so every time I see it I think of her,” she tells me. Yet as director of Brockwell Park Community Gardens in south London, Sebag also has the chance to witness this sense of culture and connection blossom within her community. Three times a week, local people of all stripes volunteer here. Some bring experience; others, physical strength; some are referred by mental health services or part of school groups. Together with the support of Sebag and her staff, they create and shape flower beds, fruit trees and vegetable plots: physical manifestations of their shared purpose and pride. “Community gardening is about passing on knowledge and skills,” Sebag continues. “We have volunteers in their 80s and people in their teens. That exchange of gardening knowledge goes on, inter and intra-generationally.”
She describes this as “like cooking”. A recipe passed on carries with it “the person who shared it with you and the people you’ve cooked and eaten it with.” A garden, however, goes one step further – because it’s identity is rooted not just in a person or people, but in a particular place. “At the gardens volunteers feel and are connected to the land, because they tended it themselves,” says Sebag. In an age where “people move around a lot, and don’t always have a connection with a place”, the value of this is inestimable. It was particularly noticeable when they reopened to the public for the first time post lockdown. “There’s been such an appreciation of the place from the volunteers. They have a bond with the gardens. They all said how much they have missed it.”
Yesterday, Grandma ‘harvested’ her first tomato: a tiny, plump treasure in pillar-box red, which she popped straight into her mouth the moment she plucked it from the vine. It was a sweet completion of the cycle that had started on that cold February morning, with ‘How to Grow Tomatoes’ on YouTube. Once we’ve finished discussing her triumph, she tells me that only a few days previously she had been to her local community garden to donate some of Grandad’s equipment. As Britain emerges shakily from lockdown and steels itself for a deep recession, these gardens are uniquely placed to nurture, nourish and unite the people it has most affected. Let’s hope the government also gives them the tools.
Clare Finney is a London-based freelance food writer, and deputy editor of Market Life, the Borough Market magazine. You can find more of her work at the Guardian, the Independent, BBC Good Food, delicious, Foodism (sadly no more but the website is still live) and the Borough Market website. Clare donated her fee back to Vittles.
The illustration is by Matthew Hancock, a designer and illustrator from the UK who was shortlisted for the World Illustration Awards this year. You can find more of his work on his website and Instagram. Matthew was paid for his work.