Roots & Radicles 2: green adventures in community gardening
The last few weeks have raced by and it’s now well over a month since our second Roots & Radicles event, which took place on 21st August at Brockwell Park Community Greenhouses. The only thing I can say in excuse of the delay in writing this is that over the course of a very enjoyable - and surprisingly rain-free - eve, we explored so many wide-ranging ideas that they are still percolating through my brain even as we now approach autumn proper. [Edit: realising it's now OCTOBER all I can say is that given some of the themes we discussed, at least it's apt to be publishing this during Black History Month!]
Our speakers for this event were Carole Wright and Richard Choksey. Both defy easy categorising - Carole is a long-standing community gardener who manages both the Brookwood Triangle and Peabody Blackfriars Community Garden, but this is only one of the many strings to her bow. She is a creative urban activist and founding member of Blak Outside, an amazing multidisciplinary collective which hosts their eponymous annual festival (which is how we got to know Carole’s work, via Instagram): a grass roots, intergenerational event supportive of working class social housing residents and the QTIBIPOC community. The festival first came about as a creative response to increased policing of shared outdoor areas during the first lockdown last year.
Similarly, it’s hard to reduce Richard down to an easy moniker - a Kew-trained horticulturalist, he now works with Social Farms & Gardens designing training and networking opportunities for city farms and community gardens in London. He is also currently completing an MA in Global History, focusing on neglected narratives in environmental history (you can learn more about his work on this through his approachable yet thoughtful writing, here).
In the intro to the event I spoke a bit about how Roots & Radicles fits in to YPS's wider aims. Just like with the zine, the idea behind these events is not only to platform expert horticultural knowledge (as we did in our first event) but to situate this in the wider context of our relationship with plants generally: how we fit in to the natural world, what our responsibilities are, indeed how we conceive of what’s ‘natural’ at all.
It would be hard not to reflect on these questions when enjoying the leafy oasis that is the Brockwell Park Community Greenhouses: as Director Kate Sebag outlined, this space has a fascinating history, from its origins as the 19th century walled produce garden for Brockwell Hall, to falling into disrepair through neglect by Lambeth Council in the 80s, then being reclaimed by squatters movement the ‘Green Adventurers’, thanks to whose stewardship we now enjoy it as a community space today. There is a definitely a sense of history.
'There’s probably been growing here for 200 years […] that’s a really nice feeling, that we’re keeping that tradition going'
BPCG Director Kate on the history of the site
Today BPCG is thriving, a registered charity supported by lots of volunteers who help with everything from tending the varied spaces of the garden such as its orchard, beehives, herb and dye beds (and many more) to coordinating its fulsome programme of events, not only horticultural but also art, music, educational, therapeutic - which all very much exemplify the Greenhouses’ slogan of ‘growing through learning, learning through growing’; and it is clear that it’s a much-cherished part of the local community.
Carole talked of her own personal connections to Brockwell Park and surrounding areas:
she’s Brixton born and bred (though specifies ‘old Brixton’ to differentiate from today’s influx of mostly white, middle class
gentrification) and credits this as the start of her journey into art-activism-horticulture. Here's Carole talking about these roots:
She traced through her own journey into community gardening, leading to her now managing Brookwood and Peabody Blackfriars, all the while explaining what the value and purpose of such projects really is:
'It’s a platform. It was a way to get people who maybe were isolated, people - who weren’t the regular Gardeners Question Time, RHS type of people - involved in the garden, and to share their stories. Because to me gardening is like storytelling'
Carole on what community gardening is all about
The extent of Carole’s experience is dazzling and listening to her it’s somewhat overwhelming to hear, as Richard put it, ‘what a rich heritage you've participated in’. It’s not merely the prestigious names of people and organisations that Carole has known and worked with (Dora Boatemah, Tate Modern, Groundwork), but it’s especially the way that, using her own lived experience, she illustrates how change happens in a community at a very granular level. Here’s Carole talking in more depth about how Blak Outside came about and how horticulture can be a medium to engage people both in a love of nature and in complex conversations about their environment more generally:
The big picture of successfully building resilient communities through the power of gardening is revealed piece by piece in the many concrete examples of what she’s achieved. Here’s Carole describing some of the projects she’s coordinated:
Richard talked of his own ‘wow’ moment about the power of community gardening, coming across a local community garden while studying urban regeneration at university and determining that these spaces answered the very challenges he was studying.
‘a community garden […] acts as that medium which connects all these different disparate disciplines - it gives you a platform to bring people together and think differently about how we act as a community’
Richard on the special power of community gardens
He shared his career progression from that point, deciding that in order to make a practical impact he would need horticultural expertise of his own, which he gained first by completing RHS Level 2, then by spending a year at Cambridge Botanic Gardens before completing his Kew diploma.
Here Richard (heckled by parakeets in the background, sorry) explains how his experiences in botanic gardens were key to a deeper appreciation of the diverging values of the botanic versus the community garden:
Richard illustrated the valid point about who we consider as the ‘stakeholders’ of a community space, as in real life this doesn’t only describe those active in its upkeep, but also those passing through, or those who had a relationship with that space before it became a garden. The reality of how you negotiate that - how to find a way that gets everyone involved, without excluding people, can be a delicate and tricky task. The idea of community gardens as having the particular power of creating meeting points (and sometimes battlegrounds..) for different points of view is one we explored further in our later group discussion.
He compared this back to botanic gardens again which in contrast as spaces are much more policed, because they work as scientific collections and are trying to achieve specific aims. I hope Richard won’t mind me mentioning here that he has previously written a meticulously researched and fascinating thesis about the relationship between botanic and community gardens - while not available online he may be willing to share it (or excerpts from it) with you via email, and if you too are interested in these ideas I highly recommend it.
After Carole’s and Richard’s talks, we regrouped (after topping up our drinks from the excellent bar which BPCG volunteer Selina kindly manned) for our group discussion. Thanks to Kate’s sensible suggestion we rearranged ourselves in a circle which created a much more natural group atmosphere.
I think this will have to be a two-parter as we covered so much! So I’ll share a summary of our group explorations in a follow-up. To be continued…
Just in case you only read this far, I would like to thank Carole, Richard, everyone at BPCG: Kate, Selina, Hazel, and especially Steph without whom the event wouldn’t have happened, and to Ollie Rudkin for capturing the evening so well in his beautiful photos.