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Roots & Radicles 2, part II: from sweetgrass to sanctuary

This is part II of the write-up from our second Roots & Radicles event at Brockwell Park Community Greenhouses, with speakers Carole Wright and Richard Choksey. Click here for part I.

As we reconvened for our group discussion, we started with a celebration of the Brixton Botanical Map - along with the bar and plant stall, the lovely volunteers of BPCG had assembled some free pamphlets and literature including this gem. In the words of its creators, writer Sasha Morse and illustrator Emily Rand:

'This map of green spaces in Brixton addresses the legacies of the British empire and celebrates local botanical education, community gardening and food growing initiatives, whilst looking at gardens as places to consider injustice, oppression and colonial legacy. The map features seven green spaces in and around Brixton, which detail the entwined histories of colonialism and botany, and signpost local community gardening initiatives. It also features a kid’s trail, a glossary which queries the common use of colonial and racist language in horticulture, a reading list and a list of additional local green spaces. By unearthing sensitive histories, the Brixton Botanical Map highlights green spaces as sites of learning, loss and remembrance, but also of radical action and possibility.'

Commissioned by Art on the Underground, it is available here as a downloadable pdf but hard copies can also be obtained from Brixton Underground station, Brixton Library, Brixton Windmill Centre, the Garden Museum and the South London Botanical Institute. And of course from the Brockwell Park Community Greenhouses! It also has an excellent list of resources for further research, including a reading list and suggestions of people to follow on Instagram, such as the @decolonisethegarden project.

Part of the Brixton Botanical Map, available at

Following on from Richard’s exposition about the different sorts of spaces that botanic and community gardens constitute, our discussion opened with observations from BPCG volunteer Hazel that developed this theme. She’s recently been reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, and talked of how much she enjoyed the combining of indigenous plant wisdom with scientific botany as a celebration of plural approaches to knowledge. She related this to working at BPCG, where she regularly meets people who have varied perspectives on growing.

‘You can learn things from anyone - anytime I come here, I learn something from someone, and it’s fascinating. And it’s not in an alienating way, just in a ‘pass it on’ way. People are so generous with their knowledge’

Hazel on why she loves volunteering at BPCG

Photo: Ollie Rudkin

Hazel compared this with the relatively formal experience of visiting botanic gardens where information is usually shared through interpretation boards offering exposition or selective facts about the plants featured. This made me think on the conceptual difference between knowledge and information (my background is in philosophy so I’m afraid this sort of reflection is a recurring hazard for me). Where ‘knowledge’ implies a subjective human person doing the knowing, ‘information’ is often conceived of, however erroneously, as being an objective entity: ‘data’ or ‘facts’ which do not invite questioning or critique. What I took away from Hazel’s observation was the contrasting epistemological environments that community vs botanic gardens create. In what conditions and through what channels do we best share knowledge about plants?

BPCG Director Kate expanded on this idea, lauding the work of one of BPCG’s community gardeners Cat, who, in spite of her formally trained background, favours the ‘if it works, it’s valid’ approach to teaching horticultural skills. This resonates so strongly with the sort of discussions we have about what YPS is for - there are often claims that this is the one correct way to do such-and-such, but across propagation, and gardening more generally, there are plenty of real world examples of iconoclasts and experimenters trailblazing their way to new methods (see our previous Roots & Radicles at Chelsea Physic Garden - where Tom Freeth told us about propagating in pumice for example).

Photo: Ollie Rudkin

We did talk about the need to not dichotomise between scientific and ‘other’ (such as folk or indigenous) approaches. But just as the Brixton Botanical Map illuminates, it is warranted to pay special attention to the histories of oppressed groups because these are the ones most likely to be untold or whose contributions are overlooked. I think that’s why ideas of ‘plurality’ are so helpful in how we consider plant epistemologies; because it is possible, without contradiction, to celebrate many different approaches, as Braiding Sweetgrass so ably demonstrates for example.

Community gardens themselves are indeed special sites of bringing together multiple different (even conflicting) opinions, as Richard described earlier (see part I) and returned to in our discussion:

‘That’s the definition of a community garden: it’s about allowing people to express their vision for a space and saying that that’s permitted in that space’

However, it’s tempting to romanticise this - a utopia where all ideas are valid and everyone gets along - as Carole notes, with all the wisdom accrued through her experience of the day-to-day running of such spaces (click to play audio clip):

One of the challenges Carole has to wrestle with is local people’s expectations that the gardens should look a certain way. She eloquently traced how this relates directly back to (borrowing from the Brixton Botanical map) ‘the entwined histories of colonialism and botany’:

‘Kew and all of these Victorian botanists have such a lasting impact on the ‘perfect garden’ - and that extends to community gardening too’

Photo: Ollie Rudkin

This reminded me of a brilliant talk given by Great Dixter gardener and meadow expert Michael Wachter (@michael_wachter on Instagram) at Charleston’s Festival of the Garden a few months ago: he talked of how important it is to communicate that floral diversity does not equal biodiversity. The campaign to bring ‘wildflower meadows’ into people’s mental landscape (and, progressively, the physical one) has been so successful that ‘flowers = pollinators = good’ has become somewhat simplistically entrenched. He spoke passionately of the work that needs to be done to move people’s aesthetic sensibility towards other kinds of beautiful and biodiverse meadows, such as those populated by multiple grass species growing at different heights, which in turn support a great complexity of invertebrate species.

This inherited idea of how we expect things to look does not just apply to our landscapes, but to the people who tend them as well. In relation to Carole mentioning that she is one of very few Black people managing community gardens, we talked about how the Black Lives Matter protests shook people up in the horticulture industry, and how it is the history of the UK which culturally sustains the idea that gardening is ‘only for old white people’.

Photo: Ollie Rudkin

It’s hard to do justice in a short blog post to what on the day was an expansive, layered and nuanced conversation, but further group contributions led us to discussing the not uncomplicated question of just what gardening is! Particularly in the wider context of cultivation generally - what is the relationship between gardening and farming and how has that informed who we expect to see ‘gardening’ today?

For example, Livia talked about how her Italian roots inform how she approaches horticulture herself:

‘If we look at other parts of the world…you’re a peasant if you're a gardener. My family come from farming so for me they're not seeing this as progress, they're seeing me go backwards - what are you doing? You've gone to university and now why are you going back to digging up the earth?!’

To Livia, the ‘wellies and scones of England’ is an ‘exotic area that I've never been a part of before’, a privilege she savours.

Photo: Ollie Rudkin

Here’s Carole developing on this idea of the hierarchy between gardening and farming (click to play audio):

Is cultivation labour or leisure? Of course the answer is that it depends on context, but it is easy to conclude that gardening is a luxury (even if you’re simply thinking of it through the lens of access to gardens - as Livia pointed out, places like BPCG offer that luxury to those who don’t have any gardening space of their own). But we should be wary if defining gardening that way partitions it off as a hobby only for the rich, because it’s the birthright of everyone to have the opportunity to explore our relationship with growing, given that plants are at the root of everything from the food we eat, to the clothes we wear, to the medicines we rely on (this really got me thinking again on the age-old question of why gardening is not on the national curriculum - a subject which resurfaces periodically).

Additionally, as we returned to repeatedly throughout our discussion, gardening is such a powerful tool to mediate conversations on practically everything under the sun, as BPCG Director Kate describes:

We did indeed talk a lot about history, and Richard made the excellent point that gardens are also a tool for present action.

He referenced the Gardens of Sanctuary project, which welcomes refugees and asylum seekers as contributors to gardens and green spaces (click to play audio):

Although this is a specific conception of 'garden as sanctuary', we talked more widely about this idea, and on reflection this really reminded me of some of the negative coverage of the National Trust's efforts to tell more of the stories bound up in their own assets. One of the conflicts seemed to revolve around whether a visit to a country house is a retreat from reality (escapism into luxury, craft, cottagecore, etc) or an opportunity to face our history (this luxury being built on the slave trade, trauma, genocide, etc). I don't mean to sidestep the very complex challenges that curators face over managing this, but when it comes to gardens (which have been the focus of analogous conversation), it's clear that what makes them such important spaces is that they can be both. A garden can be a sanctuary, a retreat, a walled paradise, while at the same time holding within it the history of the world, in all its violence. A garden can be a meeting place: for close friends or for opposing views. A plant can be both beautiful and undeniably political.

Here Richard talks about one of the botanical connections, traced in the Brixton Botanical Map, which links the legacy of Kew to the local area, through Artocarpus altilis aka breadfruit:

Of course, this question is brought into such sharp focus because of the particular institution (or rather, institutions) that Kew is. As we explored so thoroughly, community gardens are very different from botanic ones and it would be a false dichotomy to ask whether community gardens are sites of education or sanctuary. As BPCG itself shows, they are multivalent spaces.

'Sanctuary' proved to be a useful anchor point for conversation as Carole described plans for the future of the Brookwood Triangle (one of the community gardens she manages). She talked about the ‘Dickensian’ levels of poverty in the area, and dependance on food banks, which you wouldn’t guess from its proximity to such shiny neighbours as Tate Modern and the Southbank Centre. We could have talked for hours more about why community gardens matter, and I could only cram so much of what we did cover into this write-up... so I'll leave you with Carole's own words on sanctuary:

‘One of the main purposes is that we want to welcome people, that it is their sanctuary from what’s really hard out there […] because it feels a very encompassing and embracing space: this is your space, make of it what you will’

Carole on community gardens as a place of mental and physical sanctuary

All that's left is for me to once again thank Carole, Richard, everyone at BPCG including Kate, Steph, Selina, Hazel and the other wonderful volunteers, Ollie Rudkin for his documenting of the evening in his beautiful photos, and last but not least, everyone who attended and together created such a good space for exploring so many ideas together.

We've already had Roots & Radicles 3 (at the fantastic Beth Chatto's Plants & Gardens), so look out for the next write-up soon, or perhaps see you at Roots & Radicles 4 (details to be announced very shortly!).

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