A community plot where interests are given free rein
A group of friends got together and transformed a rectangle of contaminated ground
While on the trail of allotments and community gardening near the Olympic Park, I got to hear of Abbey Gardens in West Ham. This is a remarkable project, starting with the fact that it is on land once occupied by the abbey of St Mary’s Stratford, a 12th century Cistercian monastery, brought back to life through contemporary design, flourishing planting and community involvement.
It was a rectangle of contaminated ground until the Friends of Abbey Gardens got together and transformed it a few years ago – before the Olympic Park made this part of London the focus of attention, as was firmly pointed out to me. The slim angular raised beds, designed by Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie, cluster like a shoal of fish along one side of the site. Backed by a long brick wall supporting fruit trees, this concentration of the beds leaves a large area free for grass (and the visible foundations of the abbey gatehouse) with a hut and greenhouse at one end, a compost enclosure and portable toilet at the other.
Hamish Liddle, the garden club leader, was there when I visited. Nipping off now and then to see how people from the mental health charity Mind were doing with their activities of compost spreading and planting, he talked about the communal ethos of the garden. Club members (diverse in age and ethnic background) are free to pursue what interests them, for instance, growing a great variety of different tomatoes, but no-one has an individual plot. Hamish appears to be the one with his hand on the tiller, steering the planting so that it makes a coherent whole.
The crops are shared between those who grew them and their friends. Despite having just had a big harvest party, there was still a plentiful and decorative mixture of vegetables, herbs and flowers in the 34 oak-sided beds, including basil, leeks, fennel, marigolds and artichokes. The beds have pointed ends in which the soil dries out faster. Experience has shown that it is better to plant these with drought-tolerant subjects such as agastache, salvia or capsicum.
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Although the gardens are open during daytime and the clubs only run on certain days, there is minimal damage or theft. “I think it’s because it all looks good and well-cared for,” says Hamish.
It’s true, it does look good, and is well worth visiting, especially by anyone interested in the different ways to run a community garden.
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To get to Abbey Gardens in Bakers Row take the tube to Stratford, then it’s two stops on two stops on the DLR. Further information at www.abbeygardens.org or www.whatwilltheharvestbe.com.