Caught by the River

Growing Things

29th January 2011

by Helen Jukes.

Part One:
We are sitting on plastic chairs outside a ramshackle shed in the centre of Soho. Piled-up apartment blocks reach sky-high on all sides, and the smoggy hum of traffic hangs in among wildflowers where we are sitting, on our plastic chairs, discussing spiders. Chris – resident gardener here at Phoenix Community Gardens – is introducing his new park benches. The wooden seats are mounted on a rock-filled gabion base; a durable, cheap and locally-sourced design full of gaps and cracks for spiders, centipedes and hibernating ladybirds to crawl inside. Quiet corners are in short supply in this part of town and – like the gaps between the rocks of its park benches – the garden hosts a diverse array of visitors. Office workers munch time-conscious sandwiches; men in grubby overcoats stare blearily into flowerbeds and swig cider from tin cans; volunteers hoe and weed and wheelbarrow around. Chris often returns from fetching a watering can to find a newly planted bed upturned – a patch of freshly dug earth also signals a recent drug stash. He tells of parents demanding swings for children to play on, outraged to discover some of the plants were harmful – and of his own feeling that, in not separating them off, the garden provides a crucial source of interaction between parent and child. An opportunity for learning, exploration, and encounter with risk.

Tenderly cultivated by a gardener whose careful attentions span from the daily rituals of insect life to the ways the garden reflects and refracts broader social and ecological issues in the world around it, this patch of nature is unkempt, openly contested and brimming with life. An ongoing negotiation among the flowerbeds between Chris’s commitment to enhancing biodiversity, and his belief in the importance of creating a space for human interaction with the natural world.

But if I listen closely I realise that what triggered my fascination and enjoyment in the garden was the conversation I had there. On the broken plastic chairs Chris’ stories of the garden’s comings and goings unravelled, and he spoke animatedly with a garden designer friend about the different species he had introduced, his keen sense of form and colour and how things go together. The conversation cultivated attentiveness in me and got me involved, shifted the gears so that I was able to stop and listen and see things in a different way.

As I move about the city, with attention I notice things are happening. The public parks are flaunting a new fondness for wild things and I begin to believe I sense a change in the air as wildflowers peer provocatively up from behind carefully contained beds. There is a new energy and enthusiasm, a resource being tapped, a growing eagerness over rolling up sleeves and digging in soil. Guerrilla gardeners are planting flowers in the city’s gaps, and there are rumours of an artist filling pot-holes with miniature garden spaces.

Tentatively, a growing desire is making itself felt. A partiality or nearly-recognition of a need for growing things. Confused and uncertain of itself, liable to false starts and getting caught up in languages and ideals that become too loud to hear itself think, or move, there is – isn’t there? – a gathering sense that perhaps somewhere we strayed down a wrong path. And maybe, too, we’ve lost our sense of direction or the skills we need to get back, or advance… perhaps, having realised a wrong move, we suffer a crisis of confidence. Occasionally we notice a rising damp. And, responding in the languages we know how, we try to buy ‘nature’ in, promote it, sign up to it, save it, protect it or protect ourselves from it, escape to it, appropriate it as part of an identity, manoeuvre it into doing for us what we think we need from it.

In another part of the city, along a street where there are parked cars and wheelie bins and terraced houses standing up against each other, is another unlikely garden space. Here in front of where I live is a strip of concrete that found some grounds for growing things.

In early spring our patch of concrete was transformed into an 8 x 5 foot container bed. Reclaimed chipboard and borrowed tools were brought in. Soil and compost was gathered from friend’s gardens, the local recycling plant and places we shouldn’t have been, filling up the bed until it stared up through the windows in a state of readied expectation. We looked back, pigeon-toed. Nearly back-tracked. There were grim predictions of vandalism and theft. The space was exposed to the pavement, within easy reach of the street. I felt a little exposed too, but things were already moving and I was more intrigued than anything about what might happen. Would the vegetables be stolen? Would I be ok with this? I felt like I would – thought I liked the idea of a few runner beans slipped into passing pockets – but I needed to test it out. Would the garden be kicked over, and if so, would I persevere and start again? It was like a sounding board and a testing ground in full view of the street, a half-acknowledged experiment in whether I could step up to the challenge of getting involved in something that might be pulled out of my hands, whether I was in it for the duration or likely to get bored, lose my concentration and drift onto other things.

And to my surprise, I was discovering that I could grow things. Or things could grow around me. Seedlings lined the windowsill and where in previous years I had not found the time or patience or sufficient resolve to remember them, I was suddenly fascinated by their different speeds, by watching the colours and shapes respond and reflect changes in light and warmth. Following a year in which I had become overly cerebral and disconnected from the world around me, the activity was getting me back in touch with things.

I was gaining practical knowledge and skills, coming into contact with a tentative sense of order and rhythm at a time that I was feeling a lot of uncertainty. Strange things happened. As the seedlings moved from the windowsill to the container bed outside, my own internal space was somehow being brought into a relation with this on-the-edge space between our house and the world outside…between my hands and what they touched. The garden and my imagination began to speak to each other. My dreams were reflecting the garden’s unfolding, which somehow began to shift and affect things inside myself. I dreamt at first of scaffolding constructions of reclaimed furniture… old chairs, picture frames and table legs…bare and beautiful frameworks full of light, of collected things, tentative and indefinite forms casting intricate shadows as the sun shone through. Later I dreamt a sense of immersion in being-in the garden, and moments of quiet togetherness with friends.

And then there was a week that contained ambulance sirens and hospitals and we were shaken, battered and bruised, walking around in a state of edgy fragility that made London too loud to bear. We escaped to the country, and when we returned I looked down to find the garden had also suffered a trauma. A cat shit sat upsettedly among bird feathers strewn about the bed, signs of a late night scuffle among the curly kale.

The concluding part of Growing Things will be up on Caught by the River tomorrow.