The Wanstead Community Gardeners, founded by Marian Temple, transform neglected public spaces in their neighbourhood into oases of calm and beauty for everyone to enjoy
“This is about people seizing the moment and seizing control of their environment,” declares Marian Temple, founder of Wanstead Community Gardeners. “We’re not just talking about making a garden, it’s about making a community.”
It’s Sunday morning in Wanstead, north-east London. Beneath the glorious sunshine, the high street is bustling, while the farmers’ market enjoys a steady trade. It’s a pleasant, if unremarkable, scene – or at least it would be were it not for the efforts of 68-year-old Marian, a retired teacher-turned-urban-gardening evangelist. Because, for the last few years, Marian and her Wanstead Community Gardeners group have invaded the area’s abandoned and neglected public spaces and transformed them into pockets of urban beauty.
Today, Marian and her green-fingered gang are tending to the Corner House garden – a community centre on the high street, where the story began in 2003. “I walked past here and it was full of take-away rubbish and weeds, and I just thought, ‘This is horrible! This offends me!’ Hundreds of people walk past each day and I knew they could be looking at something enchanting that gave them joy. I saw the potential.”
Marian pauses to admire the towering Hollyhocks before offering some gentle instruction to this morning’s work party, who are busy tending the garden. “I was retired, never married, and so this is my baby,” she continues. “And flowers and plants are good for the soul. Good for everyone’s soul.”
From behind a dazzling yellow Evening Primrose wildflower, Erin Gianferrara appears. “Living in the city, I think we lose touch with nature sometimes,” says the 30-year-old environmental economist, originally from Georgia, USA. “Whether people realise it or not, subconsciously flowers in particular have an effect on people and transform a space for everyone.”
Marian is twice winner of Redbridge’s community award, given by Redbridge Council to recognise outstanding members of the community, and her enthusiasm is clearly infectious. For some years she ploughed a lone furrow, at times cajoling friends into joining her efforts. Then, in April 2014, she decided to get serious and formed Wanstead Community Gardeners. With a dozen core members – ranging from 12-year-old Amy Huyng to octogenarian Tim Partridge – the group set about beautifying the area’s ‘Sad Patches of Public Soil’, or ‘SPPSs’, as Marian calls them. Twenty SPPSs, including High Street, the train station and the Victorian drinking fountain, have been transformed since the group’s inception. “To the point where there’s hardly any left,” she adds with some satisfaction.
The Corner House Garden, like all the plots the group has adopted, is inspired by her mother, Hilda, and her passion for cottage gardening. Everlasting Sweetpeas rub shoulders with Goldenrod, while Achilleas mix with Cotton Lavender, Marguerites and Hollyhocks. Everywhere you turn there’s a reminder of another England, which Marian is eager to preserve for future generations. “The flowers we plant now all came from my family gardens. I learned a lot from my mum, and I really hope to pass that on because I don’t want to depart the planet and take it all with me.”
Though others have labelled her a ‘guerrilla gardener’, Marian prefers the term ‘street gardener’. The main reason is that the group approaches the local council first before taking over an unloved patch of land. “I’m slightly more respectable, simply because I don’t want the work we’ve put in destroyed, which is why permission is so important. If the council don’t know you’ve taken over a patch of soil they can come along and spray it with weedkiller. This isn’t to be nasty, it’s usually just part of their minimal maintenance to keep the weeds at bay. They might not recognise what’s been planted because it’s not blooming geraniums but is a bit more unusual.
“That happened to me once and it’s devastating!
“But if you OK it with the council, it’s down in the book that it’s community maintained and won’t get sprayed.”
A passer-by, inspired by the group’s horticultural creativity at the Corner House, stops to enquire whether she can join the revolution. “It would be great to be a part of this,” says 31-year-old finance worker Tanya Joseph. “I live in a 10th-floor flat, but I love gardening. What they’ve done in Wanstead is amazing. It brings people together and makes a massive difference to the area.”
Marian’s hope is for more people like Tanya to take up the spade and secateurs in their own communities. “It’s like dropping a pebble in a pool,” she explains. “The rings go out and out and out.” She remembers the moment she was galvanised into action almost 15 years ago: “I was in Walthamstow, and I could see the locals had taken over the raised beds from the council. I could see it wasn’t council planting and I just thought, ‘We could do that in Wanstead.’ That was the seed that started me, and I’m sure that all the work we do in Wanstead is sending out seeds of thoughts and ideas all over the place. People can see it works. It’s like people power. There must be loads of people walking past a manky, sad patch of public soil and thinking, ‘This looks horrible and it could be so good.’” Her message: “Get your mates together. Get on with it – with the caveat of checking it out with the council or owner first.”
Marian glances over at her favourite flower, the Siberian Iris. “It’s just exquisite. And it comes every year, so it’s like an old friend.” She throws her arms wide open with joy. “I have gardens full of friends because, in a way, all these flowers are my friends and they all come every year and they greet me and I greet them. Look at those Hollyhocks… I mean what a bunch of friends they are.”
And as for her own dream? That’s simple. To keep up the tradition of old-fashioned cottage gardening. “I really want to share my knowledge with as many people as possible so that when I die there will be people who’ll be able carry that on in whatever way they can. In their own gardens. In the community. That knowledge will be shared.’
HOW YOU CAN BECOME A STREET GARDENER?
Follow Marian’s lead and help transform your neighbourhood into an even lovelier place to live. Look for community gardening groups in your area – or start your own with a handful of like-minded individuals. Use a local website, community magazine or a poster to set up a meeting on site.
Street gardening involves planting and caring for land that gardeners do not have the rights to cultivate, such as abandoned sites or sad and sorry patches of soil. While most of the time there are no repercussions, you could face a fine for planting without permission or have your handiwork sprayed with dreaded weedkiller.
A good idea is to approach councils with community spaces, or schools or elderly people’s centres and tell them what you’d like to do. You might even be able to access grants, which in turn could lead to donations of exciting plants, quality tools and expert help.
Start small. Wildflower seeds (native to your area) or drought-tolerant herbs like lavender, rosemary and thyme are great for pepping up an old neglected planter on the high street or the base of a tree. Let nature take its course.
Get your timing right, too. “I’d advise plants that can stand up to a dry spell as watering them afterwards might be problematic,” says Marian. “Plants put in in late spring or summer have a chance to develop good root systems before the dry season.”
If we all pull together, what we can achieve is an uplifting vision of community horticulture; leading to cheerier town centres, a boon to local business and botanic salve to our soul. Pass the trowel…