Alison Gibson, a member of the Friends group, recently wrote this great article for the RHS Growing Communities Summer magazine. You can download the whole magazine here but I have also pasted the text about Abbey Gardens below. Thanks to both Alison and the RHS!
Artists and residents create a community garden from an inner-city waste ground in one of London’s poorest boroughs. Author: Alison Gibson.
It was an unlikely route to a harvest festival, walking past
grey tower blocks in a run-down part of East London without even a
window box in sight. Against such a background, the
colour and cheerfulness of Abbey Gardens was nothing short of
stunning for visitors to the community garden’s first harvest
festival in 2009. it felt like walking into a painting, and the
effect was instantly uplifting. Dramatic sunflowers 6ft tall were
like welcoming smiles at the centre of 34 long raised beds bursting
with flowers and vegetables.
Along a back wall were the intriguing words “What Will The harvest Be?” in large orange letters.
On that day, the harvest was a bountiful one, enough to treat 200 local residents to a free lunch cooked on site by visiting chef Sam Clark of the restaurant Moro.
Bunches of sweet peas and bags of vegetables were available for donations from an honesty stall, a gesture of trust that is typical of the garden’s spirit.
Three years earlier, this garden did not exist. The 80m x 30m
rectangular site was overgrown and neglected, inaccessible to the
public and regularly abused by fly-tippers and vandals.
Unbeknown to most residents of newham, the site was one of only two scheduled ancient monuments in their borough. Deep beneath soil long contaminated by nearby industry lay the remains of the gatehouse to a 12th century Cistercian abbey. Monks once ran a productive kitchen garden here. There had been an enjoyment of food, an exchange of cultures as visitors brought spices from other countries.
In 2006, a group of local residents formed Friends of Abbey Gardens (FOAG). “The main motivation was to develop the land into a communal and social space, driven and governed by residents and users,” says Andreas Lang, a founding member of the group who also designed the garden’s characterful honesty stall and trugs. The group hoped that lots more people would be inspired and get involved, which was essential to the success of the project. The land was leased from the local council.
Artist duo Karen Guthrie and nina Pope were approached by FOAG
and won a commission to create an artwork on the site. They were
both self-taught gardeners interested in local food production.
Consultation with local residents showed that there was a lot of
interest in growing food, but little experience, knowledge or
They devised a two-phase plan, the first part being to create a temporary harvest garden as an experiment so that FOAG could try out their ambition to grow their own food on quite a large scale. The second part of the plan was for a permanent, more carefully landscaped garden.
It was a photograph that inspired the design of the harvest garden, one that caught Karen and Nina’s attention when they were researching local history. A group of unemployed men in July 1906, dressed in the clothing of their different occupations, standing in a line on the day that they were arrested for taking over a vacant plot of land to grow food. The men were known as the Plaistow Land Grabbers.
“It was an inspiring image and story,” says Karen. On a wall in the photograph are the words ‘What Will The harvest Be?’, which Karen and Nina took as the name of their project. A blown-up copy of the photograph now covers the front of the cabin at Abbey Gardens. The name of the men’s endeavour, Triangle Camp, and the shape of their garden inspired the triangular design of the raised beds at Abbey Gardens.
To overcome the contamination problem, the site was covered with a protective membrane, and new soil was brought in. In the first year the choice of plants was restricted to those that would grow in one season. “We wanted people to see it go from nothing to a full garden,” says Nina. Seeds were donated by Chiltern Seeds in Cumbria.
The choice of bold colours rather reflects the boldness of the project. Unlike the usual allotment system, everything is grown communally. The garden is maintained by volunteers at three drop-in gardening sessions a week led by a paid gardener.
There are no rules about how much work a volunteer has to do or how much produce can be taken, and somehow that works well.
The garden is also open to the public every day. This was a risk because the project could have been ruined by vandalism and theft. “We had a strong hunch that if it looked good enough people wouldn’t damage it, they would respect it,” says nina.
Abbey Gardens is now a thriving, much- loved garden run by a
Friends group that has grown to 60 members, with 20 nationalities
between them and a variety of valuable skills. The temporary
experiment appears to be here to stay. The garden is also enjoyed
by many more people, whether it is workmen who eat their lunch
there every day, mothers walking with babies, or visitors who
Lydia Thornley, a founding member of FOAG, says, “i’d been planning to move out of London for some outdoors and community. This project has made me feel rooted – literally – in the neighbourhood.”
The Friends of Abbey Gardens is an RHS It’s Your Neighbourhood group.
Andreas (from FOAG) and I were at the same film event in Hackney Wick a couple of weeks ago and one of the speakers mentioned that the google earth image of the Olympic park had recently been updated. I looked over at Andreas to see that we were both simultaneously searching on our phones to see if Abbey Gardens had also now 'arrived' on google earth and sure enough it has! I felt strangely excited to see the design there and a little bit proud of how the site has changed in such a short time frame.
Many thank to Andy Webb for all his hard work on Saturday when we enjoyed a one-off (almost) rain free day at Abbey Gardens ... and despite the very soggy conditions managed to dig and prepare the fruit tree trench, sort out the compost and FINALLY get the wonderful metal What Will The Harvest Be? sign on the back wall!
This sign is a good example of the number of hoops you have to jump through to actually get anything on site at Abbey Gardens, the site is a scheduled ancient monument so everything has to first go past English Heritage, then it goes past Newham council and in this case the councillors, then you have to work out if you have enough budget, then how to make the thing and then where to get it made etc etc etc. Suffice to say we were originally going to paint this message on the wall back in the early days of the project when we were still naive and optimistic! Anyway there were a few 'bright isn't it' comments from the Friends group but personally I think it's a triumph and for once through the convoluted permissions process we have in this case ended up with something much better than the original design. It was made in the end by 4met a company near St Neots in Cambridgeshire very near where I grew up.
After all this we all retired to Dasha's house for celeriac soup and mulled wine to toast our first fantastic season and say good bye to Chris our Garden Club Leader for the year who is going to be much missed.
The card FOAG made for Karen and I is so great I might have to take a photo and post it up!
This is the beautiful orchard at the Monastery of St. John the Baptist. I particularly liked the fact their scarecrows wore habits.
More photos of our trip are here.