People Who Make the City: Hammersmith Community Gardens
On a brilliant sunny day, we joined a tour of the gardens and learned that the best growth happens slowly, not just for plants, but for people too.
In a tiny eco-shed, Cathy Maund, the director of Hammersmith Community Gardens Association, is having the most polite of rants. The target of her ire is the endless need for charities such as her own to quantify short-term outcomes.
"You get schools who think that growing carrots for half a day a week is going to transform the world! You get people who want children to be weighed and measured before they start and at the finish! I'm quite vociferous about that because I do feel strongly that it's not about that, it's about growing up."
Hammersmith Community Gardens manages four gardens stretching from Phoenix School Farm in White City down to the glasshouses in Ravenscourt Park. They're an environmental charity with a focus on using gardens for wellbeing: therapeutic sessions for carers, environmental management lessons for the unemployed, training for NHS staff in the benefits of gardening for patients. The other five people crammed into the eco-shed are here because they're considering prescribing garden therapies, referring patients or already working with Hammersmith Community Gardens.
"Plant pears for your heirs" the saying goes, and if Cathy had been growing literal pears (which for all I know she has), she'd be harvesting them by now. She's been doing this job for 25 years, a much better timeframe, in her mind, to see the effects: "If you can take someone out to the countryside when they're young, the likelihood of them doing it with their children is much higher. We're now seeing second generations of people coming and using the gardens."
The Gardens attract corporate work parties and vulnerable adults alike. The former bring muscle, revenue and a frank delight at being out of the office. The latter are closer to the charity's mission but come with unique challenges. One volunteer co-opted a community eco-shed as his "man cave" until Cathy put a stop to it. The unpredictable schedules of the project's volunteers makes it hard to run accredited courses. "Everyone thinks volunteers have very simple lives where they have lots of time, but actually if you're dealing with housing or you get depressed you might not be around."
Yet the benefits are real. The leader of one project used to be street homeless, and only started coming for the free lunch. Now he works for the Gardens one day a week and elsewhere for four. Even smaller spaces such as the Ravenscourt Park glasshouses have unique advantages. Cathy explains, "Because it's enclosed, it's very safe space, so it's good for more vulnerable people." The women tending the plants in the greenhouse have been coming here for ten years, she says.
Our last stop on the tour was Phoenix School Farm, the charity's most impressive plot. Here Cathy introduced me to Chantell, who comes three times a week with her mother. For Chantell, this began as a support for her mother – whose passion for gardening had outrun her expertise with frustrating results – but she soon found it was a better workout than the gym and a lot more interesting. "What I get out of this is building friendships. There's quite a lot of older guys in here, and I'm learning from their walks of life: work they used to do, places they used to live, hardships. Things I think I have experience in, but talking to them reminds me I'm still young. I feel like a baby again."
Fancy getting your hands dirty? Hammersmith Community Gardens Association is online here.
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