It started in February 2011 when I saw a planning notice on a lamp-post outlying a proposal to turn some neglected space – around 138 sq m – at the end of the road into two private residences. There had previously been two houses there but a bomb dispatched them during the second world war, so there is no No1 on our street, or the street that backs onto it. This created space at the top of the street that has been less and less looked after in the years I’ve lived here. There are some rather neglected and sad-looking flower beds, but that’s about it.
I was going into Brixton that day so I decided to go to the library and look at the plans. To my horror, they proposed that we would lose the bus shelter, a phone booth and the flower beds, as well as a mature silver maple tree, which is one of the only mature trees in the public realm in this area. Something about it just didn’t feel right.
I was really keen that it should remain a garden space and thought: “Shouldn’t we just garden it?” I was inspired by this single square metre vegetable patch that had just turned up on the site one day a few years ago – someone had just planted it anonymously – and it always made me smile.
I started researching how to oppose planning applications and spent a whole week thinking about it. I printed 400-500 leaflets about what was happening and posted them around the neighbourhood, essentially because nobody looks at those planning proposals. I suggested that we meet in the pub and discuss it together, and about 30 people turned up. I asked the group if anyone else had noticed the guerrilla garden vegetable patch that had sprung up and they all smiled and said: “Yes!” We all clocked the reaction on our faces and I thought we’d really tapped into something. I thought: “If that’s the reaction we can get with one square metre, imagine what we can do with 138 sq m. I just thought that we could all guerrilla garden the space and they said: “We’re in!”
We first started gardening in March 2011 and 10 people turned up. We cleared all the weeds and it ended up looking a bit barren with some pansies I’d brought. I had a couple of trays but they don’t go very far in 138 sq m. People said: “What’s next?” and I just thought: “Don’t look at me! This is a group effort!” But from the start, it was a really promising patch of possibility. The next week people came and donated plants or brought stuff they’d dug up from their own gardens. Within three months, we had rhubarb and all sorts. It was really fantastic to see this incredible transformative process that happened with growing the garden. It had always been this forlorn and neglected space, but now it was the focal point of the community.
Before we had even started the digging for the first site, I met with Will Sandy, who is a landscaper and now Edible Bus Stop’s creative director, and we both thought this concept was much bigger than one site. We both felt strongly about growing edible and using food to leverage conversations with people. Will came up with the idea of using bus routes – the transport infrastructure in London is like blood lines running through the city – so we have the edible bus route with three gardens on the route of the number 322 bus, which runs from Clapham Common to Crystal Palace. There’s the original garden in Stockwell, the garden in Crystal Palace is in the early stages and the one in West Norwood is currently undergoing landscaping.
We’re transforming a wide expanse of pavement which has loads of incongruous bollards to stop people parking on it. It’s just begging for a bit of greenery. It’s on a busier road, so it’ll be challenging growing edibles there. The garden on Norwood Road was awarded funding by the mayor of London’s Pocket Parks programme, to match the funding from the London Borough of Lambeth. For the soft landscaping we received additional funding from the Grow Wild initiative, so we’re going to be planting native and wild plants, and where possible, edibles. We’ll have Bramley apple and crab apple trees, sloe bushes, some hazel and medlar, which is a very old-fashioned fruit and a native British species.
We’re hoping to get schools involved. There’s a real educational opportunity for children to understand why there aren’t strawberries, to learn where strawberries actually come from, and find out what medlar is. The challenge is going to be to have greenery in the winter months as wilds tend to die over the winter, apart from holly.
People will say: “I’m not a gardener but I really enjoy the garden. It’s the highlight of my day knowing that I’m going to walk past.” As far as I’m concerned they’re part of the garden, even if they’re only noticing it. There are no members with our gardens. They’re not behind fences or doors, they’re on the side of the road. It makes them very vulnerable and litter-prone but people take care of it. I’ve noticed them picking up the litter and putting it in the bin on behalf of the garden. They’re part of it.
We grew these amazing sunflowers. They were really tall, around 11ft high. It was ridiculous and the whole wall was canvassed by them. We’re in between the tube station and Stockwell Skate Park so we have kids going past on skateboards and BMXs all the time. There was a group of boys – around 12 or 13 years old – and one them cycles past, sees the sunflowers and goes: “Woah, look at that!” and one of the other kids looks over and says: “Yeah man, that’s my manor!”, does a wheelie and cycles off. And in that one sentence he really showed his sense of pride and belonging and the fact that the garden had affected his life positively.
Find out more about The Edible Bus Stop here.