Photographs by Gerry Atkinson
Words by CJ Stone
(Click on images to enlarge)
St James’ Gardens
Many people in Whitstable will know St James’ Gardens. It’s this dinky little village-like community in the heart of the town. There’s a semi-circular path with a gate at either end, and a number of small one- or two-bedroom bungalows housing mainly elderly or infirm people. It looks like a nice place to live. I imagine it is very neighbourly, with people keeping an eye on each other to make sure everyone is OK.
It was my friend Lesley who alerted me to the small gardening project that is taking place in one of the shrubberies. A number of the women have got together to create a wild flower garden. There are poppies, sunflowers, a buddleia bush, and a number of other plants growing there. Most of the plants are self-seeding, which means that, once it is properly established, it will take care of itself. It is an island of living colour in what is otherwise a slightly dull municipal garden environment.
Two of the women involved are Theresa and Eva. The project began during lockdown. It was a positive thing to do during a period of great mental stress, they told me. Not only were they keeping busy looking after a communal space but it was a form of therapy too. What can be wrong with that? Fresh air, exercise, company, plus they felt they were improving their own lives while giving something back to the community. In an age of stress and uncertainty, this felt like a healthy thing to be doing.
It was also done to encourage the insects. “I’m a bit worried about the bees, to be truthful,” said Theresa. “If they go, we all go.”
Eva says she’s not really a gardener. Theresa guided her.
“It was a nightmare when we first moved in,” she says. “It was horrible.”
They removed four binloads of weeds. It was a joint affair. They bought plants and soil, put in what they could when they could find it. The sunflowers came from Eva’s garden, which is very near the plot. She also waters it from there every night.
“People have commented on how lovely it looks,” says Eva.
They have done their best to keep it looking pretty, and it is alive with butterflies, which Eva says are lovely to see.
Eva is an artist, inspired by Monet’s garden, she says, which she has visited.
“We had to work on the ground rather than the plants,” she says. “It was like cement.”
Theresa says she was inspired by the work that is being done on Green Lane, at the Saddleton Road end. The woman there has taken over the borders and has worked it into a thriving communal space. Theresa says she often passed by and admired it, and eventually spoke to Vicky, the person responsible for the work.
“You are doing this not just for yourself but for everyone,” says Theresa. “That’s why we have done this, to make it feel like it’s a living place.”
Vicky Knight, of Green Lane, has been collecting donations for the Canterbury & District Food Bank. So far in 2021 she has raised £249.
I asked her what gave her the idea to begin planting the verge outside her house and what her philosophy was. This was her reply:
Four years ago, it started off as just the piece of land that abuts our property. It is unregistered and was overgrown and nondescript, full of brambles and nettles, which whilst beneficial to nature, wasn’t particularly attractive to look at. I’m a keen gardener, but was restricted in our own garden as our children played football and kicked the heads off everything. The outside area (Green Lane) offered an opportunity to extend the space for gardening. It didn’t start off with any great plan. My husband and I cleared it and started from there. The soil was pretty poor, so we’ve had to add loads of manure.
Initially, we put in the fruit trees, and there were some specimens in the undergrowth that we kept, such as a really nice self-seeded bay tree. Plants were given to me or I divided what I had, and then we bought lots to go in. The last couple of years I’ve grown lots from seed. The vegetables were put in as an experiment, having not grown them before, and because they’re good for filling spaces cheaply. A couple of years in, I put in a washing-up bowl-sized container to create a small pond. It has attracted frogs and toads.
There’s no predetermined design process. It’s a case of what comes to hand. The path from our gate was made out of all of the bricks and stones that I dug out. The branches at the front of the bed on the other side were put there to stop people trying to park in the spot. The bed edging on our side was reclaimed floor joists.
Following a year of gardening on our side, I had run out of room. I sought the permission of my neighbour whose property sides on to the other side of Green Lane to plant up the opposite side of the road. This is a much more difficult plot — it’s full sun and very dry, as it’s overshadowed by hawthorn.
There’s no real philosophy behind it, apart from I’m a great believer that you look after the environment around you — whether that’s litter picking or creating gardens. The garden brings great joy to me and all the passers-by. It’s a great talking point, and I’ve got to know many of my neighbours and just chat to those who come by. Neighbours have been generous with donations towards plants, gifting plants, keeping an eye on things and mowing the grass — so it’s a community effort.
For the last two years I have sold plants and raised approximately £400 for the Canterbury Food Bank. I also put in the fruit trees as I want people to be able to pick an apple if they fancy — just like we did when we were children. The garden on our side is in its fourth year and the other side its third. In terms of planting, this is predicated on what the pollinators will like, and much of the veg is sacrificial for the pigeons and caterpillars.
I asked if she had any advice for people who wanted to follow her example?
Just have a go, she said. If you’re new to gardening, don’t be afraid. If a plant doesn’t thrive, just dig it up and try it somewhere else.
The activity is known as “guerrilla gardening”. It was started in 1973 in the Bowery Houston area of New York by Liz Christy and her Green Guerrilla group, although guerrilla gardeners will also cite Gerrard Winstanley and John “Appleseed” Chapman as their forebears. Gerrard Winstanley was famous as one of the Diggers, a proto-communist group of the English Civil War period, who took common land in order to cultivate it. John Chapman was famous for planting apple orchards in the United States at the turn of the 19th century.
Wikipedia describes guerrilla gardening as “the act of gardening — raising food plants or flowers — on land that the gardeners do not have the legal rights to cultivate such as abandoned sites, areas that are not being cared for, or private property.”
There are guerrilla gardeners throughout the world, with more than 30 countries being documented. Every year on May 1, guerrilla gardeners get together to plant sunflowers or other plants in their neighbourhoods on areas of ground they feel to be neglected. It is known as International Sunflower Guerrilla Gardening Day.
The aim of the practice is to bring to light issues about land rights and land reform, as well as to reclaim and beautify areas that are neglected or ugly. Guerrilla gardeners will clear rubbish and plant crops and flowers that are either useful or attractive in areas of urban decay. It is a way of engaging positively with one’s environment.
There are a number of sites throughout Whitstable where guerrilla gardeners have been at work. Perhaps they wouldn’t recognise the term, but think of themselves as just community gardeners instead.
It doesn’t really matter what you call it. It’s an act of civic responsibility, a community act meant to inspire and bring life and colour to our town.
Enjoy the pictures. Pay the sites a visit. Perhaps you might even consider taking up a gardening project of your own?
About Gerry Atkinson
Training as a photojournalist, I started recording political protests in London in the 1990’s. I spent 18 months volunteering with CWERC, an NGO in the Philippines, recording the lives of indigenous women for an audio-visual ‘Weaving our own Dreams’. I moved on to New Zealand for 4 years working for newspapers. On returning to London I organised a collaborative project with people with mental health problems to produce ‘Through the Lens’ documentary photography exhibition.
My MA research in 2010 resulted in a book ‘Shades of Other Lives’, a series of windows at night, developed in reference to Labour Party comments that “We are all middle class now”. In 2011-2012, I spent 10 months in Greece, Cape Town and New Zealand working on documentary projects. Recent community projects are ‘Our Work of Art 2018-2019’. I have an NUJ Photojournalist Press Card and am currently discussing new ideas and collaborations.
I studied at Leicester University, the London College of Communication and the University for the Creative Arts.
I have extensive solo and group exhibition experience including the British Museums landmark exhibition “Rice and Life in the Philippines”. My work has been published in newspapers, books and magazines and is held in private collections.
Photo by Glen London
To see more of Gerry’s work, please go to: https://www.gerryatkinson.com/
About CJ Stone
CJ Stone is an author, columnist and feature writer. He has written seven books, and columns and articles for many newspapers and magazines.
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