How We Started a Community Garden on Our Estate
Somerford Grove is a housing estate in North East London that’s been around since the 1940s. Sadly, over the past decade, the estate has felt the effects of deep council cuts, including to ground maintenance.
A group of us from the estate decided to take matters into our own hands, and started Somerford Grows, a resident-led gardening project to transform the estate’s neglected green areas into vibrant spaces that encourage community, healthier living and biodiversity. Our first project has been transforming a large, neglected raised bed in the middle of the estate into a thriving community garden that everyone can enjoy and be proud of.
While we're still in the process of carrying out the changes, we've successfully got things off the ground! Here my tips on how to get started, based on what worked for us (and what didn't)!
How it started
The first three of us – me, Sulekha and Tassia – met through the Shacklewell Mutual Aid group. We found we were all looking for ways to improve the estate, bring the local community together and develop a sense of belonging and ownership in Somerford Grove.
The raised bed – a big, central space for all the estate’s residents – immediately struck us as the perfect place to begin. We set up a quick meeting at the bed to discuss what we could do together, and it all went from there!
Bringing in the community
Why this matters
As community gardens and green spaces are for all residents to enjoy, it’s important to get as many local people on board as possible, and take them on the journey with you. Often you will probably be in contact with a few other likeminded residents, but how do you ensure your group is truly representative of the local community?
Through engaging with as many people as possible, we were able to come together to share knowledge, information, skills and resources. We connected to residents with a wide range of skills and interests, including community engagement, co-design and co-production, film-making and gardening. Other residents offered free bulbs and plants to go into the raised bed. We also involved some of the children on the estate who were part of their school’s forest club and were really keen to share ideas and things they’d learned.
The more people you involve, the bigger and better your project can become! From starting out as a small group of three, the project has developed amazing and is now able to run independently and be completely resident-led.
How to engage people
To promote your project to both people and organisations, it’s key that any information should be clear, jargon-free, inclusive and include a call to action. Why should people care about the project and how can they get involved?
It is also really helps to include an offer of what people will get in return for joining in. It could be as simple the opportunity to connect to others and find out what is happening locally. The great thing about hyper-local projects is that often people are looking for a sense of belonging, a desire to build community and having a sense of ownership about what happens locally. (Free hot chocolate works too!)
What we did
The three of us created a short survey to ask other residents what they’d like to see happen with the raised bed.
We collected responses by taking the questionnaire out to the raised bed while we were weeding it, and asking people if they’d like to weigh in as they came home.
This worked really well because the raised bed is right in the middle of the estate, so there's lots of foot traffic past it, and people were curious about what we were doing. We also chose a time when children and families were coming back from school, as we wanted to get children's input too.
We discovered that what the community wanted most was a herb garden, a colourful mosaic around the raised bed, and some bright flowers that would encourage bees and butterflies.
Tassia had previously done some guerrilla gardening, and took the initiative in setting up a WhatsApp group of people in the estate and nearby neighbours who were interested in the idea of community gardening project.
We've been sharing information through leaflets (which went in community spaces) and in local WhatsApp groups, and are now promoting it more actively to the whole estate, through postcards and posters through doors.
We held a Somerford Grove planting day, which allowed interested residents to meet each other (socially distanced!) And share ideas about what they wanted to see in our shared green spaces. It meant people were able to meet by the raised bed in a fun, informal and accessible way to discuss things in a way that wasn’t intimidating.
We also held a Christmas event, where we invited people to decorate a Christmas tree and share a hot chocolate (free food is always a winning idea!). We also teamed up with Hackney Community Closet who provided presents for local children. We have plans for an Easter Egg hunt to continue local relationship building.
Partnering with local organisations
It’s also important to find out if there are local groups or organisations that you could partner up with to get support and as a way of reaching more people in the community. Trusted local groups may include Tenants & Residents’ Associations (TRAs), community groups and voluntary organisations that work with local residents on a range of issues. We found out about some local services in Hackney through the Council’s Service map.
What we did
THE LOCAL TRA
The TRA is responsible for the raised bed, so getting their permission was essential! But we soon noted some hesitancy and distrust from TRA members about what we were trying to do. Through a number of conversations, we realised that this was because previous projects by other groups and organisations hadn't really involved local people, and residents on the estate bore the brunt of covering costs to undo changes that were unsafe or to fix things that had gone into disrepair because the project had been abandoned.
Once we had explained how residents from the estate were at the forefront of project – that it was being designed for and by us, and we were invested in looking after this new space – they were incredibly supportive!
The TRA kindly donated some money and gave us storage space on the estate to store gardening equipment and resources in. They also helped us advertise our planting day by putting up posters in communal spaces and noticeboards.
As Sulekha was working at VCH, she was able to get input from a community development perspective and we initially supported the project through the local community project fund Our Place.
Local social enterprise Hackney Herbal gave us invaluable advice about soil quality and plant choices.
The Hackney Mosaic Project offered support on the feasibility of having a mosaic design around the raised bed, and will be creating it for us! Local children will be designing it with them, and they're planning to run creative workshops for these kids as soon as Covid restrictions allow it.
Hackney Talks invited me on to talk about the project.
We decided on plants through a combination of:
Seeking residents' views on what they want (flowers, fruit and vegetables)
Researching online, in particular what plants do well in partial shade
Drawing up an initial plan and seeking expert opinions on it. We have been lucky enough to have advice from two of my friends who have significant experience of regenerative agriculture and permaculture.
Funding the project
We estimated that our project – including plants, manure, a wormery, garden tools and the mosaic – would cost around £5,000. Here's how we're funding it:
As a group, we decided to apply for the mayor's Make London grant communities fund. We recently received the great news that our project was chosen! We're now in overfunding, and will use the extra funds to improve other parts of the estate.
One residents did all the work in putting together the application and collated all of the different ideas, another created a video that captured the spirit of the project and others in the group shared the Spacehive with their networks to raise awareness and encourage people to pledge their support.
We ended up getting all our seeds for free, through a combination of friends, neighbours and the Cultivating Change seed donation initiative.