In August 2011, I was contacted by Roger Harrison from Mitcham Lane Baptist Church (MLBC) asking for help to create a community garden on the churches property in South West London. Roger, a graphic designer himself, is a member of the churches congregation and it’s Leadership Team which had taken on the job of making the project happen. The site they wanted to develop was a piece of ground to one side of the church hall which had an old scout hut sitting on a grassy mound with railings all around, shaded partially by a large Sycamore tree in the road. It wasn’t clear what was under the mound, or whether it could be excavated or even levelled, but the scout hut definitely needed go.
When I met with the rest of the Leadership Team I was slightly wary of working with a large group of people. Committees are notoriously harder to deal with than an individual but I was greatly impressed by their energy, generosity and inclusiveness. Their brief was to change the unsightly and unused piece of land into a garden where everyone from the neighbouring community, as well as the church, could come and relax, play and interact with nature. It was also to be used as an outdoor classroom by the church and local schools. A fun place to be where you are allowed to climb onto things and touch the plants or look for insects but it also needed to be a place to find tranquillity and peace. In other words, a garden!
The site itself presented some design challenges for the Leadership Team mainly due to the changes in level, but I saw this as an asset. Changes of level which can incorporate retaining walls, steps and slopes can make a garden much more interesting. However, safe access into and around the garden was also very important for wheelchair users and those with impaired mobility. There were also the cost implications of removing large sections of earth to consider and though a certain amount was required to help the garden connect to the church hall, it needed to be kept to a minimum.
I gave the Team various rough concept ideas to look at, from very formal geometric layouts with straight lines, to sweeping informal curves. But the spaces all needed to link to the architecture of the church hall which was being modified at the same time. I worked with the architects to reposition doors and windows which helped link the building and garden together. After much discussion by the church members, they decided to go with circles which would create the intimate spaces they wanted but could be joined together for ease movement around the garden.
The planting was always going to be informal, almost wild, reflecting the native plants which may have been found growing in the area before it was developed and built on all those years ago. A native hedge including elder, hawthorn and Guelder rose would enclose the garden, growing against the existing railings. Ornamental and native trees would give shade and height. Low maintenance shrubs such as cotoneaster would have flowers and berries for wildlife. The Team also wanted to include plants mentioned in the bible, obviously these would not be native to the UK, but are now familiar to many London gardeners such as Fig trees and Olive trees.
The garden has now mostly been built and planted thanks to the dedication and hard work of the church members and Leadership Team. They have used the skills and willing hands of the congregation, local community and various trades and suppliers to make it happen, but they have done it. There are a few finishing touches to complete, but I’m sure these will be done before too long. The garden was opened on a slightly damp day in September this year by our local MP Sadiq Khan. There were no plants then, but a freshly laid lawn which survived extremely well considering the rain and the number of people who then walked all over it.
The best part of any garden design project for me is seeing the finished garden being used as it was meant to be. I was therefore thrilled to see children and young teenagers leaping on and off the tree stumps, put there for that very purpose.
There are many stories about the building and planting of the garden on the Garden of Discovery’ Facebook page or if you are planning to create a community garden contact me to find out how I can help on 020 8767 1458