The Leaf Street Community Garden in Hulme was set up in 2000 when local residents from the Bentley House (‘Redbricks’) estate decided to transform a grassed-over pathway between two rows of three-storey flats into a communal garden. After a 72-hour permaculture course and community consultation, the layout of the community garden was decided and locals got on with making the garden a reality. Although they have faced opposition from the council, which has threatened to turf over the garden on a couple of occasions, as well as leadership issues, the garden remains an example of successful radical gardening in Manchester.
In 1999, residents in Hulme decided to transform a wide pathway on Leaf Street into a community garden which grows food and also provides an open space for neighbours to meet and interact. Based on permaculture principles which take wildlife, food and people into consideration, the locals dug up the pathway and started planting trees and herbs with very little funding. Mick Chesterman, a local volunteer at the garden, states that at the time the local authorities weren’t very helpful and insisted that the project secure written consent from 80% of the residents living in the vicinity.
Even so, locals led by Angus Soutar, ‘Jungle’ Jen, and Rob Squires got on with their plans and planted (what they insist is) the world’s largest herb spiral, made using reclaimed railway sleepers, raised vegetable beds between wood-chipped pathways, fruit trees and shrubs as well as art sculptures. Unicorn Grocery in Chorlton provided a small grant to help pay for the fruit trees but other than that, the garden came together due to the efforts of the locals.
Over the years, however, the garden began to lose direction and in 2002, it was decided to raise funds to employ a project co-ordinator for the garden who would take the lead and help organise volunteers more effectively. This lead to a shift in focus away from growing food to creating an environment where locals can socialise and supporting biodiversity and wildlife. As Mick notes, “We wanted to take a low maintenance approach to gardening. We’re not afraid of it being messy and creating a natural habitat where food is grown, birds and insects are supported and opening up a space for the community to enjoy.”
However, in 2008 the council reportedly showed concern over the appearance of the garden and so volunteers helped to get it back in order. Leaf Street works with volunteers from the local Hulme Community Garden Centre and has also developed an uneasy alliance with the housing association which controls the surrounding estate.
The issue of land and land ownership is a contentious issue at the heart of radical gardening and especially ‘guerrilla gardening’ where activists plant on abandoned land without permission. However, Leaf Street Community Garden is an example of action taken for the community’s benefit that was later positively acknowledged by the landlords themselves. “Leaf Street was built by people just taking it and doing it literally without the will of their landlord,” says Mick. “And actually ten years down the road, it’s become an asset to the landlords and they’re now really happy it’s happened.
“So just because you’re experiencing resistance doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t just go out and do it. In the same way that direct action maybe against the law but morally justified, it’s the same for radical gardening. I mean you may not have direct consent but you’re in the right and once you’ve done it you can’t really argue against it.”
This radical background is reflected in the volunteers’ strong sense of ownership of the garden which has meant they have found it hard to work with established organisations such as housing associations. “I mean we do get a lot out of it but at the same time the garden has a strong sense of identity and we’re reluctant to give that up,” remarked Mick. Radical gardeners have also noted that housing associations, some of which own huge quantities of empty land, could do more to support and encourage community gardens.
Community and radical gardens have recently witnessed a resurgence due to the role that they play in building resilient communities that are able to deal with the impacts of climate change. Moving away from a dependence on supermarkets and food that is flown from all over the world by growing food locally is an aspiration of many climate activists. And despite the move away from growing food, the Leaf Street Community garden still grows pears, apples, plums, berries, squashes and pumpkins.
Taking a wider perspective, Mick states that working with the community garden is a ‘coping mechanism’ that allows him to deal with the enormity of climate change. “It’s very easy to get quite apocalyptic about the changes that are going to happen so being able to grow my own food locally and work with my neighbours is one way of dealing with climate change positively and constructively.”
Article by Arwa Aburawa